During The Great Exhibition of 1815 an engineer reveals an elongated metal pump that thrusts forward and back whilst vibrating creating a constant flow of heat. However before he has time to fully explain his invention he falls ill and is rushed to hospital. His fellow engineers are fascinated by the device and speculate as to its purpose. Told from the point of view of a fellow inventor named Dr Ulysses B. White, Esquire.
* * *
The show was far more popular than expected with the excitement and thrill of The London Inventors' Fair filling my body with excited nerves. The crowds were vast making difficult to hear giving me inspiration of creating an automatic ear trumpet for the next event, but in the meantime I had to make do with my latest invention, a speaking toilet paper dispenser.
"Roll up, roll up, ladies and gentlemen," I called out while waving my arm at the vast amount of people passing by my stall.
It was challenging to say the least to gain attention with so many people walking in either direction, causing difficulty for the few who wanted to marvel at my amazing creation. I was sure many of the attendees were really only there for the enjoyment of a day out visiting the splendour of Crystal Palace, but even so the many oddities of an inventors' fair were enjoyable in themselves. The were a number of businessmen too, eager to get their greedy mitts on new ideas, intent on selling new products. Luckily I had already protected my genius invention with a rock solid patent so I actively sought such people rather than avoid them.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" I called out again, "How many times have you paid a visit to the lavatory and realised you ran out of paper? Well now that is a thing of the past with my speaking paper dispenser."
Switching on my invention, and intentionally ignoring the smoke wafting from its innards, I pulled out a sheet of velvety soft toilet tissue while the dispenser uttered the words "twenty nine" with a robotic voice.
"That's right ladies and gentlemen!" I said with a tone of authority, "There are twenty nine sheets left. Twenty nine bottom wipes."
A large women among the crowd, wearing a lopsided bonnet, shook her head in disgust before making her way through the vast group of people towards the next stall. I couldn't tell if it was due to being offended at my choice of words or with the invention itself. I guessed I should have rehearsed my speech beforehand.
As the hours quickly passed by I felt I still hadn't gotten my message across as to how truly wonderful my creation was. Part of me felt the public were ignorant when it came to hygiene and their toiletry needs, preferring instead to wipe their filthy bottoms on used newspaper. In fact some of them likely never cleaned that part of their anatomy at all, instead waiting for their monthly bath. It was at times like those that I despised the lower classes. Maybe I was feeling sorry for myself. I must have gotten through to some considering the vastness of the crowd.
"Roll up, ladies and gentlemen!" I boomed out yet again with my tired voice almost croaking, "How many times have to paid a visit to the lavatory only to discover you've run low on..."
I was interrupted by the crowd as a commotion began to form at one of the other stalls further up my row. No doubt it was a hack inventor showing off something gimmical and useless, attracting impressed gawkers. I attempted to continue.
"How many times have to paid a visit to the lavatory only to discover you've run low on toilet paper?" I said to the crowd, "How often have you had to..."
I quickly turned my head as the crowd around me began hurrying over the to stall further up.
"Blast," I said under my breath.
One of the show staff opened a large glass side door allowing some of the public to make their way outside causing a cold draft to waft against my thin waistcoat.
"This way!" The staff member said with an authoritative tone.
I took a large intake of breath wondering as to what was going on. I hoped to dear God that it wasn't a fire, but then again I wondered how a glass building could possibly burn down. That was some unlikely to ever happen.
"That poor man," a woman in the crowd said as she made her way out the door.
It was only then that I noticed a man being carried by stretcher clutching his chest. From the look of his attire he must have been a fellow inventor overwhelmed by such a popular event. For a moment I was tempted to continue my presentation but decided to remove my hat and wait a few moments out of respect.
The remaining few hours of the show were a total washout to use a colloquial term, wish in turn gave me inspiration to invent an automatic washing machine for a future event. The crowds had quickly made their way outside the building after the unfortunate incident, many of which never returned under the belief that the show had been cancelled. I too called it a day and took a wander around the stalls along with other exhibitors who had chosen to do the same. It wasn't long before the event was officially closed and it was time to pack up and head for home.
"So what do you believe it is?" I heard a female voice as I approached the stall of the inventor who had collapsed.
The woman wore a long brown scarf, covering her dark leather jacket and hanging over her back, tapping against the bum of her tight trousers as she walked. She appeared to be talking to a fellow inventor who too appeared baffled as to the object's use that was displayed on the stall. I wondered if the woman was from the press in which case felt the need to step in on the off-chance of being mentioned in the newspapers.
"It's too large for a lamplight," said the man stroking his pointy black beard, "Maybe it's to keep the flies away, like a bug zapper perhaps."
"The inventor was holding it up before his collapse," the woman said, "It was vibrating back and forth like it had a mind of its own but now it's motionless. I guess it's out of power."
Keeping my eyes firmly upon the eight inch brass object on display I too guessed as to its function as I approached.
"How is our fellow inventor who created this fine instrument?" I said under the guise that I cared for my fellow man as well as not giving away that I had no idea what the invention was for.
The man with the pointed beard looked at me before tilting his hat.
"He's been taken to St Bartholomew's Hospital," the man said, "He's sure to recover. I suspect he was overwhelmed by the sheer size of this extravaganza due to his advancing years."
I nodded in response.
"There's to be a collection on his behalf and I'm sure many of us will pay him a visit once he's fully recovered," he added causing me to repress my annoyance at having to pay a single penny for other's misfortune.
I looked up at the item on display once more trying to gain a little insight as to its function. I will still totally flabbergasted, yet didn't want to appear foolish in front of my fellow peers so tried to sound knowledgeable while still inquisitive as to its purpose. Reaching out I picked it up from its display stand and held it up before noticing its slippery surface.
"I tried that earlier," the woman said, "It's coated in a sheen of oil, you may wish to wipe your hands."
I placed the item back upon its stand then retrieved a handkerchief from my waistcoat pocket quickly wiping away the sticky oily substance from my hands. However it proved difficult and I only hoped the oil wasn't corrosive.
"It's sealed at the base," I said taking a closer look but daring not to touch it again, "But I'm sure it unscrews. Maybe its a container of some sort for storage. Possibly an oil container that's sprung a leak."
"I agree," said the man with the pointed beard, "Something along those lines anyway. There are a lot of amateur inventors at these shows parading all kinds of novelties as true inventions. There was even a guy with a talking toilet paper dispenser of all things."
Both the man and the woman let out a chuckle having no idea who I was or what I had been showing.
"My name's Dr Ulysses B. White," I told them both offering my hand before realising it was still coated in an oily film.
The Bearded man was hesitant as to whether to attempt to shake my hand then held his arms to his sides instead.
"I'm Dr Sherwood Lantry," he said giving his beard a nervous strokes.
"And, I'm Inq Mary-Jane Ukridge," said the woman holding out her gloved hand for me to shake.
"Ink?" I responded having no idea what she meant while taking her hand and gently shaking it.
She smiled brightly.
"Inquisitor," she added, "I'm not an inventor per se. I'm more of a representative, an agent if you like, of manufactures looking for new products."
My face lit up then remembered how she chuckled when my lavatory paper dispenser was mentioned. I made a mental not to not mention my invention if pressed to do so.
We all looked at one another while Mary-Jane's eyes glanced back toward the mystery invention. For a moment it looked as though she blushed but it may have been a trick of the light.
"I think I may know what this is," she said softly as she leant closer to Sherwood and myself.
We were puzzled as to her quieting voice as though she was reluctant to reveal the secret. There was silence for a few moments while Mary-Jane gave off an aire of embarrassment licking the side of her mouth unsure whether to reveal her theory.
"Please tell," I quickly said causing Sherwood to frantically nod with agreement.
"I believe it's a ladies' personal item," Mary-Jane said softly.
"In what way?" I quickly added.
Mary-Jane glanced her head around making sure that we weren't being overheard then leant closer again.
"This is just my theory I might add," she said, "I have no real evidence, it's just due to its elongated shape and the fact that it's lubricated."
"And..." I said while waving my hand in a rolling fashion.
Mary-Jane took a large intake of breath.
"A bathroom item," she said, "When a woman is alone and she needs a certain problem dealt with, a need if you like, that she can't perform if her husband is away."
I was still baffled.
"I understand," Sherwood said calmly, "And I can see why the object has the need to vibrate whilst performing a pumping action."
"I suppose gentlemen can make use of it too if they are, well, that way inclined," she said with a smile.
I opened my mouth hesitating whether to inform them that I had no idea what they were talking about or to fake that I did. Sherwood leant closer to whisper into my ear.
"For clearing the pipes," Mary-Jane continued.
Sherwood took a step back having not told me anything.
"Wait, what?" He said.
"It goes down the plug hole of a bathtub to clear out hair that may clogging it up," she said red cheeked looking down at her feet, "Ladies often shave one's bodies in the tub."
"Yes that's what I thought you meant," Sherwood quickly said whilst nodding, "That's my theory too."
It wasn't until much later that day that myself and many of the inventors made our way to St Bartholomew's Hospital to pay a visit, as well as a little money, to the creator of the unusual item. A dozen of us crowded in his small private room ogling at him as he sat up on bed while we wondered if he was a genius or just another hack.
"Oh my word," he said as we wished him well, "You are most kind and I can see the inventors' community is one that takes care of its own."
The jar of coins had already been placed at his bedside while I stared at it wondering how much the others had donated, while certain I had inadvertently donated the most.
"What happened to you?" One of our fellow inventors asked.
"Oh, do not worry yourselves," he replied, "I'm to make a full recovery. I just need plenty of bed rest and to take a break from the labours of invention."
"Speaking of invention what was that device you had on show?" I asked him, "We've been pondering as to its purpose."
His grin was wide pleased to be asked such a question.
"Is it for clearing bathroom pipes?" Mary-Jane asked him.
"Or a back massager, hence the warming oils?" Another of the inventors asked.
The man sitting in bed let out a chuckle.
"My dear fellows," he replied gazing his eyes at us in turn, "That was merely a prop, a prototype micro steam pump devised to show off the wonders of steam power. It's of no practical use in its present form."