What do you do when all of the megabytes, megahertz, and megapixels over-complicate holiday shopping for the beloved nerds on your list? Let’s take a look back in time at some classic inventions that still stand up to the year 2010. The following rundown includes a number of fun gift items to accommodate most budgets, including a real flying machine. And if bizarre antique patent images like the ones above tickle your fancy, be sure to browse the Peculiar Patents of the Past photostream on Flickr.
Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 met some of the most challenging conditions a team of explorers might ever anticipate. The 28 were stranded for months on barren ice, surviving on penguin and seal meat, and relying on the heat of a sooty blubber flame. But wisely, the expedition was outfitted with the Primus Stove for stewing penguin nuggets and preparing cups of hot Bovril. The modern Primus OmniFuel camp stove operates on the same principle as the original 1892 invention and accepts a variety of fuels: isobutane canisters, gasoline, diesel, kerosene, and even aviation fuel. A more economical Primus stove is available for around $25, although it is limited to isobutane canister fuel.
Amidst the current surge of interest in 3D entertainment, one should note that a century ago, stereoscopic photography was already a hit. The Gakken Stereo Pinhole Camera kit assembles in about an hour, and shoots on 35mm film. A simple viewer is included to bring the 3D effect to life just as it might have looked in 1910.
Offering a step up in features and convenience, the Holga 3D Stereo Camera is ready to go out of the box and would light up the imagination of any creative photog, with its built-in multicolor flash, focusable lenses, and lo-fi yet artistic renderings on medium-format 120 film.
3D Drawing Pad ($7)
If you know an clever artist who appreciates a challenge, the 3D Drawing Pad comes with a pair of classic red-blue anaglyphic glasses and a specially designed grid for sketching stereoscopic images by hand.
Made in a style reminiscent of the classic Western Electric land-line, ThinkGeek’s fun retro phone handsets take the cell phone waaay back to the mid-20th century. Two versions are available, for either bluetooth wireless connection or 2.5mm jack.
Conceived in China during the Xin Dynasty, the ornithopter was also explored by Muslim polymath Abbas Ibn Firnas and Leonardo Da Vinci as a means for humans to experience the freedom of flight. Today, the rubber-band powered Tim Flying Bird Ornithopter actually works, yet is small enough to preclude any Icarus-style mishaps.
Film for Polaroid instant cameras from the Impossible Project (starting at $18)
Who said Polaroid cameras are obsolete? Although Polaroid stopped making film in 2008, the Impossible Project stepped in to save vital equipment from the last remaining factory. Impossible now offers a tantalizing line of film for Polaroid SX70 and One-series cameras, with redesigned chemistry that appeals to creative shooters with sepia effects, color shifts, and other analog goodness.
Hackvision DIY retro game console ($37.95 kit, $47.95 assembled)
Here’s one for the solder-happy digital DIY-er on your list. The Hackvision retro game console plays monochrome 8-bit games reminiscent of early 80’s consoles. Connect it to any TV with composite video input (NTSC or PAL), and get retro with Space Invaders and Pong. Out-of-the box gameplay is possible with the built-in controls, or it can be modified to accept Wii, SNES, and DIY paddle controllers. True brainiacs will rise to the challenge of writing their own games with Hackvision’s open-source Arduino platform.
Recommended accessories: 9V power adapter and RCA cable ($7.95)
Originally produced in the 1970’s, the EX-150’s retro styled green ice cube-like blocks are filled with primitive analog components like transistors, capacitors, and diodes. This solder-free educational kit is battery powered and has a built-in speaker. A quick flip through the instruction manual should be enough to whet the appetite of any noise geek, with projects like Electronic Bird, Siren, Organ, Voice Changer, Electronic Gun, and Electronic Motorcycle.
Synthesizer mega-force Korg has been keeping their ear to the ground, introducing a tiny yet eminently fun analog unit that sits well amidst the wave of DIY mini-instruments from boutique manufacturers. The Monotron’s circuits are based on Korg’s MS-20 semi-modular synth from 1978. Circuit benders will be satisfied to find points of interest clearly labeled inside, and the full schematic has been released in a remarkably warm gesture to analog-hungry experimenters.
Crosley Revolution portable turntable (~ $150, available at many retailers)
The Crosley Revolution portable turntable could be a thrift-store vinyl shopper’s dream, running on AA batteries and featuring built-in speakers and a headphone jack. Resembling the sought-after classic Sound Burger portable player from the ’80s, this Crosley adds USB connectivity as well as a built-in FM transmitter.
These endearingly blocky 8-bit inspired ice monsters love to dissolve in beverages as they entice smiles and start conversations.
Nuclear Spinthariscope ($30)
Described as “The world’s only nuclear-powered educational toy,” the spinthariscope is the 1903 brainchild of physicist William Crookes, who invented it in the course of his studies on uranium-X and p-particles. After a period of acclimation to darkness, one peers into the eyepiece to view a flickering swarm of tiny sparkles, generated by alpha particles from radioactive thorium ore striking a thin phosphorescent screen. United Nuclear assures us it is completely safe for children and adults. Available in regular and new Super size!
In the Maker Shed:
Want more? Stop by the Make Shed. We’ve got all sorts of great holiday gift ideas: Arduino & Arduino accessories, electronic kits, science kits, smart stuff for kids, back issues of MAKE & CRAFT, box sets, books, robots, kits from Japan and more.
Holiday Shipping Deadlines in December:
15 (Wed) – Postal shipping deadline
14 (Mon) – Ground shipping deadline
18 (Sat) – 3-day shipping deadline
20 (Mon) – 2-day shipping deadline
21 (Tue) – Overnight shipping deadline
*Orders placed after these dates using these shipping methods may arrive on time; however, the dates listed are what we consider likely “safe dates.”
United States Postal Service (USPS):
Due to the high volume of mail that the postal service deals with around the holidays, please order by Dec 15 if you intend to select this method. However, we have had increased reports of packages sent via USPS lost or delayed in transit during this high-volume period. Since we do not replace or refund any order placed using this shipping method, we strongly encourage you not to use this method in December.
Bio: Eric Archer is an electronics designer, musician, and experimentalist from Austin, Texas. In 2009, Eric helped initiate a series of DIY workshops called Handmade Music Austin, contributing open designs for minimal analog drum machines and teaching PCB assembly to classes of 20+ beginning DIYers.