Sunday, January 11, 2015

Patently Ridiculous by Richard Ross

Much to my surprise, this book was not a website first. It's from 2005 -- the height of the site-to-book boom -- and it has the kind of breezy, look-at-this-silly-thing concept and discretely chunked content that would have worked exceptionally well in a blog format.

But no. Patently Ridiculous burst into the world as a book first and foremost. (And was quickly followed the same year by Patently Erotic and Patently Christmas, either as an attempt to cover the whole spectrum immediately or as the beginning of a hoped-for flood of titles that didn't continue.) It was the brainchild of Richard Ross, a photographer and professor of art at UC-Santa Barbara, and the back cover describes it as "a hilarious compendium of the wackiest gadgets ever invented." Ross has gathered a hundred and fifty or so inventions from the US Patent Office, with original drawings, details of the patent applicant, and a short description presumably written by Ross based on the original application. (He doesn't exactly explain his methodology in his short foreword.)

Some of the things here are quite weird or bizarre -- a leash for a snake, aquariums built into tubs and toilets, a coat for two people, a method for inserting a condom into an unbroken nut shell -- and those are suitably amusing. But others are either things I've seen in everyday use -- an umbrella with ears, a device for a group of small children to hold onto to keep them in line, a toothbrush with a sound chip, a 2000 application for a "submarine amusement ride" that is remarkably similar to the Submarine Voyage ride that Disneyland opened in 1959 -- or just unobjectionable but slightly decorative objects, like a rattle with bells, various kinds of dolls with faces that change, and some religious tchotchkes.

All in all, since this was the first collection of "ridiculous" patents, I was expecting a lot more weird and a lot less "yes, I've seen people actually using that." That may perhaps explain why Ross pushed out two more books the same year and hasn't been to the well since. Yes, there are a number of ridiculous things here -- but I really think they should all be ridiculous, and that bar is definitely not met.

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