From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]



patented december 10, 1902

US patent 5,421,089 / issued 1995

a history of useless inventions

inventors have been registering bright ideas with the world’s patent
office for over 150 years. how has technology changed the world? while
the flush toilet, aspirin, the computer, the pill, the photo-copier
and the mobile phone have proved invaluable, the same cannot be said
of every innovation. what makes a good invention?

‘spectacles for chickens’ may seem odd, but the birds do have a
tendency to try to peck each other’s eyes out. the ‘alarm fork’ : you
should care about calories when you eat too much. or ‘duster slippers’
for cats: now the most boring job around the house becomes hours of
fun. the ‘drymobile’: your laundry dries as you drive… often
inventions come about because people want to meet their own needs.

‘chindogu’ is the japanese word coined for the art of the unuseless
idea. strangely practical and utterly eccentric inventions for a life
of ease and hilarity have taken the land of the rising sun by storm.

meant to solve the niggling problems of modern life, these bizarre and
logic-defying gadgets and gizmos have a tendency to fail completely.

addicts of the unuseless all over the world love this collection. the
art of chindogu was born in the late 1980’s when amateur inventor
kenji kawakami discovered that a not-quite-usable idea for a new
gadget or product could nonetheless be enjoyable if one were to create
a prototype and take delight in the way it misses its mark.

the term ‘chindogu’ entered the english vocabulary in 1991 when then
senior society member dan papia (president of chindogu society
america) published an article on the subject in japan’s leading
english-language magazine, the ‘tokyo journal’.


The Ten Tenents of Chindogu

Every Chindogu is an almost useless object, but not every almost
useless object is a Chindogu. In order to transcend the realms of the
merely almost useless, and join the ranks of the really almost
useless, certain vital criteria must be met. It is these criteria, a
set of ten vital tenets, that define the gentle art and philosophy of
Chindogu. Here they are:

1. A Chindogu cannot be for real use

It is fundamental to the spirit of Chindogu that inventions claiming
Chindogu status must be, from a practical point of view, (almost)
completely useless. If you invent something which turns out to be so
handy that you use it all the time, then you have failed to make a
Chindogu. Try the Patent Office.

2. A Chindogu must exist

You’re not allowed to use a Chindogu, but it must be made. You have to
be able to hold it in your hand and think ‘I can actually imagine
someone using this. Almost.’ In order to be useless, it must first be.

3. Inherent in every Chindogu is the spirit of anarchy

Chindogu are man-made objects that have broken free from the chains of
usefulness. They represent freedom of thought and action: the freedom
to challenge the suffocating historical dominance of conservative
utility; the freedom to be (almost) useless.

4. Chindogu are tools for everyday life

Chindogu are a form of nonverbal communication understandable to
everyone, everywhere. Specialised or technical inventions, like a
threehandled sprocket loosener for drainpipes centred between two
under-the-sink cabinet doors (the uselessness of which will only be
appreciated by plumbers), do not count.

5. Chindogu are not for sale

Chindogu are not tradable commodities. If you accept money for one you
surrender your purity. They must not even be sold as a joke.

6. Humour must not be the sole reason for creating a Chindogu

The creation of Chindogu is fundamentally a problem-solving activity.
Humour is simply the by-product of finding an elaborate or
unconventional solution to a problem that may not have been that
pressing to begin with.

7. Chindogu is not propaganda

Chindogu are innocent. They are made to be used, even though they
cannot be used. They should not be created as a perverse or ironic
comment on the sorry state of mankind.

8. Chindogu are never taboo

The International Chindogu Society has established certain standards
of social decency. Cheap sexual innuendo, humour of a vulgar nature,
and sick or cruel jokes that debase the sanctity of living things are
not allowed.

9. Chindogu cannot be patented

Chindogu are offerings to the rest of the world – they are not
therefore ideas to be copyrighted, patented, collected and owned. As
they say in Spain, mi Chindogu es tu Chindogu.

10. Chindogu are without prejudice

Chindogu must never favour one race or religion over another. Young
and old, male and female, rich and poor – all should have a free and
equal chance to enjoy each and every Chindogu.


The real world of the mad scientist  /  December 3, 1997

The relationship between madness and creativity has long intrigued
scientists and artists alike. The observation that an increasing
number of mentally-ill patients were attempting to register their
ideas as patents led two British psychiatrists to examine the link.

David James and Paul Gilluley reasoned that the British Patents Office
should provide a rich repository of the type of bizarre ideas put
forward by psychiatric patients. But they found their theory was
incorrect after comparing inventions from a group of patients with
those patented by members of the public.

Madness lacks method

For the main part, the ideas of “mad” people could never be made and
therefore cannot be patented. The psychiatric patients had big plans,
but little prospect of realising them: a cure for all known cancers
and Aids, a formula for time travel and a way of achieving cold fusion
in a test tube.

Among the stranger patents recorded in the UK, however, the
psychiatrists found an array of inventions that could certainly be
built yet would be virtually useless: a machine for patting babies on
the bottom, a car propelled by a horse on a treadmill, a ladder to
help spiders escape from baths and two-handed gloves to allow couples
to hold hands.

Join the club

The latter group do not exhibit signs of mental illnesses, but instead
satisfy the requirements for membership of Japan’s Chindogu Society,
the psychiatrists said. Chindogu is a society of 50,000 members “the
purpose of which is the production of useless inventions,” the report

“The stipulation for these is that they must be possible to construct,
must accomplish their stated aim, but must be totally useless.” The
psychiatrists concluded that mental illnesses may occasionally play a
part in the process of creative invention. But it can never substitute
for an understanding of scientific fact.

“This is the conclusion lent support by this study of patients, that
scientific creativity requires a firm base of knowledge, and that
psychopathology, when present, can only colour the process of
invention; it cannot in itself produce strength out of weakness.

“In other words, the only creative ‘mad scientists’ are those that
were creative scientists before they became mentally ill.” The
psychiatrists detail their study in the British Journal of Psychiatry.


You don’t have to be mad to invent, but it helps
By Celia Hall, Medical Editor, Daily Telegraph

A SEARCH for the true nature of the mad scientist has taken two
forensic psychiatrists from a hospital’s secure unit to the The Mad
Patent Office and the British Library.

Four of their patients began writing to the Patent Office after
becoming engrossed in their inventions: a cure for cancer and Aids
made from domestic products; a time machine; an inflatable moon buggy
and a method for producing cold fusion in a test-tube.

Dr David James is consultant forensic psychiatrist at the Camlet Lodge
secure unit, Enfield, north London. He said: “When we saw what they
were doing it raised again questions about creativity and madness and
it Massachusetts occurred to us that the Patents Office might be full
Institute of of inventions coming out of mental illness.”

Dr James and Dr Paul Gilluley, his registrar, searched the files in
the patent Office and British Library, but were unable to find
evidence of inventors being mad. However, they did discover a lot of
mad inventions – madder than the inventions their patients were
working on.

Writing in the British Journal of Psychiatry today, they describe the
inventions they discovered from the 100 “odd or eccentric” patents
they identified. About half of them were “related to bodily
functions”. Of the others, time and animals were popular themes and
one inventor in 1991 managed to combine both obsessions with a Watch
for Keeping Time at a Rate Other than Human. It looks like an ordinary
watch but keeps time at an animal’s rate achieved by dividing the
average of a specific animal’s lifespan into the average lifetime of a
human being.

Another time traveller invented the Life Expectancy Timepiece, a
macabre instrument that counted to zero and monitored the approximate
time the wearer had left to live. More helpful was the Baby Patting
Machine, an infant sleeping aid that patted the baby’s rump with a
soft pad. Another domestic product is called the Cold Air Blast Wake-
Up device, which operated under the bedclothes at a pre-set hour. Dr
James also describes the patent for a Two-Handed Glove for
sweethearts, complete with knitting instructions to facilitate hand-
holding in cold climates.

In 1980 an animal lover came up with a kind of helmet so the ears of
long-eared dogs could be kept out of their dinner. The psychiatrists
say that 75 per cent inventions” and conclude that madness does not
produce creativity, although it might colour it.

Dr James said: “In other words the only creative ‘mad scientists’ are
those that were creative before they came mentally ill. In fact I find
the inventions of my patients very charming and stimulating. But you
have to be creative to start with and have a lot of imagination.”


Chindogu: Form or Function?
BY Ryoko  /  translated by Kevin Mcgue   /  11 Jan 2008

Headwear equipped with a loaded toilet paper dispenser?! What in the
world for? Who came up with this and why? More importantly, who in
their right mind would walk around with a bog roll on their head?
Welcome to the world of chindogu. The Japanese phrase literally
translates as “unusual tools,” but what is it all about? Today PingMag
catches up with chindogu inventor Kenji Kawakami of the Chindogu
Society of Japan to learn all you will ever need to know about

P: To jump right to the heart of the matter, what are chindogu?

KK: To put it briefly, they are tools that wind up being more
inconvenient than convenient. (Laughs) I’ll show you an example. This
is the “Electric Fork.” Go ahead and give the button a push.



In our world, all technology is progressing, right? So I thought why
not take a simple fork and make it electric. Using this fork, with a
single flick of the switch you can effortlessly wind up spaghetti. The
only drawback is that the spaghetti sauce goes flying everywhere. So
the end result is that it really is better not to use it. And that is
what “chindogu” means. It isn’t something that anyone would actually
use, but it has to be a tool that a person could use.

P: So how did you get started making chindogu?

KK: Years ago, I was working as a freelance editor, writing for
magazines and working on some scripts for the animated series
Calimero. I started my own production company, and one of my first
projects, for a certain magazine, was coming up with the concept of
chindogu. The response was greater than I could have ever imagined,
and chindogu really took on a life of their own.

P: Didn’t you study aerospace engineering?

KK: I have liked airplanes since I was a child, and when I was in high
school I made a kind of paraglider. I loved planes and thought that I
would like to do some kind of work relating to them. However, I
entered college in 1967, which was the beginning of the whole student
movements, and that ideology had a huge influence on me. Not long
after I got into school, I dropped out to join the movement. I had
always been interested in literature, and so I started to write for
magazines as a way of supporting myself.

P: By the way, do you make the chindogu yourself?

KK: I started making chindogu 17 years ago, and there must be around
700 of them by now. I have made every one of them by myself. I have
always been good at making models, so making the chindogu has been

P: I heard that you also accept ideas from amateur inventors…

KK: Yes, but I don’t often get ideas that are fully formed. I take
some of the ideas that are sent in and try to make them more
interesting. For example, the toilet paper headgear came from an idea
to put a roll of paper on the chest or hang it from the waist. That
would simply be too convenient, which isn’t what chindogu is all
about. So my idea was to put it on top of the head. At first glance,
it seems that it is more convenient, because the paper is positioned
closer to the nose, but it would be very difficult to actually use.

P: Chindogu have enjoyed a huge amount of attention outside Japan…

KK: After I had made a certain amount of chindogu, I collected them
together in a book. Soon after, a reporter from the BBC came to
interview me. Thanks to that interview, I was able to bring out an
English-language edition of the book, and I was surprised to see
chindogu had gained popularity around the world. There are now German,
French, Spanish, and Chinese editions of the book, and the Korean
version just came out last year.

P: Have people’s reactions to Chindogu been different in different

KK: Surprisingly different. In America and Japan, they are seen as
entertainment. For some reason, in Korea, Canada, and Australia, they
are thought of a science, and in Europe, they have been hailed as “as
a new form of Dadaism,” and “contemporary art.”

P: But it seems that chindogu do recall some of the concepts of
Dadaism and Surrealism by rejecting preconceived ideas and common

KK: Yes. I think so. I actually have made the “Chindogu Ten
Commandments,” which are:

1. A chindogu must not actually be used
2. It must have some function.
3. It must have an anarchic element.
4. It must be a tool for everyday life.
5. It must not actually be put on the market.
6. It must not be only for the purpose of humor.
7. It must not be for black humor.
8. “Dirty” jokes are forbidden.
9. It must not be for profit.
10. It must be usable internationally.

Even before starting to make chindogu, I have been thinking about
these “ten commandments” since my days in the student movements of the
1960s. I first came up with with chindogu as a special project for a
magazine, so I was not too concerned about how people would receive
them. But actually, I think of chindogu as “an intellectual game to
stimulate anarchic minds,” or a physical manifestation of my way of

P: Can you give me an concrete example of your “intellectual game”?

KK: This is an extreme example, but more money is spent on fashion in
Japan than in any other country, and you can see 14 or 15-year old
girls buying Louis Vuitton bags. They are expressing their identity
through material things. I am not saying that beautiful clothes or
designer bags are necessarily bad, but I want to have my own sense of
identity even if I don’t have things.

So I have intellectual games to confirm to myself who I am. For
example, if a flathead fish and sole have a baby fish, what kind of
head would that baby fish have? Of the 6.7 billion people in this
world, there might be as many as 30 people thinking about such a
question at a given moment. I think about such things as a way of
affirming my own identity. Chindogu give form to such thoughts.

P: Are you particular about how you design your chindogu?

KK: Inventions can be designed digitally or in analog. Chindogu are
all designed analog. With digital design, it is like putting input
into a black box and getting output, but without seeing the process in
the middle. But with analog design, you can see the process, right?
For example, in the children’s TV program Pythagora Switch you can see
their Rube Goldberg Machines that take a marble through a very complex
maze, and you can see everything. I think that kind of thing is very

Chindogu are also a form of expression. For example, these “shoe
umbrellas” are very colorful and cute, aren’t they? I thought a lot
about the color and shape, and also how to make them properly. I am
not interested in weekend D.I.Y. quality work. My goal is to construct
things of such quality that you wouldn’t be surprised to see in a
department store. I don’t use cardboard or polystyrene, but use metals
and plastics to make them look genuine. The only thing is they are not
for sale… (laughs)

P: The names you give your chindogu are pretty descriptive.

KK: The chindogu themselves are extreme and anarchic, so I throw a
straight ball with the names. Right now I am working on the “Alarm
Clock Headphones,” which is just what the name says it is. When coming
home from an office party, someone could fall asleep on the train and
miss their stop. If you set an alarm clock, you would also wake up the
people sleeping on either side of you, so I came up with the alarm
clock headphones. I thought this one would be a pain to actually make,
so I just did an illustration of it. But then everyone told me that
just an illustration wasn’t interesting, and it would be better to
actually see it. Now I am working on making them, and it is
interesting to see something so nonsensical.

P: Yes, it is much more interesting and powerful to actually be able
to see and touch the items. Since we are almost out of time, do you
have any final comments for our readers?

KK: This spring I will be holding a chindogu exhibition in Korea,
which will help to spread chindogu around the world. I hope that
people will be able to see chindogu as a way of changing their way of

P: Kenji Kawakami, thanks for sharing your wonderful chindogu with us!
We look forward to what you come up with next!

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