SILENT BUT DEADLY
To some, an easy way around town. To others, a potential weapon of war. (Pixabay)
Classic Pub Quiz Trivia 101: Austrian-born silent movie starlet Hedy Lamarr invented an early method of encrypting radio signals, which she intended to use to remotely control player-pianos. (No, really.) But as it happens, she wasn’t the only star of the silent movie era to add a US patent number to their list of achievements.
Rocky “Three-Wheeler” Isaacs worked as a bicycle-maker and children’s entertainer in his hometown of Dubuque, Iowa, before a chance meeting with Buster Keaton’s brother in New York in 1909 led to a career in cinema: one of Isaacs’ earliest film credits involved helping Keaton develop this bit of silent movie gold:
After the cameras stopped rolling, the quality of the “Extreme Makeover”
craftsmanship became painfully apparent (Public domain/Wix)
Handsome, strappingly-built, and a superb cyclist, Isaacs soon made the move from off-screen to in front of the camera, and, with Keaton’s help, starred in a series of short films in the late 20s–early 30s, with little point other than showcasing their star’s cycling prowess.
Cinematic gems like Stop, Thief! (1929), Captain’s Favourite (1930) and A Nick of Time (1930)—all sadly now lost—each featured elaborate set pieces in which Isaacs would ride his trusty iron-frame tricycle (which he nicknamed “Duchess”) into some perilous situation and end up saving the day. In Nick of Time, for instance, Isaacs rode his tricycle through a burning building—a stunt Keaton later referred to as “the maddest thing I never did”.
Unfortunately, there are only so many film plots that can revolve around a tricycle-riding stuntman, and by the mid-1930s, Isaacs’ film career was all but over. But that gave him plenty of time to turn his attention to lighter things. Like the Second World War.
As the threat of another global conflict began to spread, Isaacs filed a patent for a tricycle-mounted, pedal-powered machine gun, which, in the letter supporting his patent application, he believed could be “produced cheaply and in great number ... so that one may be given to every town of more than 2,000 inhabitants across the whole of these United States.” The idea, Isaacs went on, was to “protect all American citizens, at the most basic of levels”.
Isaacs’ patent was granted—but sadly he did not live long enough to see his vision of a pedal-powered Gatling gun in every town in America come to fruition. He died in 1939 at the age of just 41.