12 Awesome Contraptions from Literature and Mythology

Posted by Shmoop on 5/3/10 8:17 PM

Sci-fi books are famous for inspiring aspiring young geeks to invent cutting-edge technologies. However, creative doodads can be found in anything from mythology to fantasy to children’s books.

Taken from across the literary spectrum, here are 12 awesome contraptions – and, so we don’t get too carried away, their real-world drawbacks.

1. Heigh-Ho Sliver

Item: The Trojan horse

Featured In: Virgil’s Aeneid, 1st century B.C.

The Lowdown: A wooden horse “gifted” by the Greeks to the Trojans that hid thirty of the Greeks’ best warriors.

Pros: This thing was antiquity’s equivalent of the Surprise Snake in a Nut Can, only instead of simply annoying someone you didn’t like, it actually killed them.

Cons: They say that in love and war there are no rules, but disguising a weapon as a diplomatic gesture of gift-giving is pretty low. That’d be like if a bunch of French soldiers suddenly popped out of the Statue of Liberty and overthrew Manhattan. Also, for something that gains entrance to someone else’s fortress and then releases a bunch of combatants, the image sure has been misapplied in the world of contraceptives.

2. Head ‘Em Off at the Pass

Item: Medusa’s head

Featured In: Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, 8 AD

The Lowdown: A severed, snake-haired head that turns anyone who looks at it to stone.

Pros: Medusa’s head is the perfect weapon for amateurs. It requires no combat skills, produces no near-misses, and requires no cleanup. It’s also handy if you happen to like lawn ornaments.

Cons: As a weapon that kills anyone who glances at it, Medusa’s head isn’t known for its surgical precision, especially when the guy swinging it around has his eyes closed. Wherever you end up hiding this thing, you might want to invest in a label maker.

3. Falling on Your Sword

Item: Grendel’s mother’s sword

Featured In: Beowulf, 8th-11th Century

The Lowdown: A magical sword crafted by giants that Beowulf finds in Grendel’s mother’s den (and uses to slay her).

Pros: If you’re a warrior on a mission and you’ve just discovered that your “infallible” sword doesn’t actually work on your enemy, tripping over the one weapon fit for the task moments before being disemboweled is what we’d call a lucky break. This is like if Lex Luthor broke into Clark Kent’s apartment and found kryptonite in Clark's sock drawer.

Cons: If you’re a lake beastie being hunted down by a hostile human community, you’re probably kicking yourself for leaving that bane-of-your-existence lying around.

4. Say Sleeeaze!

Item: Dorian Gray’s portrait

Featured In: Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891

The Lowdown: A portrait that ages so its model doesn’t have to.

Pros: It’ll give you everlasting youth at the cost of a few brushstrokes and just three easy installments of your soul. Plus, whenever you do something terrible, like leave your turn indicator on or kill someone, the portrait becomes slightly more disfigured, keeping you fresh as a daisy.

Cons: Unless you’re Johnny Depp, people will get pretty suspicious if you completely stop aging without any obvious surgical indicators. Also, as Sauron or Lord Voldemort can tell you, stowing your life force in some inanimate object doesn’t always end well.

5. The Original Interwebs

Item: Charlotte’s spider webs

Featured In: E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, 1952

The Lowdown: A series of webs that a pig and a barn-spider use to write messages to humans.

Pros: If you’re a hapless pig on the Christmas dinner menu, writing brief messages about yourself on the "web" is a great way to weird everyone out of eating you. Plus, you can then take credit for inventing the precursor to Twitter.

Cons: Even if the scheme saves you from the slaughterhouse, your life still boils down to hanging out with a hairy arachnid that eats living prey the way a kid drinks a Capri Sun.

6. You Shouldn’ta Put a Ring On It

Item: The One Ring

Featured In: J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, 1954-55

The Lowdown: A malevolent gold ring that threatens the existence of Middle Earth.

Pros: If you’re a dark overlord, it’s an inconspicuous place to hide the ol’ evil powers while you lie low for two and a half thousand years. It’s also light and compact, so if you’ve been reduced to a disembodied spirit, it won’t be too hard to handle once you get your ethereal mitts back on it. Also, its invisibility powers make for great party tricks.

Cons: Having the One Ring poses a no-win scenario for anyone who isn’t Sauron. If you’re powerful enough to use it, it’ll twist your power against you. If you’re nobody in particular, it’s only a matter of time before large, burly men are pushing you around. Like an annoyingly loyal dog, it will literally conspire against you to return to its master. It also takes tamper-resistance to a whole new level, meaning anyone who wants to destroy it had better have some vacation time set aside.

7. eisoR eht dnuorA gniR

Item: The magical merry-go-round

Featured In: Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, 1962

The Lowdown: A merry-go-round that ages riders who ride it forwards and rewinds the biological clock for those who ride it backwards.

Pros: Being able to appear any age you’d like is great for avoiding car rental surcharges, or getting those free coloring sets at restaurants.

Cons: Listening to merry-go-round music played backwards as you do something horrifically unnatural to your body in an environment designed for children has a heebie-jeebie factor of about a thousand, and  that’s before you factor in the evil carnies.

8. It’s Just a Jump… to the Left

Item: The tesseract

Featured In: Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, 1962

The Lowdown: A fold in the time-space continuum that makes instantaneous space travel possible.

Pros: Traveling anywhere in the universe at the drop of a hat is a truly enviable ability, especially if there are no carry-on fees.

Cons: The slightest miscalculation could leave you burned, frozen, embedded in rock, boiling in lava, or floating in a void where no one could hear you scream because sound is a physical impossibility.

9. Got a Machinehead

Item: The Combine

Featured In: Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1962

The Lowdown: The giant, soulless machine that Chief Bromden “sees” behind all formal organizations and figures of authority.

Pros: If you’re gifted enough to actually recognize The Combine, watching someone burst open with rusted wire or spontaneously turn into a wrecking ball will alert you to the fact that they’re working for The Man.

Cons: The Combine is out to get you. You specifically. Shh.


10.  Slake ‘n Bake

Item: The stillsuit

Featured In: Frank Herbert’s Dune, 1965

The Lowdown: A full-body suit that recycles expelled moisture.

Pros: If you’re shuffling around in one of the driest deserts in the universe, waging tribal war against the Imperial Government and trying not to get eaten by giant spice worms, having a reliable water supply is one less thing to worry about.

Cons: The stillsuit basically works like an oven bag, only instead of savory and golden-brown, you come out rank-smelling and blistered from constant friction. Also, it recycles all the body’s water. All of it. Which means that even if you can get over the idea of drinking your own pee, you still have to contend with the fact that you’re sucking hot, flat water out of a plastic tube.

11.  The Needle and the Damage Done

Item: The alethiometer

Featured In: Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights (a.k.a. The Golden Compass), 1995

The Lowdown: An extremely rare truth-revealing gadget composed of three hands, three dials, a self-propelling needle, and 36 symbols.

Pros: In the hands of an experienced user, an alethiometer can answer any question about the past or present, as well as reveal outcomes of hypothetical situations.

Cons: It takes most people years of study to be able to interpret the thing, so unless you can somehow intuit what Cobra/Beehive/Partially-Eaten-Apple/Pony means, it’s basically just a paperweight that strangers will kill you for.

12.  A Room with a Loo

Item: The Room of Requirement

Featured In: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003

The Lowdown: An undetectable room in Hogwarts that appears whenever it’s truly needed and is always perfectly equipped for the situation.

Pros: What do you give Dumbledore, the wizard who has everything? A spontaneously-appearing bathroom when he has “an exceptionally full bladder.” If you’re planning an uprising against the administration (and all that is evil), the Room of Requirement is also handy for staging illegal classes that consist of lobbing dangerous spells at minors.

Cons: If you want the room to appear, you must walk back and forth three times past the exact spot where it doesn’t always exist while concentrating on exactly what you need. If you find yourself doing this slightly down the hall, tough luck.

Topics: Updates

Why Shmoop?
  • Shmoopers' SAT practice exam scores have increased over 40% in just six weeks.*
  • Shmoopers are experts in finance. Courses, guidance, and videos to help you land that job or promotion. 
  • All content written by PhD students from Stanford, Harvard, Berkeley, and other top universities
  • Shmoop offers a 24-hour FREE trial to all new subscribers. 

For people looking for that low cost, high quality, no hassle, low stress, get-you-ahead-in-life kind of opportunity. 

Start Shmoopin'

*Results may vary. **Not including cost of proctored exams

Sign Up For Knowledge

Recent Posts