Amanda DeMarco is the recipient of a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for New Inventions and the Latest Innovations by Gaston de Pawlowski. First published in French in 1916, Pawlowski’s book is a catalog of absurd imaginary gadgets and “improvements,” an early satire on consumer society and the cult of the inventor. Read DeMarco’s essay on translating New Inventions and the Latest Innovations here.

From the Preface

Our readers will excuse this book’s slightly coarse and necessarily scientific format. We wanted to present the public with facts only, which are certainly strange at times, curious, bizarre, or disconcerting, but always researched down to their smallest details. Of course, this publication is impacted by the purely documentary character of our research.

It is no longer the time for literary reveries, but rather for practical truths. We have been reproached for holding ourselves back in France from ideas in general; it has been insinuated that we aren’t interested in many details of daily life where, it seems, progress is being made. It is time to act and to show that we too are capable of more than empty talk.

Let the retrograde philosophers claim that we don’t know how or why we live, that we don’t understand the spirit of materiality at all, that we don’t have any idea what the electricity is which we use every day; this is all the utopian nonsense of those who would wish to impede the triumphal march of Science. Should we patiently dismantle and separately classify all of the cogs in our watch, we would be astonished at the fact that, at the end of this process, we had not discovered what time it is. What does it matter to a true modern savant if he has no idea where he’s going, as long as he gets there methodically?

From Chapter I:

Hygiene Cosmetics Beauty Products

Anti-slip soap — Adultery purse — Torpedo spittoon — Trap dentures — Insecticidal lotion — Snail razor — For the conservation of the teeth — Live moles — Machine for writing with sticks — Tourist filter — Whispering Mephistophone — Artificial breath — Black nails for the cabaret — Cinctures for sagging cheeks — Illumination for the eyes and nose — Lateral-entry bath tub — Oil can for Eskimos — Nasal vacuum — Steel electro-cot — Mammalian swimming pump — Alarm-clock earrings — Central spittoon recuperation unit — Miasma heating— Closed Comb for the Coiffure-Challenged — Toothbrush yarn — Black cotton for mourners — Genuflectol — Braided spit-curl for monocles — Magnetic paste for metallic hair — Beard hair for the scalp — Umbilical cement — Hairy soap — Rabbit-grease boot polish — Elder extensor — Pedagogic shampoo — Grasshopper shears — Pinch squealer — Glove-opening ibis — Crocodile form for boots — Dynamo pipe and electric waistcoat button for conversation

We begin this chapter with a modest invention, one without pretensions yet useful: the new anti-slip soap is equipped with spikes and will soon make an appearance in every lavatory.

As is well known, to this day soap suffers from the grave defect of slipping between the fingers of the user and skidding to the ground with deplorable frequency. The new anti-slip soap, analogous to the anti-skid brakes available for automobiles, eliminates all of these disadvantages. It has been reported to us, incidentally, that it is depleted less quickly than other soaps, a commendable quality.

The Escarfigaro is a new safety razor, offering tremendous advantages to tourists, business travelers, and explorers.

It is a large snail, Australian in origin, which secretes a soapy slime when placed on a bristly cheek. Once his face is covered in this soap foam, the bearded man in question need only press down on the snail, which curls up into the far reaches of its abode, allowing the edges of its shell to perform the task of an excellent razor; these edges are, in fact, particularly sharp. One can shave with them in a matter of minutes, without difficulty and without carrying any constantly cumbersome equipment on one’s person.

The Escarfigaro is sold in a small mesh box, with a bit of soapwort to feed it. Additionally, it makes a charming little travel companion. It can be found in all of the best pharmacies.        

In scientific circles, everyone is talking about a new method that allows anyone to keep their own teeth clean and white forever, even at an advanced age. This method is infinitely simple, and it’s astonishing that no one has recommended it sooner. Instead of waiting for the teeth to deteriorate with age, one simply has to pull them out in early youth, when they begin to grow, and then mount them as dentures. In this way, one can be certain to keep ones own teeth forever in perfect condition. It presents a serious advantage that will be appreciated by all of those unfortunates who are obliged to accept false teeth culled from the mouths of others.

Yet another American trend is set to sweep our beaches. But will it really be accepted? One must hope not, because if it satisfies the eccentric tastes of the trans-atlantics, it can only injure the natural finesse of the Latin races. It is the new living mole which I speak of, and which those elegant denizens of New York affix to their cheeks by one paw, just next to their mouths. It seems that this induces extremely “exciting” sensations, and signifies, through a bit of rather coarse symbolism, that this charming mouth can be approached without fear. A far cry from the delightful beauty marks of our grandmothers! One can only hope, we repeat, that this absurd eccentricity will find no success on French soil.

And now, for the benefit of the little children, we turn our attention to a new writing machine. Much simplified, it allows beginners to trace a stick along a page of writing without dirtying their fingers or reaching for their pen nibs.

It’s the perfect utensil, which will be warmly welcomed by mothers everywhere.

Presenting a new filter for tourists which promises to deliver the very greatest benefits. It’s a sort of felt plug equipped with a cord. Once swallowed, the plug rests in the esophagus, while the user is free to drink water of dubious origin.

Once the tourist is quenched, all that is required to extract the improvised filter from his throat is a tug on the cord. Of modest volume, the filter takes up little space in the traveler’s pocket.

Of interest to elegant individuals who desire to frequent the wildest cabarets, the new black celluloid nail crescents can be affixed easily under the nails and then removed with the same ease. Upstanding people are always recognizable by the fact that they have clean nails. The black celluloid nail crescents make everything clear in a matter of seconds.

This winter certain milliners intend to release cinctures for sagging cheeks. The ensemble, it seems, is exceedingly elegant and will be the delight of all coquettes of a certain age.

The American Fashion Convention has decided to replace conventional jewelry, which lacks a certain éclat, with electrical jewelry, which will have more of an effect. We hasten to add that the innovation goes even further, extending the charms of one’s natural physiognomy. Thus, the Americans have already constructed new arched velvet eyebrows that rest on the existing brows and contain small elongated electric tubes, analogous to those one finds in piano lamps, and which are illuminated by means of mercury vapors. This illumination, which is completely invisible from the exterior, is projected onto the eyes of the wearer, lending them a truly shocking brilliance.

A similar highlight are the little electric nasal bulbs, which are concealed in the nose, giving its tip an extremely seductive rosy transparency. Electric dentures have recently made it possible for the wearer to offer a truly dazzling smile. I’m well aware that certain parties won’t hesitate to protest against these Yankee inventions, but as is always the case with new fashions, we shall adopt them in the end.

We are all familiar with the wristwatch, and those little minuscule stopwatches that they seem to be putting everywhere these days in place of the gemstones on jewelry. A jeweler has taken it upon himself to improve on this useful invention, creating the extremely ingenious alarm-clock earrings. In place of diamonds, these earrings hold two little alarm clocks whose ringing can be adjusted in intervals of a few minutes, to assure that the wearer is awoken perfectly. These new pieces of jewelry will be welcomed by travelers who fear sleeping too late and missing their train.

Tenants, pay attention! In place of costly heating, certain unscrupulous landlords have decided to use swamp miasmas, which are spread via the heating system, giving inhabitants a light fever and consequently the illusion of warmth. This is a fraudulent practice, let us remember, punishable by law.

In the domain of fashion, we would like to draw your attention to the new closed comb for the coiffure-challenged. One often notices how absurd it is for completely bald individuals to use an ordinary comb whose teeth are divided. The closed comb, by contrast, polishes the head for a more desirable effect which, rather than uselessly scratching the skull, gives it the gleaming quality of antique ivory.


From Chapter V:

Armaments Marine Defense Wartime Stratagems

Duck di guerra — Spark spurs — Biplane pigeons — The ideas of the chaplain aboard the armored cruiser Ernest Renan —Turkish primate aviators — French boomerang — Poultry compass — Optimistic binoculars — Illuminated gun sight — Self-greasing caterpillar cartridge — Parrot drill sergeant — Artillery shell with 900-kilometer range — Aeroplane trap — Suicidal electromagnet — Electric oyster — Paste for drivers — Poison gas — Bi-canons — Delousing monkeys — Bean-powered torpedo boat — German avoidance of customs duties — Bismarck — Aerial cigar cutter — The soldiers of Franz Joseph — His master’s voice — Sausages for the attachment of machine guns — Von Bülow’s last malady — Controlled air-flow military cap — The crowns of Franz Joseph — The ape in the army — Cigarette butt savings — Rotating heels for Krauts — Austrian collars and false collars — The apprehension of Ursa Major

One rather curious invention that was just presented at the institute is the new French boomerang, whose wood is cut in such a way that once the instrument has been launched at the enemy, it does not return to the thrower. Thus he avoids all risk of injury.

Among all of the latest sensational inventions, one must reserve a particular place for the anticipated introduction of parrot drill sergeants in the army. Contrary to recent rumors, the intention is neither to disrupt the high command, nor even to reorganize the current leadership.

The objective is only to fatigue the corporals and sergeants as little as possible with the elementary instruction of young recruits by substituting parrots responsible for communicating the habitual commands. At first it was proposed to simply use phonographs, but phonographs lack vivacity and imagination in the field. Perhaps they will be imposed upon the Kraut army, but they will never have a place in our country. In times such as these, one wants to accustom the young soldiers to obeying the most unexpected commands insofar as possible, in order to prepare them for real combat in the field. Parade exercises for marching in rank are of little use. What is expected of the French soldier is the unexpected, initiative, even imagination, and the parrot, whatever the professional critiques against it might be, could provide excellent results in this regard.

But you will see that this idea, excellent in principle, will not fail to provoke interminable objections, and that foreign armies will seize upon it long before we think to implement it in France.

The Krautiman Zeitung, official organ of the “Diphtheria Gesellschaft,” provides curious details on the new artillery shell 980 currently being constructed in the factories of the Kroup firm, and which can be sent 900 kilometers, perhaps longer. Due to its dimensions, the shell cannot be shot from a canon. Instead it will be expedited by railway and contains 16 frozen meals for its deliverer.

Another great disappointment for the Kroup factories. The recently developed cannon with a range of 100 kilometers performed disastrously in trials. The initial speed of the shell was excellent; at 1,133 meters the shell overcame gravity and the projectile was launched into space, never to return. “When I create worlds, I, for one, don’t work in clay like the Ancients; my planets are made of iron!” the Kaiser was heard to have said in an excess of lyricism which much concerned his entourage.

We have learned, through an indiscretion in an Austro-Hungarian military journal, the Ostrovassalygoth Zeitung: the Krauts, desperate for innovation, established a colossal electromagnet in Flanders at the beginning of the war which, in case of an Allied attack, would pull rifles and machine guns toward it. They didn’t count on our artillery shells, which, drawn from their original course by the electromagnet, obliterated the infernal machine, which exists no more.

Our greatest shipping companies are about to adopt the new electric oyster for the detection of leaks, which is destined to provide the greatest advantages. The oyster, alive and closed, is placed at the bottom of the hold at the beginning of the voyage. It is equipped with an electrical contact that activates an alarm as soon as the oyster begins to open.

If, by chance, water should penetrate the hold, the oyster quickly opens, the alarm is activated, and the captain can take immediate safety measures, gaining control over the gravity of the situation. In this way, we hope to avoid shipwrecks in the future.

The Berlingoth Blatt, voice of German motoring enthusiasts, advises drivers to coat their clothing with paste before departing on a journey. After a few hours on a dusty road, the motorist will become invisible, his uniform being precisely the color of the terrain. As for the driver’s cap, dusted as it will be with gravel, it makes an excellent emery cloth of immediate use for all mechanical purposes.

We have discovered the composition of the Germans’ poison gas. It is obtained by burning the dispatches of the Wolff Agency [1], which creates an intolerable atmosphere.

According to a note from the Wolff Agency printed by the Abuzer Kreduliten in Berlin, the Kroup factories are currently in great haste to build new cannons that fire from both sides at once, intended to economically protect Germany on its two fronts.

If we believe the Berliner Tasdeblags, at the outbreak of war, the Germans were troubled by the intolerable number of lice that devastated the army. Following the advice of the venerable Doctor von Kroknow, director of the Zoological Garden of Hamburg, it seems it was decided to send 300 small monkeys to the front, whose task was to provide the soldiers the necessary grooming, but also to distract them.

Unfortunately, in practice this did not yield the expected results. When the first monkey arrived at the front, all of the men stood up as if on springs and cried “Long live the Klownprinz!” This disagreeable error was rigorously held secret at first, but after awhile, everything came to light.

The activities that the Kraut Admiralty keeps shrouded in the greatest mystery continue on the Kiel Canal. If our intelligence is correct, it seems that they are testing a new torpedo boat called the bean turbine, capable of reaching the highest speeds, an accomplishment requiring a veritable revolution in the art of seafaring. All that is currently known is that the vessel’s hold is filled with beans capable of producing a considerable volume of gas. How is this gas utilized? Via a simple combustion engine causing air to escape from the rear of the boat, turning a turbine? We can’t be sure quite yet, but it seems to us that it will be difficult to keep the secret for long. In any case, that would mean holding in the secret of these light little ships, from which one expects such great speed.

The military analysis in the Pan-Kraut Zeitung explained to readers of the journal that the nearing of the eastern and western fronts is desirable because it would force the allies to shoot at each other over the heads of the German army. It adds that if Germany is defeated, this would be voluntary and in the interest of national commerce, in order to force the allies to incorporate the German territories, whose products would be distributed free from any customs duties.

It seems that the Kaiser regretted the absence of the Iron Chancellor during mobilization. “I would have made a cannon out of him,” he is said to have remarked to some of his attending officers.

A marvelous new invention: the cigar cutter aeroplane for pursuing zeppelins.

To eliminate the embarrassing impression created throughout Europe by the discovery of German soldiers chained to their machine guns, the German General Staff has ordered new chains forged to look like a series of connected cylinders. That way the machine guns will appear to be attached to them by a string of sausages.

It has also been reported that 27 machine-gun officers have been decorated, receiving iron collars with spikes.

At the beginning of the war, you’ll recall, Emperor Franz Joseph demanded 600,000 crowns from Serbia. It’s been announced in Vienna that one year later, he has only demanded two crowns from Austria-Hungary. Though belatedly, his pretensions have apparently become more reasonable.

Soon the entire German infantry will be equipped with rotating heels to facilitate maneuvers on both fronts.


[1] A powerful German telegraph and media agency.

Gaston de Pawlowski (1874–1933) was a French author best known for his early work of science fiction, the 1911 Voyage to the Land of the Fourth Dimension. He was also an important and prolific representative in the long tradition of French satire, and New Inventions and the Latest Innovations is his most significant contribution to the genre. Throughout his many publications, Pawlowski focused on science, the transformation of society, and skepticism of the “church of progress.” Born and raised in Paris, he was an early bicycle aficionado and a true visionary.

Amanda DeMarco is the publisher of Readux Books and translation editor at The Offing. Her forthcoming translations include books by Franz Hessel and Francis Nenik. Her reviews have recently appeared in The Wall Street JournalThe Rumpus, and Los Angeles Review of Books.


New Inventions and the Latest Innovations is forthcoming from Wakefield Press.

This piece is part of PEN’s 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Series, which features excerpts and essays from the recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants. 

Since 2009, the Fund’s annual contribution for grant awards has been augmented by support from Amazon.