The Ecphorizer

Nugatory Contrivances (and other odd devices)
Paul W. Healy

Issue #43 (March 1985)



Suppose you had a very unusual set of friends for whom you were preparing a Christmas shopping list and were looking for the following items: an orrery, the inside of a parking meter, an interval timer, a set of biology charts, a mirror cylinder (for light shows), five feet of medal ribbon, a tachistoscope, some musket balls fired during the Revolutionary War, a set of Lazy Dog [quoteright'/>missiles, a clone kit (for the super-egoist who has no intellectual equals), a life raft antenna, a 3" dummy shell of hardwood, and the escape chute from a four-engine jet aircraft. To what firm would you send an order for all the above items? There really is such a firm: JERRYCO. And no, I did not buy the last three items on the above list.

JERRYCO began issuing its fascinating, informative, and downright hilarious catalogs in late 1978. I missed the first one, but the second one, titled in capital letters 1-1/4 inches high, "NUGATORY CONTRIVANCES," started me on my long relationship as a pen pal of the proprietors. I had always wanted an orrery (which JERRYCO described as a "Copernican Planetarium," presumably because that's the way the maker, Hughes Aircraft, labeled it), and this was an opportunity not to be missed. The price was only $80, and the offer not only included the orrery but promised twelve different demonstration discs (transparent heavy plastic, displaying paths of asteroids, the best route to Mars, plotting grids, etc.). The ad said, "they are not brand new," a considerable understatement. Much of the solar system was in sad shape: the surfaces of Earth and Venus were flaking off, and the rings and half the surface of Saturn were no longer part of that planet. But then, it is not often that one gets to renew the surface of two major planets and restore another one. Gives one a feeling of real power. The shipment included only nine overlays, not the twelve promised, and three of those were duplicates. When I protested, JERRYCO did refund $10 - which seemed fair - and Hughes Aircraft generously duplicated a copy of its "Operation Manual and Astronomical Treatise for the Copernican Planetarium Model 500." The orrery "year" is just 23 seconds; I now have a second orrery with a year of 365-1/4 days.

Other JERRYCO catalogs have borne such intriguing titles as "Gadget Gazette," "Superfluity (Something Surplus for Everyone)," "Heuristic Heaven," and "Sail on, Sir Plus." The descriptions of the fascinating items JERRYCO sells are even better than the titles. Here are a few of the more outstanding listings:

Parachute in a Can: Canned parachutes were apparently a staple for our G.I.'s just like canned everything else. These are 24" nylon chutes, have (8) 18" shroud lines and are a real "Ripley" in terms of fitting into an unlikely can. The shroud lines are attached to the lid, whereas the 3- 1/2" diameter round metal can base just fell free when the "rip cord" was pulled, perhaps to do damage to enemy (or our own) troops. At a minimum they'd get a good chuckle out of it. The paramilitarist here guesses the can lid floating down played havoc with the enemy radar- another opinion is that these were drogue chutes that pulled out the main chute to lower material. A fascinating bit of military history. Canned chute, $2.00.
Giant Zipper: Please, no wise ones about how you make an elephant fly. This  is a 41" white Robin zipper. Lying flat, it is 1" side to side. The metal zipper itself is  3/16". This zipper is topped at both ends, so it would be of limited value on the front of your fur coat. Great for slip covers for sofa cushions or for turning loose kids and/or artists. Imagine a wall hanging made of zippers sewn side by side with a different "surprise" behind each one? Or, make your own folios that zip all round! These are long zippers, and that's no fly. 3  Zippers $1.50.

The Hand of Fate: Genuine porcelain hands used in a glove factory for  sizing purposes (assuming you want your purposes sized). Made of genuine porcelain, they carry the  patina and talcum powder of real workaday use. Commanding displays, dandy ring merchandizers or to keep rings on a bureau, topical funk art. The apparent "stop" motion might make them useful for stationing at the front center of the refrigerator. Dynamite for mixed metaphorists who need to handle kid gloves. Sorry, no choice of sizes, and they only come in white. About 14"  high. Porcelain Hand, $9.50.

Menagerie Brushes: Very soft brushes built for computer discs. (10) bristle  bundles in (2) 7/8" long rows at 30° to one another. 5/8" long white bristles on 1-7/8" long square white handles. So much for specs. Would you believe HO gauge cow catchers, fur-bearing tooth picks, petrified albino caterpillars, record cleaners, or soft springs? Best of all, they stand on legs to be made into odd miniature animals by cub scouts and brownies. (12) Animal brushes $1.80.

The above are some of the more prosaic items JERRYCO offers. They also  carry some really unusual items - consider the following:

A Big, Beautiful Dummy. Some woodworker convinced the US. Navy to make 3"  dummy artillery shells out of gorgeous oak and maple. The navy bit, bought too many, and has stored brand new units in only slightly damp ammo bunkers for forty years. Just under 35" long, just under 25 lbs. in net weight, 4-1/2" maximum flange diameter at the base, 3-3/4" diameter wood shell body, tapering to 3" diameter "head." The flange and base are steel, and  there is a steel collar near the tip, presumably to simulate real weight and balance so the boys in blue could play their games. A few of them have slight water stains, but your normally denigratory editor can only characterize as fabulous the visual impact of the rich  butterscotch-colored hardwood and silver-colored steel. A striking object by itself, its impact is cumulative if you can afford rows, bannisters, furniture or arsenals. Wonderful gifts, presentation pieces, or "I mean business" doorstops. Shipped postpaid...If the rest of the Pentagon had the aesthetic sensibilities of the guy who built this bullet we'd have the most tasteful  wars on the planet. For those of you into nomenclature, the base is marked concentrically "329486-B-6 BFT HMC 1944" and "MK 650 Cal 3" Dummy Cartridge. We have access to a large  quantity...Wood dummy round, $45 ppd.

Well, now you know one more reason why the Pentagon budget is so high.  Also, if you are in Chicago or Milwaukee and want to pick up one of these big, beautiful dummies (much cheaper than some other beautiful dummies you'd pick up in those cities), there is a $10 discount on the price. The same page advertising this item also carries descriptions of "Reagan-Begin Bombs" - baseball-sized parts of a cluster bomb ($2.75), "Bomb Bombs as Bomb" - a  butterfly anti-personnel bomb (Candy dish? Ashtray?) ($4.25), "The Blue Bomb" - a Mark 15  Mod 4 U.S. Navy practice bomb, intended to be filled with 100 pounds of water ($30), "Musket Balls" - Revolutionary war period, used (4/$3), and "Bandido Garb" - 100 copper nosed dummy 30-06 rounds in metal gun belting. When JERRYCO sells war surplus, it is war surplus!

I have found one big problem with the JERRYCO catalog: those wonderful,  funny descriptions cause me to buy things I don't need and probably won't use. Take the interval timer in the first paragraph. It seemed like a wonderful idea -a timing device for my Bell & Howell Tandematic Projector that would make it into a projector with an automatic slide changer with variable times between slides. It is still packed in the box it came in, a year and a half later. I got the clone kit to give as a gift-and then realized that anyone to whom I gave it would probably no longer speak to me, since the implications of such a gift are all too clear - at least to anyone with a modicum of intelligence - and I don't know anyone without that. As for the tachistoscope, it is fun to see how many digits or words you can grasp in 1/100 of a second - or 1/25 or 1/50. And it doubles as a very good projector for Viewmaster discs, except that the  changing mechanism is set to project every frame, not every other frame. At least I haven't ordered the 3" Wooden Dummy. Well, not yet, anyhow.

(For those interested, the address of JERRYCO, Inc., is 601 Linden Place,  Evanston, IL 60202. But be warned - getting the catalog may be dangerous to your fiscal well-being.)

Editor's Note 2008:  The place is now American Science & Surplus

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Paul Healy




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