Bob Tale #1: Brown Paper Bag

Note: Some of these stories have been published elsewhere, but I wanted to put them out there again as part of the Bob Tales. I love that name for the series. I thought it up myself.

The question I am asked most frequently is “Was Bob a real person?” Yes, Bob did exist, and I’m sorry to say I haven’t kept up with him. I’m calling him Bob Bolt, although “Bolt” is a pseudonym. As to the question, did all these things happen as Bob described them? Answer: Who can tell? I never bothered to find out. I just enjoyed the stories and hope you do, too.

I like to think about inventions and how they impact us, and  not only the big inventions like the airplane or the car.  I like to think about the little inventions like that little plastic thing that fits over the door handle of a hotel room and tells the world whether you want to be disturbed or not.  Someone had to think of that. One of the coolest inventions of all time, though, I think is the brown paper grocery bag.  Now, on the face of it, that might not seem to be that great an invention but suppose it didn’t stand up? (Then it would be a plastic grocery bag.) That would make things that much harder.
In 1852 Francis Wolle  patented in the United States a machine that he devised for making paper bags. Margaret Knight of Boston invented a machine about 1867 to make square-bottomed paper bags that would stand upright by themselves. Charles Stillwell finished the design in 1883 by making pleats in the side so the bags would fold and stack easily. The invention was called the  S.O.S., or Self-Opening Sack. With the advent of the supermarket in the early 1930s, demand for Stilwell’s paper bags took off. They’re still in use today, although some have predicted their demise with the use of the plastic bag (1977). I try to keep a few paper bags on hand to sort recycling.  They also make great guy wrapping paper. (The other guy wrapping paper is the comics page.)
Speaking of inventors, I knew someone in college who was given to, let’s say, fantastic stories.  We never knew whether to believe Bob or not, but he was entertaining.  Apparently he had an Uncle Jim who fancied himself an inventor. The thing was, he didn’t know what he was doing. He made a wind-driven direct current electrical generator for his house out of a fifty-five gallon drum, some shutters and some wire. The thing actually worked until it spun itself off its mountings in a high wind and rolled away. It’s good that they lived in a rural area so no actual damage was done.
One time Jim decided he wanted to make himself a submarine.  He got two aluminum boats and glued them together.  For propulsion he stuck an electric trolling motor through the hull so the propeller was sticking out. He fashioned a periscope from plastic tubing. Now, there wasn’t a lot of headroom in his submarine so he had to lie prone and look out the periscope.  He also had to cut a hatch so he could get in and out. He took a couple of old hot water heaters he had lying around and used them for ballast tanks. And he put in a snorkel for air.
Showing at least some sense, he tied a rope to the “submarine” and told Bob and another nephew that if he got into trouble in his farm pond he would move the periscope rapidly up and down. That was a signal to the two teens to haul him out. Bob said he thought about the weight of the water and had some doubts that they could, but also considered that  Jim couldn’t get into that much trouble in a pond with a maximum depth of about five feet.
With his uncle’s wife Dot fussing at him from the bank about his hair-brained schemes, Jim  wiggled into the craft.  Bob and his cousin pushed the submarine into the water. It floated out about thirty feet and then Jim opened the water inlets.  The craft slowly slid under the water, propelled by the trolling motor.  Bob said at that point he realized that Jim had no way to get to back to the surface since he had not thought to have a way to purge the water from the ballast tanks.  At that moment the periscope started moving up and down like a kid on a pogo stick.
They found out afterward that Jim hadn’t sealed the openings well and so not only did the ballast tanks flood: the interior of the submarine did as well.  Jim was able to turn on his back and breathe from a bubble of air left at the top.  Bob and his cousin hauled on the rope with all their strength but the sub was on the bottom of the pond and wouldn’t budge.  Dot, a good farm wife, ran for the tractor in a nearby field.  They tied the rope to the pull bar and dragged the submarine out.  Bob used a crowbar to split the hull and let Uncle Jim out, soaked and startled but otherwise all right.
This venture did put a damper on Jim’s experiments for a while, but he soon back attempting to do things he knew nothing about.  Dot told Bob some time later that she was just glad Jim hadn’t tried to build an airplane…yet.
So, all you inventors out there, I’m grateful for your efforts.  I’m just glad you’re not like Uncle Jim.

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