6 Life Hacks Of The Past (That Now Sound Deranged)
Today, life hacks usually come down to something like, "Did you scratch your cornea? You can fix that by rubbing in some toothpaste and glitter!" They never work, and most in fact end up with your house engulfed in a cleansing flame. But in the past, people actually knew a thing or two about bending the rules of the universe. These did work, even if they weren't always what you'd call "legal" or "a good idea" ...
Subway Passengers Sucked Tokens Out Of Turnstiles (Using Their Mouths)
New York subways are now switching to a system where you tap your phone or a card to get through the turnstile, which replaces the 30-year-old system of swiping a paper Metrocard through a slot. Before tapping or swiping, for 50 years, turnstiles worked thanks to metal subway tokens. These tokens made better tourist souvenirs than cards and could occasionally lead you into Spider-Man's secret lair. Best of all, if you felt especially attached to your token, you might retrieve it afterward by simply placing your mouth against the slot and sucking as hard as you could.
Let us stop for a moment to consider how desperate someone had to be to resort to pressing their lips against New York subway turnstile slots. At this exact moment, of course, you might be reluctant to enter a crowded subway station at all and to make contact with the air without personal protective equipment between your mouth and the world. But even in better times, every surface around a turnstile is a filth garden brewing some new kind of dong-eating syphilis.
Clearly, those rascals who tried sucking subway slots (perhaps making an impressive $50 a day) had already solicited people throughout the station offering, to no avail, to suck various other things out of various other orifices. Each criminal caught on their knees before a turnstile should have received a medal for dedication. Instead, the transit authority punished them through a most cruel form of deterrence, spraying mace on the token slots -- or sprinkling chili powder.
With chili measures in place, transit cops could round up miscreants with puffy red lips and arrest them. But some say that these poisons only made the subway suckers stronger. And now they ride forever 'neath the streets of Brooklyn. They live deep in the tunnels, and you still see their puckered, soul-drinking lips glowing in the dark.
Necco Wafers Substituted As Coins In Toll Booths
Truly, metal discs were never a terribly high-tech method of gatekeeping. And the faster people needed to get through, the less secure the gate could be. When you have, say, a vending machine accepting coins, there's time enough for dozens of parts to analyze your coin to test its size, shape, magnetic properties, conductivity, and more. In a toll booth, where cars have to rush through as fast as possible, they might implement something like that, but in the past, it was a lot easier to go by the coin's rough weight and hope for the best.
Before the transition began from coin-operated tolls to electronic ones, people threw all kinds of stuff into the basket and often got away with it. Some people would drop in Chuck E. Cheese tokens instead of quarters -- which was really silly of them, since each Chuck E. Cheese token was worth exactly a quarter anyway. Some people threw in metal washers, which cost practically nothing. Some threw in Necco wafers, which was in fact the only recorded actual use for Necco wafers.
People would also toss in stuff that probably didn't fool the basket into thinking it had got a coin but was still fun to throw. Stuff like chicken bones, used condoms, and dead shrimp (dead shrimp were for some reason often to be found in cars in Florida, where they don't wear condoms). Around the turn of the century, officials figured these shenanigans were costing them $8 million a year, so they cracked down by manning every toll booth with crouching Mafia goons armed with Tommy guns, as seen in the documentary The Godfather.
Early Tech Outlaws Used Whistles To Hack Phone Systems
Today, computers talk using digital signals, which send information such as photos of traffic lights, photos of bicycles, photos of hills, and photos of crosswalks. Go back 50 years, and we also had communications lines spanning the globe, but they sent all their info using sound. They'd use the boop from your dialpad to let the phone system know you'd just hit "9," and they'd use other boops to route and bill your call. Early hackers, called "phreakers," soon realized that they could game the system if they could just figure out which MF (multifrequency) tone to send.
One great early prodigy in this field was a California DJ named John Draper. John discovered that the toy whistle from a box of Cap'n Crunch cereal shrieked out just the right frequency to fool AT&T into letting him call long-distance for free. Soon, he became famous in the new hacking community, under the name "Captain Crunch" or simply "Crunchman." In recent years, Draper has made the news for getting phreaky with unwilling reporters (he asks for piggyback rides, gets on top, then grinds into the other man's back with something hard that is not a Cap'n Crunch whistle), but for decades, he was a hero.
In the fall of '71, a college-aged Steve Wozniak read about this John Draper guy, and he and Steve Jobs invited him to Berkeley to come see them. They were put off by his body odor and missing teeth, which were notable even by the standards of 1970s IT majors, but Draper taught them his trade.
Once they started building their own "blue boxes" whose tones could fool America's phone lines, it was naturally Jobs' idea to turn their hacking experiment into a business scheme. They went door-to-door in the dorms, falsely claiming to be looking for some famed phreaker, and once the topic of free phone calls was on the table, they'd convince the sleepy resident to buy their whistling boxes for $170 apiece. The Steves' love of circuitry and money grew ever stronger. Those two multifrequers of course were later responsible for Apple, and with it, all of our other problems too.
Old Phones Were Great For Electrocuting Fish
If you weren't quite tech savvy enough to program your phone to take over the world, you could still smash the device open and gleefully poke through the insides. For many decades -- starting with the earliest phones, and continuing in some form even into the last few decades of the 20th century -- telephones contained magnetos, reverse electric motors that you crank to send out an electric current:
When our grandfathers realized they all had easy access to portable electric generators, they followed their instincts of course and unleashed death. They'd use their magneto to electrocute an entire fishing hole, instantly killing all the fish, whose corpses would soon rise to the top for easy collection. Maybe this particular strategy doesn't sound very "sportsmanlike" to you, but if you're looking to fight on even terms, go punch a bear right in the mouth. These fishermen weren't fishing for sport. They were fishing for fish, and electrofishing proved a hell of an efficient way to get some.
The video below shows what modern electrofishing looks like. Electrofishers of old, though, would manage do the same thing without any professional equipment.
In time, some places banned "phone catfishing" (which refers to something very different nowadays), but even those of us who prefer a more traditional fishing style can exploit electricity. Enjoy sticking a worm on a hook and just waiting for the fish to come get it? Well, why not summon worms from the ground using the power of electricity? It's a very effective means of securing bait, though it sounds even more like a comic book villain plot than, well, a magneto inflicting death on a whole lake two paragraphs ago.
You can jury-rig an electric worm probe yourself, but in the '70s and '80s, you could buy them readymade. Right up until the government recalled them when they realized the things had electrocuted dozens of people to death. Whoops.
When Rare Metals Made Up Coinage, You Could Scrape Some Right Off
Let's circle back to the topic of how primitive coins are. Coins used to be made of precious metals, before the people who minted them decided coins could be whatever we want them to be worth, no gold required. If you were in Roman days and got your hands on a silver denarius coin, that might be about one day's wages, say enough for one lavish night at the brothel. But if you could physically scrape a little silver off the coin before spending it, you'd get your night of transactional sex all right, and you'd also have some silver shavings left in your pocket. Do that enough times, and you could afford a veritable Brothelmania XVII, or maybe even food.
This trick, called clipping, continued long after the Romans. Pirates clipped coins off each other, leading to angry pirate battles when someone discovered the fraud. Clippers were hanged as counterfeiters. In 1278, England was so frustrated with clipping shrinking His Majesty's coinage that police arrested every Jew in the country because the 13th century. It was the Romans, though, who first came up with the idea of carving ridges into coins, so you'd be able to tell someone had clipped them.
Once we started making coins out of steel and copper, clipping stopped. Partly because tougher metals were harder to clip, but mostly because it was no longer worth it. Well, you could technically get a whole lot of pennies and scrape a sliver of copper off each of them, but it'd be a lot easier to just break into an abandoned home and steal the pipes like a normal person.
Don't Want To Pay The Laundromat? Just Use Old Faithful!
Much has been written about how early Americans lived a state of perpetual filth. And all of this went double for explorers of the frontier, who found themselves weeks away from what primitive hygiene facilities did exist at the time.
But if you made it as far as the land that would one day be known as Yellowstone, you were in luck. You could strip completely naked and throw your clothes into that bubbling pool from which springs the geyser Old Faithful. The clothes would come out clean, and warm too. Old Faithful is such a national icon nowadays that it might sound a little disrespectful, smelly travelers dumping their crusted bloomers in it. Why, it's like hosting an orgy right in the Lincoln Memorial. To which we say: That sounds like a great idea. Let's do that.
Top image: Pikist