Artificial leeches

On 3 April 1850, the New York Herald hailed a new and extraordinary invention by a Frenchman named Dr. Alexandre: artificial leeches. “They never fail, they give no pain, they cause no trouble, they inoculate with no disease, they do not crawl and scare one, and wriggle and refuse to bite,” the reporter wrote. No longer would American doctors have to import the “horrid reptiles” from Sweden.

What did artificial leeches look like? The Herald doesn’t say. My first guess was that they must have been metal and demonic, with gears and pincers, like the cockroach-in-a-watchfob that turns people into vampires in Cronos. Then I thought of rubber suction cups, which would be less glamorous but more plausible. It turns out, however, upon a consultation with Google, that an artificial leech looks like the cylinder of a pin-and-tumbler lock, attached to a glass syringe with a cork plunger.

A few days later, the Herald returned to the jewelry and fancy warehouse that was selling the artificial leeches, only to discover that Dr. Alexandre was debuting a second invention, “a sort of sub-marine boat, in which a company of persons can go down to the bottom of a river, have communication with the ground, perform any kind of work by digging or otherwise, and return to the surface when they please” (8 April 1850). This submarine would be very useful to the gold prospectors in California, the reporter supposed, “but for home purposes . . . , we admire the artificial leeches more.”