Hard time has brought out the inner genius in a lot of prisoners, and when already clever people get locked up that just gives them more time to work on their ideas. From the unbelievably advanced makeshift appliances and weapons prisoners use to make their lives easier to great works of literature, philosophy, and engineering that were first devised in the hoosegow, we look at ten unlikely things that owe their existence to a stretch in the cooler.
Most of us have a fair amount of trouble just trying to pry the dead batteries out of our remote controls, but a few electrically-skilled and mechanically-minded inmates have crafted some remarkable things out of the scraps of metal, plastic, and wire available to them.
Guards have discovered heaters for stills, makeshift hot plates for cold food, miniature lathes to carve tools and weapons, and in one case even a sophisticated hidden radio “bug” one particularly clever inmate managed to sneak into the guards’ quarters to warn him of upcoming searches.
Of course, these are only the things the guards were able to find during cell shakedowns—one suspects the guy with the radio had plenty of time to hide his microwave, HDTV, and personal helicopter before the screws came around.
While the majority of improvised prison weapons are variations on the theme of knives (with the occasional razor-blade flail thrown in for variety) every so often someone comes up with what’s known as a “zip gun”—an improvised DIY pistol, not to be confused with the non-firing replica guns crafted by prisoners hoping to dupe guards who don’t have time to look too closely.
Zip guns typically use ground-up match heads as firing powder and either a spring-driven “flint” or an ignition system based on a wire and battery.
These crude guns can be found in single, double, or even quadruple-barreled varieties, and while they’re nowhere near as powerful or accurate as a real gun, at point blank range they’re a particularly nasty surprise.
Squash? Squash! Well, the beginnings of squash, anyway—debtors locked up in London’s King’s Bench and Fleet prisons passed the time by batting a hard ball against the interior prison walls with a set of rackets, which lead to the game being imaginatively dubbed “rackets” after it spread outside.
It became particularly popular at the famous Harrow public school (which, in England, means private school—long story, not worth it) where the rules of the game were formalized. The Harrovians also invented a slightly less lethal version of the game where instead of a hard wooden ball ricocheting around the court, a soft(ish) rubber ball was used to cut down on the brain damage.
The new dynamics of the ball required new rackets, new tactics, and eventually new rules after the game speciated enough to be known first as “squash rackets” and then “squash.”
While the first known toothbrushes were developed by the ancient Chinese, along with gunpowder, paper, printing, clocks, medicine, repeating firearms, jetpacks, lasers, spaghetti, fax machines, and everything else on the planet, Europe never really gave a damn until one of their own came up with the idea on their own.
William Addis, an Englishman jailed for inciting riots, decided one day that instead of rubbing a washcloth covered in salt or soot on his teeth (as was bizarrely the preferred method of the time) he would save a bone from his dinner, drill a number of tiny holes in it, and fill said holes with beard bristles meticulously collected from his unusually accommodating guards.
After his sentence was up, Addis went on to found the first mass-produced toothbrush company in the Western world, still typically made of carved bone and bristles. The invention process eventually came full circle—back when jails and prisons used regular plastic toothbrushes, a few hours of whittling and rubbing resulted in a sharp plastic point ideal for shankery.
In prison, boredom is your worst enemy, unless you’re in prison with people who want to rape or kill you, in which case those guys are your worst enemies. If nobody wants to rape or kill you AND you have access to pencil and paper, writing is the best way to keep yourself from going stir-crazy.
As a result, many great books have been written in prison, from John Bunyan’s Protestant fable “Pilgrim’s Progress” to Malcolm X’s groundbreaking autobiography.
Some prison authors were more prolific than others—the Marquis de Sade wrote 11 novels, 16 novellas, and 20 plays during his 11-year stint in the Bastille, mostly about all the things he would rather be doing instead of being in prison—but one of the most impressive prison-lit achievements arguably belongs to Iranian author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, who was denied pen and paper but composed his 500-page novel Missing Soluch entirely in his head, transcribing it just a few months after his release.
If you’re willing to step your jailhouse publishing game up to the next level, consider not just writing about how much prison sucks but also revolutionizing human thought for generations.
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, considered to be one of the 20th century’s most significant philosophical works, was composed by the young German officer during his stay in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp just after WWI. Leading theologian and anti-Nazi pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a great deal of writing and correspondence smuggled out of Tegel Prison by sympathetic guards that was later compiled into several influential books after his execution.
Hitler himself wrote his Fascist ideology down as Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”) while in lockup after his abortive Beer Hall Putsch. Bottom line: if you put a German in prison, pay real close attention to what they’re writing down, because it could either be an impassioned defense of pacifism and humanity or it could start the next World War.
MUCH BETTER FIREARMS
David Marshall Williams made his first functional gun at the age of ten out of fishing poles and shellac, but when he went to prison for killing a deputy in 1921 the self-taught engineering genius didn’t waste any time messing around with matchsticks and zip guns.
The warden of Caledonia State Prison Farm soon noticed his mechanical prowess and had him put to work in the prison’s machine shop, where he spent much of his time crafting replacement parts for the guards’ rifles and shotguns.
While most prison wardens would think twice about allowing a clever and resourceful machinist access to fully functional firearms, it paid off for both the warden (who got expert-quality work for free) and Williams himself (who was released eight years into his thirty-year sentence despite having built two working rifles in the machine shop out of idle curiosity). Williams soon found employment at Winchester Repeating Arms, where he put some of his prison ideas into practice with the invention the short-stroke piston system that he employed in his magnum opus, the M1 Carbine.
The M1 was a light, compact semi-auto rifle for officers and vehicle crews that fired a .30-caliber round midway between a full-sized rifle bullet and a pistol bullet in terms of power and accuracy, and in the carbine’s later fully-automatic configurations it arguably became America’s first assault rifle.
Overnight, David Williams became known as “Carbine” Williams, and his story was so popular that MGM eventually turned it into a Jimmy Stewart film of the same name.
THE ERIE CANAL
In 1807, the Genesee Messenger began publishing a series of letters from a man writing under the name “Hercules” on the feasibility and value of constructing a canal of unprecedented length across New York State.
While the project was audacious in its scope, the letters were thoughtfully written and meticulously researched, and Hercules and his canal scheme gained many followers. Had they known that “Hercules” was in fact impoverished and imprisoned merchant Jesse Hawley, serving a twenty-month sentence in debtor’s prison at Canadaigua, they might have reconsidered their support.
Hawley had attempted to farm the fertile plains of Western New York, but the terrible road conditions at the time damaged his carts and his profits so badly that his creditors tossed him in jail. There, he made good use of his time and the library to amass a wealth of information on the construction and economic benefits of canals.
Ten years after his release, Governor DeWitt Clinton began the construction of the Erie Canal, which came to enrich the state, the country, and Jesse Hawley’s revitalized farming operation.
THE COLDITZ COCK
It’s the duty of a captured officer to attempt to escape, forcing the enemy to devote troops and manpower to their secure areas to prevent escapes or hunt down fugitives. Of course, breaking out of a prison camp is easier said than done, particularly if the camp in question is Oflag IV-C Colditz, a castle atop an isolated cliff some four hundred miles from any border and run by an oversized staff of 70 elite German prison guards.
Nevertheless, a team of exceptionally clever RAF officers hit upon a novel idea for escape after noticing that the roof of the castle’s chapel was one of the few parts of the structure completely hidden from the guards’ view: build a glider out of wooden scraps, a runway out of tables balanced on the roofline, and a catapult powered by a falling bathtub that would launch the glider over the walls to hopefully land safely a mile or so away.
With the help of a textbook on wing design and simple carpentry tools fashioned from kitchen utensils, the elegant glider (nicknamed the “Colditz Cock”) (yeah, yeah, stop giggling) came together behind a false wall in the castle’s attic. Launch was scheduled for the spring of 1945, but American troops liberated the castle by mid-April. Years later, a replica of the Cock (I said stop giggling, dammit) built with similar tools and materials was commissioned by British TV network Channel 4, successfully taking to the air before the eyes of the reunited RAF veterans in 2000.
Next: The Worst Inventions of All Time
ROUGHLY HALF OF THE SOVIET AIR FORCE IN WWII
The Colditz C… uh, glider may have been the only airplane built in prison, but it was far from the only one designed there. The last (and most poorly-timed) of Stalin’s political purges occurred shortly before WWII and in addition to killing off most of the Soviet Union’s most talented officers, it put over 400 of the country’s best and brightest aviation engineers in scientists in lockups and work camps.
When the Blitz hit the fan and it became suddenly obvious that Stalin’s latest crusade against anybody smarter than him had deprived the USSR of the people it needed to overhaul its air force and blunt the Luftwaffe’s technical edge, NKVD chief Lavrenti Beria established the “Experimental Design Bureau” or OKB. This was a separate network of prisons equipped with drafting tables, calculators, and research tools, then moved all the “criminal” designers to their new cells and ordered them to serve out their sentences constructively.
Practically anyone who was anyone in the Soviet aircraft industry did time in the OKB: Andrei Tupolev (who designed the highly effective Tu-2 medium bomber during his stay), Vladimir Myasishchev (later the creator of Russia’s first long-range jet bomber), Sergei Korolev (father of the Russian space industry)… the few designers who didn’t end up doing time in the OKB must’ve wondered what they were doing wrong.
The OKB or “sharashka” system continued after the war, expanding its purview beyond aeronautics to genetics and other sciences and playing host to luminaries such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Leon Theremin.
The sharashkas were finally shut down after Stalin’s death in 1953, at which point Khrushchev terminated the program along with its chief administrator, Beria. Having Beria shot may seem a little harsh, but what else was Khrushchev going to do with him? It’s not like the guy was an aircraft designer or anything.