The Oopsatoreum: Inventions of Henry A. Mintox
By Shaun Tan
Powerhouse Publishing, $16.95
THE act of invention has as much to do with timing as it does ingenuity. In a shed in his backyard, fictitious inventor Henry A. Mintox (1880-1967) tinkered into ''reality'' a large number of wacky contraptions that, in a practical sense, failed on every level. Sadly, he was a visionary with terrible timing, but had his prescient Laptop Messenger (1920), a lumbering machine similar to a typewriter (look for the smiley face on the bottom row of keys) that featured mechanically sent messages (MSM) and ''chatter account'', arrived in the right century, the name Mintox would be known the world over.
Selected from thousands of obscure objects housed in Sydney's Powerhouse Museum, the inventions featured in The Oopsatoreum really do exist (information about the real inventors can be found at the back of the book), but Mintox and the whimsical stories and drawings are all the work of author and artist Shaun Tan.
Among Henry A. Mintox's contraptions was the Laptop Messenger (1920).
The collaboration with the museum allowed Tan access to hundreds of objects, but only those that sparked his imagination made it into the book. There's a pair of Mouse Slippers (1938), shoes designed specifically for the inventor's wife, Maude, who was terrified of mice. Mintox believed that ''fear could be neutralised by a simple association with an object of desire''.
But not even Maude's love of shoes could cure her loathing of rodents. The result was disastrous and Mrs Mintox had to be rescued from a nearby lake: ''She had fallen into it after running two miles from their home, backwards all the way, desperately trying to escape her own feet.''
Another invention featured is the Handshake Gauge (1951), a device that ''took the guesswork out of character judgment''. A prospective employee would shake a rubber hand and a dial would indicate whether the person was ''trustworthy'', ''steadfast'' or a ''corporate psychopath''.
There is also the All-purpose Clippers (1933), based on the idea of combining different businesses that ''economically share the same resources''. While the abattoir-restaurant combo never took off, Mintox created a device that could cut hair and shear sheep but, sadly, shears with an ''emphasis on speed, efficiency and preset styling'' failed to attract punters after a customer was ''accidentally kicked down a chute into a holding pen''.
The blend of fiction and reality suits Tan's aesthetic; many of his books, especially his best-selling The Arrival, and his Academy Award-winning short film, The Lost Thing, have roots in reality but swarm with otherworldly creatures and contraptions that are both unfamiliar and completely recognisable.
In The Oopsatoreum, Tan has written a convincing fictional biography that is charming and refreshingly original but it is also pointed. ''What does it mean to be truly original?'' Tan asks. ''Should creativity be measured only by success?''
By the end of the book, you can only wish someone such as Mintox really had existed, although in a way the spirit of Henry Archibald Mintox represents everyone with an audacious fancy who has spent their lives attempting to manifest their dreams.
■ Frances Atkinson blogs at slightlyfoxed1968.wordpress.com
■ The Oopsatoreum: Inventions of Henry A. Mintox exhibition will open at Sydney's Powerhouse Museum later in 2013.