THE ANTI-RAPE invention patented by Charles Barlow in 1977 ('An anti-rape device to be inserted into the vaginal cavity'), featured last week on this page, was obviously not only designed to catch a rapist. Clearly, its 'three spears with harpoon-like barbs' were also intended to punish him in the appropriate place at the same time, almost by confiscation of the offending equipment.

Unfortunately all that this would have achieved (in the unlikely event of the device going into production) would have been to slam the stable door on the thief while letting the horse escape for ever. In other words, it would have done nothing to prevent the rape. As the gynaecologist Shirley Bond said, 'You might as well opt for the medieval chastity belt - stop the penis getting there in the first place.'

That could well have been one of the ideas an earlier American inventor, Michael McCormick, had in mind when he applied for Patent No 587,994 from the same US Patent Office. The patent was for a Male Chastity Belt.

If protecting women from rape was part of McCormick's intention, he failed to say so; the primary purpose of the Male Chastity Belt was to protect the man - in this case, from his own instincts. The patent specification was filed in 1896 in San Francisco, a town where females were in short supply: the Wild West was considered no place for women, at any rate respectable ones. So McCormick came up with an invention that would, to quote his specification, 'prevent involuntary nocturnal seminal emissions, control waking thoughts and prevent self-abuse'.

The 'surgical appliance' consists of a 'plate, of any suitable material' to be secured to the body with a belt, 'and having an aperture through which the proper member is to be passed'. On to the plate are mounted a series of 'pricking points'. 'When, from any cause, expansion in the organ begins, it will come in contact with the pricking-points,' McCormick explained, resulting in the 'necessary pain and warning sensation.' This would be sufficient, he conjectured, either to wake the wearer when asleep, or, if conscious, to divert his thoughts from 'lascivious channels'.

'Voluntary self-abuse will be checked,' he wrote, as the wearer would 'not take the trouble to relieve himself of the appliance, and cannot continue his practice without removing it.'

An 'irresponsible wearer' might have it permanently attached, he added as an afterthought.