Advertisement

history For Members

12 world-changing inventions that came from France

The Local France
The Local France - [email protected]
12 world-changing inventions that came from France
Photographers at a film premiere - wouldn't be happening without the French. Photo by Antonin THUILLIER / AFP

From technology to medicine, transport to fashion, French inventors are responsible for many of the things that shape the modern world (even if they didn't invent the croissant).

Advertisement

Every nation can lay claim to one of their own developing something that changed the world - and France is no exception. French inventors have shaped cinema, transport, fashion, science and medicine - and much more.

Photography

Frenchman Joseph Niépce took the first photograph in 1822. Sadly, it no longer exists - the oldest known surviving photograph, known as Point de vue du Gras, was taken by him in 1827.

His process used a camera obscura to capture images that were exposed onto pewter plates coated in Bitumen of Judea. Exposures routinely took hours due to the limited light-sensitivity of available materials.

Advertisement

In 1829, another inventor and artist, Louis Daguerre, partnered with Niépce to improve the photography process. After Niepce’s death, Daguerre continued his work, and the process evolved into what is now known as the daguerreotype, which was shown publicly for the first time in 1839.

Everything from holiday snaps - the French invented the photographic postcard, too, for the record - to Don McCullin's photojournalism followed Niépce's first photo. But while we can blame the French for the selfie, the uniquely annoying selfie stick is the work of Canadian inventor Wayne Fromm. 

Cinema

Still images quickly became publicly popular moving images, thanks again to the French. Photography equipment manufacturers Auguste and Louis Lumière screened the first presentation of a projected film on March 22nd, 1895, for around 200 members of the Société d'encouragement pour l'industrie nationale.

They were also responsible for the first screening of a film for paying visitors, on December 28th the same year. There's a direct line from that screening to Thor: Love and Thunder.

Bicycles

Yes, the bicycle in its earliest form - the protobicycle, if you will, which the rider propelled by, in effect, running while seated on a two-wheeled frame - was invented by German baron Karl von Drais in 1817.

But a bicycle without pedals is like a piano without keys. Enter French locksmith Pierre Michaux. In 1861, he came up with a pedal system that allowed the rider to turn the front wheel and generate motion.

Within half a century, cyclists were competing in the Tour de France and these days the Tour is the most-watched annual sports event in the world, with thousands of spectators lining the route every year.

The automobile

“But… Karl Benz,” petrolheads with a knowledge of motoring history cry.

German engineer Benz did patent a three-wheeled petrol-powered motor car - he called it the Motorwagen - in 1886, and is widely recognised as the father of the modern motor car.

Hear us out, however. More than 100 years earlier, in 1771, Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot built the world's first full-size and working self-propelled steam-powered mechanical land-vehicle, the "Fardier à vapeur" - the first automobile.

Advertisement

It was intended to move military artillery. It moved very slowly - little more than 3km/h - and had to stop every 20 minutes or so to build up steam. But it remains the first known self-powered automobile.

In fact, one of the first electric cars ever built was French. In 1881, Gustave Trouvé presented an electric car to the public for the first time at the Exposition internationale d'Électricité de Paris. Electricity remained a preferred method for automobile propulsion in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. How different history could have been...

The bra

Forget the stories about German inventors with an apparently humorously appropriate name - that’s entirely fictional.

The modern bra was invented in 1889 by Frenchwoman Herminie Cadolle, who cut a simple corset in half under the chest so it would be more comfortable. Her invention was first presented at the Universal Exposition in Paris the same year under the name “Bien-Être” (well-being).

Although brassiere sounds like a very French word, in France the undergarment is known as a soutien-gorge (literally 'support-throat').

The folding umbrella

Where would we be, these days, without our portable umbrellas in case of sudden downpours?

Thank Parisian Jean Marius, who developed the folding brolly in 1705. 

King Louis XIV was so impressed he granted Marius the king’s privilege - effectively a patent that granted Marius a monopoly on the production of umbrellas for five years.

In famously rainy Britain, the man who popularised the use of the umbrella was at first frequently mocked and pelted with rubbish before the population caught on to how useful these items can be.

Advertisement

Braille

In 1824, 15-year-old Louis Braille developed the tactile writing system that is used today by millions of visually impaired people across the planet.

When he died he was given the honour of a burial in the Panthéon in Paris, awarded to people who have made an outstanding contribution in France. However, in a macabre detail his hands - which he used for his reading system - were amputated and buried elsewhere

The stethoscope

Rolled-up paper was the inspiration for the now ubiquitous medical apparatus. In February 1816, Dr Rene Laennec did not want to put his ear to the chest of a female patient, so used a bundle of rolled-up paper to amplify the sound of her heart. Medical historians disagree on whether Laennec was an exceptionally modest doctor who did not want to get too close to a lady's chest, or whether the patient in question was overweight, making listening more difficult.

Either way, it worked and he developed his idea into the creation of a wooden cylinder, apparently inspired by his interest in playing and carving flutes.

Advertisement

Fellow Frenchman Pierre Piorry improved the device in 1830 and, 10 years later, US doctors developed what medics today would recognise as a stethoscope, with earpieces for the doctor. 

The calculator

The Antikythera mechanism is one thing. An abacus is a powerful calculating device - but the first workable mechanical calculator was invented by Blaise Pascal in 1642 to help his tax collector father do his sums. 

It could add and subtract and, therefore, by repeated pressing of the right buttons, also do multiplication and division.

So while paying French taxes is no-one's favourite task, at least be grateful that you don't have to do your declaration using an abacus. 

The wadding bandage

Airborne germs were well-known by the time of the 1870 siege of Paris - but their often deadly effect on open wounds was routinely ignored, until surgeon Alphonse Guérin started using protective absorbent dressings, doused in alcohol, and wrapped in cloth, to protect post-operative wounds during the siege. It worked, too. More of his patients survived.

Immunology

Brit Edward Jenner is generally credited as the father of vaccination, due to his work in the 1790s which involved injecting patients with cowpox in order to protect them from the related but much more serious illness smallpox.

But it was Frenchman Louis Pasteur who took this work to the next level, working out that the concept of vaccination could be applied to any microbial disease, developing the concept of 'weakening' microbes in order to create vaccines (using this technique to develop the vaccine for anthrax and rabies) and in effect creating immunology as a medical science. 

France's medical research institute, Institut Pasteur, is named in his honour and is still at the forefront of international science. 

Bikini

Some would say it has had less of a global impact than vaccines, but the bikini was still pretty explosive when it was launched in Paris in 1946 by French designer Jacques Heim.

Two-piece swimsuits had existed since the 1930s (and in antiquity women wore two-piece outfits for sports) but the crucial difference in Heim's design was the belly button - if you can see the wearer's naval, then it's a bikini.

He originally called it the atome (atom) because its unique feature is that it is very small, but it was revealed to the press five days after the US began nuclear tests on the Pacific island of Bikini Atoll, and the media nickname stuck.

Many countries banned it on beaches initially, appalled at its tiny size, and it only really caught on in the 1960s. 

If you want a more thorough list of inventions, check out some of the inventions listed in this (long) thread

 

. . . but not the croissant

An unofficial symbol of France, the curved breakfast pastry is actually Austrian originally, although the French can make a claim for perfecting it.

More

Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

M.J. Wilkie 2023/07/03 18:00
Re "soutien-gorge". In earlier times, "gorge" referred to a woman's chest, rather than her throat.
pete.hambly 2022/09/10 22:09
What about the guillotine...?

See Also