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HISTORY

12 world-changing inventions that came from France

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).

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 delcaration 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. 

. . . 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.

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CULTURE

The lives and loves of French writer Colette

France next week celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of the novelist whose uproarious life featured in the 2018 Hollywood biopic Colette, starring Keira Knightley.

The lives and loves of French writer Colette

A century before #MeToo, French author Colette dumped a sleazy husband who took the credit for her work to throw herself into a life of free love that she fictionalised in groundbreaking novels about the lives of women.

France next week celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of the novelist whose uproarious life featured in the 2018 Hollywood biopic Colette, starring Keira Knightley.

Plucked from the Burgundy countryside by her first husband – a literary agent 14 years her senior – he put her to work writing about her schoolgirl fantasies in the wildly popular “Claudine” books that he published under his own name.

Colette went on to cause scandal after scandal writing about hitherto taboo subjects like domestic violence, anorexia and fake orgasms, before becoming a music hall dancer, mime artist and weightlifter.

She was also among the first women to wear trousers and have a facelift in a dizzying life that included three marriages and a multitude of affairs with both men and women.

As the American novelist John Updike said: “In the prize ring of life few of us would have lasted 10 rounds with Colette.”

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born in a Burgundy village in 1873 and was swept off to Paris at 20 when she married the womanising music critic Henry Gauthier-Villars, aka “Willy”.

He introduced her to high society salons frequented by novelist Marcel Proust and composer Claude Debussy, where she was gently mocked for her Burgundy accent and long blonde plaits.

Willy encouraged her to write about her life at school, telling her not to spare “the juicy details”.

Colette’s mother had instilled in her a love of nature that made her fiercely attuned to the senses, and she brought that to the page.

Riot
First, in 1900, came the homoerotic, coming-of-age tale Claudine at School, followed by Claudine and Annie, Claudine in Paris, and Claudine Married. All were instant bestsellers.

After spicing them up, Willy put the books out under his own name.

Colette eventually moved in with her lover, cross-dressing noblewoman Mathilde de Morny, nicknamed “Missy”, and filed for divorce after learning Willy had sold the rights to her books.

In between affairs with other women, Colette learned to dance and took to the stage in 1906, causing scandal wherever she appeared, once flashing her breasts and causing a riot when she kissed her lover Missy at the Moulin Rouge in Paris.

Her semi-autobiographical novel The Vagabond, about a divorced music hall dancer was hailed by critics in 1910. Cheri, about an affair with a much younger man, followed in 1920. But her best known work abroad, Gigi, the tale of a young girl being groomed to become a courtesan, did not come until 1944, and later became a Hollywood musical.

Affair

Colette’s second marriage was to a newspaper editor and in 1913 she gave birth to her only daughter, also named Colette, whom she promptly entrusted to a nanny.

Nearing her 50s, she seduced her 17-year-old stepson, with whom she had a five-year affair that ended her marriage.

Her third marriage, to Maurice Goudeket, a businessman and journalist, was happier but their bliss was shattered by World War II when he was among thousands of Jews rounded up in Paris for deportation to the Nazi death camps.

Colette used her connections to secure his release, but in one of the many contradictions of a life lived on her wits, she also wrote for collaborationist magazines.

Despite yearning for the freedom enjoyed by men, she was also scathing about feminists, declaring once: “You know what the suffragettes deserve? The whip and the harem.”

Bedridden in later years by arthritis, she was the first French woman to be given a state funeral when she died aged 81 in 1954.

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