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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

Is UK national anthem ‘God Save the King’ actually French?

There is a popular theory in France that Britain’s national anthem has French origins and is linked to an embarrassing health issue of King Louis XIV. But is it true?

Is UK national anthem 'God Save the King' actually French?

According to the Royal Family’s website: “The British national anthem in its present form dates back to the 18th century. The words and tune are anonymous, and may date back to the 17th century.”

It was played publicly in London for the first time in 1745, when it was sung at the end of a play to celebrate the victory of Charles I at the Battle of Prestonpans.

A commonly held story in France that re-emerged during the Queen’s Jubilee in June 2022 and came to prominence again following her death in September, claims the anthem has French origins. 

The anthem was adapted, the theory runs, from a piece of music called Grand Dieu Sauve le Roi, written by Italian-born French Baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Lully in 1686 to celebrate Louis XIV’s recovery following treatment for an anal fistula – a small tunnel that develops between the end of the bowel and the skin near the anus as the result of an infection.

British composer George Frideric Handel copied the score and translated the lyrics during a visit to Versailles in 1714, according to the theory – which is based on the apocryphal Memoirs of the Marquise de Créquy, which were written between 1710 and 1803.

Vaguely amusing as it may be for some to believe that the official national anthem of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was based on a song written to honour a French monarch’s backside, experts and historians say the idea that God Save the King has French origins is nothing more than a legend.

The music for Grand Dieu Sauve le Roi “looks like the melody of God Save the King”, Thomas Leconte, a researcher at the Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, told France Info. “But what are the sources [to back up the story]? No known melody written by Lully comes close to God Save the King.”

The words to God Save the King may have a French influence, however, Leconte said. 

“At the beginning of the 17th century, Louis XIV asked that the ceremonies and religious services end with the prayer for the king. A psalm from the Bible that ends with the words, “O Lord, save the king! Answer us when we call upon you.” 

Leconte suggested that Charles II, cousin of Louis XIV, who had escaped to France following the defeat of his army to Oliver Cromwell’s forces at the Battle of Worcester in 1651, was inspired to restore the monarchy following Cromwell’s death in 1658. 

Charles returned to England to popular acclaim in 1660 and was crowned the following year.

Leconte said it was possible that the Latin psalm used as a prayer for the king in France may have been translated into English by the Anglican church – becoming a popular song by the middle of the 18th century.

There is another French link. Because Queen Elizabeth reigned for so long, the most recent recording of God Save the King – as opposed to God Save the Queen – is French, performed by opera singer Arnaud Kientz in 2017.

It – and a 1932 recording – were the only two versions commercially available immediately after the death of the Queen earlier this month, until Katherine Jenkins recorded a version with the appropriate wording for the reign of King Charles III for the BBC.

But, with the Louis XIV link debunked, God Save The King’s origins remain shrouded in mystery. And unlike La Marseillaise, there are no official lyrics, says the royal family website. 

“There is no authorised version of the national anthem as the words are a matter of tradition,” the Royal Family’s website explains. “Additional verses have been added down the years, but these are rarely used.” By tradition, only the first verse is sung at official events.

The melody, however, has not changed and has been used by numerous composers including Beethoven, Haydn and Brahms.

And the Sex Pistols.

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