In so many areas of life, French inventions have changed the way we live, work and play. Here are some of the most influential inventions from France.
Hot Air Balloon
The first successful hot-air balloon was made by Joseph and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier, two French bothers from Vidalon-les-Annonay, near Lyons. Their first balloon was launched in December 1782, and soared to 300 m. The Montgolfiére balloon was made of paper and used hot air by burning wool and moist straw.
After some time, it was time to trial the balloon with “passengers”. The flight in September 1783 reached 500m and lasted eight minutes. Luckily for the passengers (a rooster, a sheep, and a duck), they survived the landing. The event was observed by King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette of France.
The Braille System
Braille, a reading and writing system for the blind, was invented by Louis Braille. At three years old, he accidentally stabbed himself with one of his father’s saddle-making tools. The resulting infection left him blind.
He went to a school for blind youth in Paris where he learned to play the cello and the organ. However, he was continually frustrated by the complicated system of raised letters used to teach students how to read.
When Louis was twelve, an ex-French army officer came to the school to demonstrate a code of twelve raised dots and dashes. It was designed to be used at night when lamps could not be lit, to communicate combat orders. The code was difficult to learn but Louis saw its potential. By the time he was fifteen, Louis had developed a much simpler system using only six dots, easily scanned by a single fingertip.
Louis became a teacher at the school but his Braille system was not adopted there during his lifetime. Sixteen years after his death, the Royal National Institute of the Blind was established. Books using Braille’s ingenious code began to be published. It is now the global tool of written communication for the blind. Louis Braille is buried in the Pantheon in Paris, as a French national hero.
Keeping Napoleon Bonaparte’s troupes well-fed was quite challenging. They were always on the move to far flung places. Without adequate means of securing fresh provisions, mass starvation was a very real danger.
In 1800 Napoleon offered a prize of 12,000 francs to the man who could come up with a way of preserving food to supply daily rations for an extended period of time. Nine years later, the award was given to a confectioner named Nicolas Francois Appert.
His method involved sealing a thick glass bottle full of food, wrapping it in canvas for protection, and then dunking it in boiling water to cook. It is said that he once canned a whole sheep. The next innovation came from another Frenchman, Pierre Durand, who made the switch from glass jars, to the tin can.
French chemist and inventor, Louis Pasteur studied the process of fermentation, and wondered if this was produced by microscopic organisms (other than yeast), which Pasteur called germs. He hypothesized that these germs might be responsible for some diseases. Pasteur disproved the notion of “spontaneous generation” which stated that organisms could spring from nothing; Pasteur showed that organisms came from other, pre-existing organisms.
Applying his theories to foods and drinks, Pasteur invented a heating process (now called pasteurization) which sterilizes food, killing micro-organisms that contaminate it.
Jacques-Yves Cousteau was a French undersea explorer, environmentalist, innovator and a member of the Academie Francaise. In 1943, Cousteau and the French engineer Emile Gagnan invented the aqualung. This breathing apparatus supplied oxygen to divers and allowed them to stay underwater for several hours.
Among the innovations in their device was a mechanism that provided inhalation and exhaust valves at the same level. This safe, easy-to-use, and reliable device was the first modern scuba system. It has enabled the study and exploration of all things relating to the ocean, from sea life to historic shipwrecks.
It all happened in Spain in the early 18th century. Louis XIV dispatched his favourite general, the Duc de Richelieu, to root out some troublesome Englishmen who were holed up in the fort overlooking the harbour of Mahon. During the long siege, the Duke’s cook found himself struggling to keep his master – accustomed to the fabulous banquets of Versailles – entertained at table.
He wanted an interesting sauce to liven things up, but all he could find was eggs and olive oil. So, he started beating and beating, and with the help of some vinegar produced what was christened as “la sauce mahonnaise”. The h was soon changed to a y to create mayonnaise.
In 1790, the French National Assembly directed the Academy of Sciences of Paris to standardize units of measurement. A committee of renown mathematicians from the Academy used a decimal system. They defined the meter to be one 10-millionths of the distance from the equator to the Earth’s Pole. That meant the Earth’s circumference would be equal to 40 million meters.
They named this new system “metric” from the Greek word metron, which means measure. The metric system was passed by law in France on August 1, 1793. In 1960, the definition of the meter changed to 1,650,763.73 wavelengths of the orange-red radiation of krypton 86. In 1983, the meter was redefined as 1/299,792,458 of the distance that light travels in one second in a vacuum.
Father Marcel Audiffren was a priest, who served as the abbot of a monastery in France. He was also a physicist, interested in developing a device to keep liquids cool, including wine drunk at the monastery. In 1894 he was granted a patent for a hand or machine-cranked unit, which served this purpose. His patents were purchased by an American company and refrigeration machines meant for residential use were first manufactured by General Electric. They went on sale to the public in 1911.
These first refrigerators were very expensive, costing nearly a thousand dollars, which was about twice the cost of a car in those days. Today, almost every household has at least one of these life changing inventions.
Barthelemy Thimonnier was a tailor by trade. He worked tirelessly his whole life at perfecting his “Couseuse”, the sewing machine. In 1830 he opened up a sewing factory on the Rue de Sevres in Paris. Sadly, the next year it was destroyed by about 200 irate tailors, who trashed 80 machines, claiming this invention threatened to put them all out of business. Although other inventors had been working on the idea as well, it was Thimonnier’s chain-stitching machine that provided the first practical application of the invention.
Thimonnier never saw the proliferation of his machine, even though it won prizes and was highly esteemed. It was the American, Isaac Merrit Singer who turned the sewing machine into big business. His ingenious marketing strategies appealed to the modern woman. He offered guaranteed service of machines and installment payment plans. Thimonnier died a poor man when he was 64 years old.