France has a rich scientific tradition, with greats like Henri Becquerel and the Curie family and their work with radioactivity. And you probably know about some of France’s great inventors, like Louis Pasteur (pasteurization) and Louis Braille (braille, the written language for the blind.) But did you know that the French also invented the pencil sharpener and the hair dryer? Let’s look at some famous French inventions.
The Hair Dryer
French hair stylist Alexandre-Ferdinand Godefroy, wanting to keep his customers looking good, invented the first hair dryer in 1890. It was a dome that went over the head, connected to “any suitable sort of heater” such as a chimney pipe or a gas stove. It helpfully included an escape valve for steam so people’s heads wouldn’t cook. Oh, the things we do for style!
The Pencil Sharpener
Up until 1848, pencils were sharpened using sandpaper or a knife. That’s when French mathematician Bernard Lassimonne patented the first pencil sharpener. His device was clunky and was soon improved by fellow Frenchman Thierry des Estivaux, whose design we still use today. Pencils must be a French specialty because the modern pencil was developed in 1795 by yet another Frenchman, Nicolas Jacques Conte.
For centuries, pages were held together by gluing, sewing, or wax stamps. But as the use of paper documents increased, another solution was needed. French King Louis XV therefore commanded (he was king, after all) that a new device be created and the stapler was born. Each staple was made of gold and inscribed with the royal court’s insignia. It made for an elegant but not very practical solution.
How would you like it if a doctor pressed his head against your naked chest? That’s how doctors listened to your heart before Frenchman René Laënnec invented the stethoscope. A talented musician, he liked to carve his own wooden flutes. He used that skill to create a tube with a funnel at one end, to listen to a patient’s heart and lungs. The stethoscope later evolved into its modern form, using Laënnec’s basic principles.
The first photograph was made in 1822 by French inventor Nicéphore Niépce, in a process that required many hours of exposure time. He then went into partnership with Louis Daguerre (of daguerreotype fame), and their work eventually resulted in exposure times of just minutes. When this invention was revealed in 1839, it created such a sensation that the French government decided to buy the secret process and present it as a gift to the world.
This one was a team effort. First, in 1877 Charles-Émile Reynaud invented the Praxinoscope, a device that used pictures spinning around a cylinder to create a kind of moving picture. Then in 1888, Louis le Prince invented the first film camera and recorded the first motion picture. Finally, in 1985, the Lumière Brothers opened the first movie theater, showing ten short films. One of their early films, with a train moving toward the camera, is said to have terrified viewers.
Hot Air Balloons
Joseph-Michel Montgolfier was watching clothes drying over a fire one day when he noticed that pockets sometimes formed and billowed upwards. Struck by the phenomenon, he built a lightweight wooden box, covered the top and sides with taffeta cloth, and started a fire under the box. The contraption soared skyward and an idea was born. In 1783 he and his brother Jacques-Étienne built a hot air balloon. They began a series of public demonstrations, including one before the king and queen. They became stars and, as the ultimate honor, hot air balloons are called montgolfières in French.
Descriptions of parachutes go back to the Middle Ages. However, they are often accompanied by gruesome descriptions of failed attempts to use them. The modern parachute was invented in 1783 by Louis-Sébastien Lenormand, who not only designed it but used it to safely jump off a tall tower. Lenormand also coined the term parachute by combining the Italian parare (to avert) with the French chute (a fall.)
Has too much French wine given you a headache? Then you can thank Frenchman Charles Frederic Gerhardt for the solution. In 1853 he created the first aspirin, today perhaps the world’s most popular medicine.
Napoleon famously said that “an army travels on its stomach.” But he faced a problem, because in his day it wasn’t possible to store food for a long time. That forced the French army to constantly forage during its campaigns across Europe. Napoleon offered a prize of 12,000 gold francs to anyone who could solve the problem. It was won by French brewer Nicolas Appert, who developed a process for airtight sealing that is called appertisation in his honor.
Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Silicon Valley and Provence. He is the author of One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Keith & Val’s Adventures in Provence. Read more at Life in Provence.