21 Great Inventors Who Had Surprising Jobs
There are a million ways to make a million dollars, it is said, but also not every inventor has worked exclusively in 'invention'. These 21 individuals are great examples, and they range from those who took invention as a hobby when they pursued very different day jobs.
The following list is far from exhaustive so if you know of some other prominent inventors please feel free to mention them in the comments below.
1. Benjamin Franklin: Postmaster, Inventor, and Politician
We'll start our list of inventors with surprising jobs with one of the more famous of them, Benjamin Franklin. Mr. Franklin was not only a prolific inventor but he also had a series of challenging day jobs.
Throughout his life, he served as the Postmaster of Philadelphia. He also worked as the Ambassador to France and the President of Pennsylvania.
He was also, of course, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America. Benjamin is best known for his many scientific pursuits, experiments, and inventions.
His famous kite experiment would forever immortalize Benjamin in the public psyche. He also applied his seemingly unlimited ingenuity to create many clever inventions of which many he never actually patented.
He did this because he wanted to gift them for the service of others.
In his autobiography he wrote, "... as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously."
2. Peter Cooper ran for office and created America's first train
Peter Cooper is famed for being the oldest person to be nominated by a political party to run for President of the United States. At the ripe old age of 85 in 1876, he stood for election but didn't stand a chance of winning.
He was backed by the Greenback party who invested $25,000 for his campaign. Despite this, Peter was actually a very important inventor as well.
Peter Cooper was the man who designed and built the very first American Steam Locomotive, the famous Tom Thumb.
He built it using various spare parts from other machines and it included musket barrels and some smaller scale steam engines that he sourced from New York. As we know today, his invention was a roaring success.
Tom was also a hugely successful American Industrialist and philanthropist. He further founded the Cooper Union that promoted the advancement of Science and Art in New York.
3. Leonardo da Vinci, the Military Engineer
Leonardo da Vinci was, without a doubt, one of the greatest minds of the Renaissance. His inventions were so advanced that many would not be appreciated until the modern age.
For almost 17 years, he was in the service of Duke Ludovico Sforza ("The Dark One") in Milan. He worked here as a military engineer and created many military devices and machines.
Amongst his many inventions were early examples of the tank, a giant crossbow, an Aerial Screw (Helicopter) and Scuba Gear.
For this reason, very few, if any, were actually built in his day. He should probably be thought of as more of a futurist rather than an inventor, per se.
Apart from his clear contributions to science and technology, he was also an incredibly accomplished and successful artist in his day.
Leonardo da Vinci would create some of the world's most prized and famous works of art like the "The Last Supper" and, of course, "The Mona Lisa".
Interestingly, as famous an artist as he is today less than 24 of his works still exist or are known to exist, today.
4. Edwin Land: From Lab to Polaroid
Edwin Land is best known today as an inventor of the Polaroid Camera and film. He was also the co-founder of the Polaroid Corporation.
Edwin attended Harvard University briefly but quickly established his own laboratory for the study of light polarization. It was this lab that would later be rebranded as the Polaroid Corporation in 1937.
After a period of development, Edwin would reveal to the public his groundbreaking instant camera and self-developing film a decade later in 1947.
The idea for the Polaroid camera came to him in 1943 when his 3-year-old daughter asked him why cameras couldn't produce photos immediately.
The cameras were soon an instant success, selling out during the Christmas season in 1948, and would remain on the market for 50 years thereafter. A color-photo version of the product was released in 1963.
5. John Deere, the Blacksmith that gave this world the tractor
Born in Rutland, in February of 1804, John Deere is a name synonymous with farming vehicles today. He worked as a Blacksmith for a time and went on to invent one of the most important farming instruments, the first successful steel plow.
It would become such a financial success that John later founded the John Deere and Company in 1837. To this day, they still design and manufacture farming equipment like tractors.
John would later dedicate his time to civil and political issues. He served as the President of the National Bank of Moline for a while. He also worked as a Director for the Moline Free Public Library and was a trustee of the First Congregational Church.
Mr. Deere also served as Moline's mayor for a couple of years but poor health prevented him from running for a second term. He would later die peacefully at home in May of 1886.
6. Thomas Jefferson: Founding Father, Prolific Inventor, and Food Influencer
Thomas Jefferson, better known as another of the founding fathers of the United States of America was also an inventor. His crowning achievement was obviously the creation of the Declaration of Independence and becoming the third U.S. President.
When he did have some spare time, Thomas managed to also make a name for himself as an inventor. He also laid down the criteria for patents and ran for a time, the U.S. Patent Office.
Some of his notable inventions were the Jefferson Plow, a Macaroni making machine, Wheel Cipher, Great Clock and many more.
His plow was born from his great love and passion for farming and agriculture. Jefferson, like many of the privileged class of the time, operated a plantation.
The need to keep time led to the creation of his so-called 'Great Clock' that was able to tell the time and the day of the week. It featured two cannonball weights, suspended by cables that served to display this information.
He is credited with the invention of the swivel chair and dumbwaiter.
He is also credited today for popularizing macaroni and cheese, ice cream, French fries and waffles amongst the U.S. populace.
7. Cai Lun, Political Administrator and Inventor of Paper
Cai Lun, or Ts'ai Lun, is widely credited as the inventor of paper. He lived between 50 BC and 121 AD whose day job was working as a political administrator.
He was born in the present-day Chinese province of Hunan and would become one of the most important inventors of all time.
Whilst spending his time in this role, he managed to conceive of, and make a reality, the modern papermaking process. His invention included the use of raw materials like bark, hemp, silk, and fishing net to produce sheets of fiber suspended in water that were then removed and dried ready for use.
He was a eunuch who entered the service of the imperial palace in around 75 AD. Emperor Hedi of the Eastern Han dynasty would later make him chief eunuch in 89 AD.
It is recorded that he devised his idea of forming sheets of paper in 105 AD and it would prove to be vastly superior to other writing materials of the period like silk. It was also considerably cheaper to produce and the raw materials were far more common.
8. Carpenter John Harrison, Inventor of the Marine Chronometer
John Harrison, whilst working as a carpenter and watchmaker, went on to invent one of the most important devices for ships in his day - the Marine Chronometer. This device suddenly enabled ship navigators to accurately and reliably know their longitude.
John's invention was very critical for the development of long-distance seafaring that would pave the way for many historical events throughout the 19th Century.
John showed a penchant for invention at a very young age. It was said by his contemporaries that he was able to dismantle and reassemble a clock with ease.
Harrison would later combine his skills as a carpenter to make new clocks. He would begin to add extra features like the grasshopper escapement that would improve the quality of clocks in general.
Although he was very inventive, his social skills were often left wanting. He would rely heavily on George Graham and Edmond Halley, who would help finance, encourage and advocate on behalf of Harrison.
9. Johannes Gutenberg, the Goldsmith Who Invented the Printing Press
Johannes Gutenberg would change the world forever with his groundbreaking invention - the printing press. His invention immediately allowed for mass printing of books that allowed them to become far cheaper to buy for members of the public.
Gutenberg was certainly a visionary inventor who not only developed printing but also laid the foundations for printing books like the Bible en masse.
Johannes worked as a blacksmith for a time and eventually graduated to become a goldsmith. Not only did he invent the printing press but also the ink needed for the new technique.
This ink allowed for the printing of books en masse viable and made sure that the printed text could last a long time.
Little is known about his early life but he is widely recognized today as one the world's most important inventors.
10. Abraham Lincoln - Famous U.S. President and Recognized Inventor
Widely recognized as one of the greatest presidents of the United States, Abraham Lincoln was also an inventor. Apart from having his face carved into the side of a mountain, he also has the honorific of being the only president of the United States to ever hold a patent.
Abraham devised a device for lifting boats over shoals and other obstacles in rivers. He filed for and was awarded a patent for his invention in 1849.
He managed all this whilst practicing law and serving a term as an Illinois congressman. Lincoln hit on the idea whilst working as a ferryman in his youth. He noticed and experienced moments when boats would get stranded in shoals and other obstacles.
His solution was to create an inflatable floatation device that would lift the boat above the water surface. This would then allow the boat to completely clear the obstacle and continue on its merry way.
His invention was never realized, but he did create a scale model of a ship with the device installed. This is currently on display at the Smithsonian Institution.
11. James Watt - The Instrument Maker Who Created the First Modern Steam Engine
James Watt is another of the worlds most important inventors. He improved upon the Newcomen Steam Engine to produce the first modern steam engine.
Despite his clear inventiveness, Watt was always plagued with poor health throughout his life. As a child, this would mean he was home taught for some time by his mother.
James learned to write, became proficient at arithmetic and geometry in his childhood. He also learned the craft of instrument making.
Watt was a fast learner and this skill allowed him to graduate from apprentice to master craftsman very quickly. After apprenticing in London, he returned to Glasgow, Scotland, to open his own shop in 1757.
His now famous steam engine came about after he repaired a model of the Newcomen Steam Engine in 1764. He quickly realized the machine's inefficiency and worked tirelessly to improve upon it.
His solution was a separate condenser that he unveiled to the world in May of 1765. For his contributions to the world, he was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1785.
12. Louis Braille, the Teacher Who Invented Braille
Louis Braille was a French teacher who is widely credited as the man who has made the greatest contribution to improving the lives of the visually impaired. His Braille system opened up the entire world of literature to those who would otherwise never be able to read.
He was blinded at an early age during an accident whilst trying to pierce a piece of leather at his fathers leather workshop.
Louis was sent to the Royal Institute for Blind Youth in Paris and it was here that the idea of his Braille system was conceived. Braille built on previous work by Charles Barbier but improved it considerably.
The beauty of Braille's system was its pure simplicity that enabled scores of visually impaired people to easily learn how to use it.
It was not recognized as groundbreaking during his lifetime. It has since become universally adopted as the standard reading and writing system for the blind.
13. Polymath Francis Galton Invented Finger Identification
Francis Galton was a highly prolific polymath who made many contributions to fields as diverse as geography and genetics. He is said to have had an IQ of around 200 and was the best selling author in his own time.
During his studies within hereditary traits, he coined the now famous phrase "nature versus nurture".
Although he is not widely recognized for his accomplishments today his works are still important to many fields of science. However, during his lifetime he was honored with many awards for his work including a knighthood.
Much like his scientific inquiries, his career was almost as scattershot. In 1850, for example, he decided to become an explorer and geographer. After joining the Royal Geography Society he set off to explore unmapped regions fo South Africa.
In 1894, Galton presented his approach to fingerprinting as a means of positive identification for criminal suspects to a Parliamentary Committee. It was quickly adopted.
Later in his life, he controversially presented his theory of Eugenics in 1901.
14. Samuel Morse The Artist Who Invented Morse Code
Samuel Morse was an American artist who invented a single-wire telegraph system and co-invented the now famous Morse code.
He was born to a modest family and soon found he had a talent for art, especially portraiture. He quickly established a name for himself in this field and even painted some famous figures in history.
Some of his notable works include the portraits of John Adams, James Monroe, and French aristocrat Marquis de Lafayette.
He was also fascinated by electromagnetism and the sudden death of his wife pushed him to devise his long-distance communication device, the single wire telegraph.
Morse tinkered with his invention for many years until it was perfected. It would change the world of communication forever.
He also co-developed the famous Morse Code. It is still in use in some remote parts of the world as a form of radio communication.
15. George Stephenson: The Minor Who Became the 'Father of Railways'
George Stephenson or the "Father of Railways" was an English engineer and inventor who would revolutionize travel forever. He would single-handedly establish the world's first public inter-city railway line and built the first railroad locomotive.
His life can be considered the very definition of rags to riches. He was born into a low-income family and became a self-made engineer who literally changed the world.
George was the son of a mechanic who operated a Newcomen atmospheric-steam engine at a coal mine in Newcastle upon Tyne. His family's financial situation required him to start working at a very young age as a brakesman.
Because of this, he had no formal education and by the age of 19, he found himself operating a Newcomen engine of his own. News from the Napoleonic wars would inspire him to learn to read and write, which he did by taking night school.
When he married, he made some extra income by repairing shoes, fixing clocks and cutting clothes.
He would quickly become very familiar with steam engine technology and was soon promoted to the chief mechanic at the Killington colliery.
Stephenson would soon build on his knowledge of steam engines to design and build his very own locomotive, the Rocket. He would also devise the four feet eight-and-a-half inches gauge railway that would become the world standard.
He also devised a form of miners' safety lamp to help prevent explosions in mines.
16. Robert Fulton Went from Painting Miniatures to Building Submarines
Robert Fulton invented the first commercially successful steamboat. He also built the famous Nautilus that was ordered by Napoleon Bonaparte.
Robert was born to a family of Irish immigrants who moved to Lancaster in Pennsylvania after they lost their unproductive farm in 1771. He learned to read and write at home and was sent to a Quaker School at the age of 8.
Fulton would later become an apprentice at a Philadelphian jeweler where he found he had a gift for painting miniature portraits on ivory for lockets and rings.
He spent some time in Europe developing interests in inland water transportation and mechanical devices. This interest helped him develop a double inclined plane system for which he received a British patent.
He would later shelve his artistic talents and focus on the invention. Robert designed and built the Nautilus that was gifted to the French for their war against the British in 1800.
Fulton would later develop early torpedoes in 1804 and built the first commercially successful steamboat in 1806 with Robert Livingstone.
17. Sir Richard Arkwright, Wigmaker, and Spinning Frame Inventor
Sir Richard Arkwright was a British textile industrialist and inventor known as the 'father of the industrial revolution' who invented the spinning frame. Despite the impressive honorific Richard actually started out just making wigs.
During his early days as a wigmaker, he would travel Great Britain extensively and began his lifelong addiction of self-education. His interest in spinning began sometime around 1764 when he began building his own machine.
His so-called water frame (as it was operated using waterpower) was patented in 1769. It was used to produce cotton yarn suitable for warp.
His yarn was found to be vastly superior to that of James Hargreaves' earlier spinning jenny.
Arkwright would partner with several other businessmen to open factories in Nottingham and Cromford. Within just a few years he and his partners were operating a number of factories that were equipped with his new machinery.
The partnership would enjoy a near monopoly on the textile industry for some years.
Although Arkwright borrowed on the ideas of others for his invention he was the first to make the reliable working machine. By 1782 he had a capital of around £200,000 and employed 5,000 workers.
18. Archaeologist William Henry Fox Talbot Developed the First Negative
William Henry Fox Talbot was a British pioneer of photography. He is credited with inventing the very first negative from which several prints could be derived.
He also managed to invent the calotype process, using Silver Chloride, of taking photographs. William also spent his time as a linguist and archaeologist.
His calotype was an improvement on that of the French inventor L.J.M. Daguerre. Interestingly, if his process had been announced but a few weeks earlier he would have come to be known as the founder of photography.
William also served in Parliament for a time during 1833 and 1834.
19. Kirkpatrick Macmillan: The Blacksmith who Invented the Modern Pedal Bicycle
Kirkpatrick Macmillan was a Scottish blacksmith who is widely credited with being the inventor of the modern pedal bicycle. He was known to be a modern and homely man who often helped his father at his forge.
On one occasion, he came across a hobbyhorse (a two-wheeled bike that was propelled by foot) and was instantly fascinated by it. Whilst admiring the device, the idea of a self-propelled machine came to him.
Kirkpatrick threw himself at the problem and in 1839, he unveiled his first working model for a pedal bicycle. For Macmillan, the machine was nothing more than a device for traveling distances and exploring quiet country routes, he never realized the amazing commercial potential of it.
Galvin Dalzell did realize its potential and copied Macmillan's design. For more than half a decade, he was credited as being the inventor of bicycle until the truth was later revealed.
20. Thermal Engineer Rudolf Diesel Invented the Engine That Carries His Name
Rudolf Diesel was a German-French thermal engineer famous for his invention of the diesel internal combustion engine. Rudolf was a highly talented engineer and inventor but also loved the arts and was a linguist and a social theorist.
He was born to German-born parents who lived in Paris and were deported to England in 1870 when the Franco-German war broke out.
Diesel later studied at Augsburg and Munich where he showed a real talent for engineering. He would late be a protégé of the refrigeration engineer Carl von Linde, whose Paris firm he joined in 1880.
Diesel would become fascinated with combustion engines and devised his diesel engine for which he received a German patent in 1890.
He died in very suspicious circumstances whilst at sea in the English Channel. Diesel is said to have disappeared from the deck of the steamer Dresden en route to London is thought to have drowned.
21. Thomas Edison Was A Self-Made Man Who Filed Over 1000 Patents
And last but by no means least is the one and only Thomas Edison. Thomas was an American inventor and businessman who developed and made commercially viable many inventions that shaped our modern world.
He famously founded the Edison Electric Company that would go on to pioneer DC electricity around the United States and beyond. He would, over his lifetime, file over 1,000 patents.
Some of his most crucial contributions were to employ mass-production to produce low-cost household products across the U.S. He is widely credited with the invention of the electric light bulb, the phonograph, the motion picture camera and, of course, the electric power station.
Despite all this, he was born into a modest middle-class family who struggled financially for several years. He would quickly become frustrated with formal education and was mainly self-educated throughout his lifetime.
In his youth, he tried many different jobs ranging from selling candy, vegetables, and newspapers to printing his own newspaper the Grand Trunk Herald. He would soon develop an interest in chemistry and science in general and used his earnings on a chemistry set.
Thomas would prove to be a prolific inventor and received his first patent in 1869 for his stock ticker. A device that would later earn him a large sum of money.
MIT researchers develop a passive cooling technology that does not rely on electricity. It provides large energy savings with minimal water consumption even in humid places.