45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time

The French have given the world some of the finest foods and wines known to man, they are also, as it turns out, pretty inventive.
Christopher McFadden
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It turns out the French are not just great cooks and artists but are also pretty good at inventing things.

In the following article, we'll explore 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time.

1. The stethoscope, a doctor's indispensable - 1816

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Source: HujiStat/Wikimedia Commons

The first entry on our list of the greatest French inventions has saved innumerable lives.

This lifesaver was the humble stethoscope that was devised by the French physician René Laennec in 1816.

It would immediately become one of the most important non-invasive medical instruments in the doctors' kit.

It works by using a small disc-shaped resonator to amplify the internal sounds of the patient. 


The stethoscope changed the way doctors could diagnose disorders forever and is truly one of the greatest French inventions of all time.

2. The Etch-a-Sketch is French! - 1955-56

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Source: Etcha/Wikimedia Commons

A French electrical technician, inventor, toymaker, and kite designer, André Cassagnes, designed one of the most popular toys of all time in the later 1950s.

These toys are effectively plotters. Etch-a-sketches work by scraping off aluminum powder on the inside surface of the main glass screen.

The knobs are used to control internal styluses that scrap off the powder coating, leaving a visible dark line. 

To clear the image a user needs to turn the device upside down and shake. This causes polystyrene beads to re-coat the glass panel with aluminum powder.

It is fondly loved by everyone, old and young.

3. The pencil sharpener was created by a French mathematician - 1828

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Source: Asim18/Wikimedia Commons

The pencil sharpener is one of the greatest French inventions of all time.

It was devised by a French mathematician Bernard Lassimonne who filed for a patent in 1828.

As the name suggests they are devices designed to sharpen pencils' writing points by shaving the surface or wearing it away.

Its design was improved in 1847 by another Frenchman, Thierry des Estivaux, to produce the device we are all familiar with today.

4. The Mongolfière, or hot air balloon's first flight - 1783

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Source: Andrés Nieto Porras/Flickr

Pilatre De Rozier devised a means of achieving lighter than air flight in 1783.

In September of that year, he completed the first unmanned test flight that lasted about 10-15 minutes.

The following month Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier made the first untethered manned flight.

Modern hot air balloons, with an onboard heat source, would be developed by Ed Yost during the 1950s. 

5. Mayonnaise, (probably) a French condiment - 1756

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Source: afiler/Wikimedia Commons

The clue should be in the name with this one but, yes, mayonnaise is one of the greatest French inventions of all time.

It is believed that it was first devised in 1756 after the taking of Port Mahon, Minorca by the French army.

The army's chef lacked enough cream to make a sauce for the victory dinner and so resorted to mixing oil and eggs to create something new.

It should be noted that this is hotly debated by historians and mayonnaise lovers alike.

6. Braille, an invaluable tool devised by Louis Braille - 1824

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Source: אריה ה./Wikimedia Commons

Braille was also a French invention. Louis Braille was blinded in both eyes at a very young age. He was later accepted to the French Royal Institute for Blind Youth where he began working on his now famous, system.

Braille is thought to have been inspired by Charles Barbier's "night writing".

Braille's final system was first presented in 1829.

A second revision was made later in 1837 which became the first small binary form of writing developed in modern times.

Braille has proven to be an invaluable tool for the visually impaired ever since.

7. The hairdryer, a French pillar of styling  - 1888

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
1930's Haartrockner AEG Modell Nr. 72355, Source: Phrontis/Wikimedia Commons

The hairdryer was invented by a French hairstylist in 1888

Alexandre Godefroy's original design was too cumbersome to be moved or held, however.

Like its modern descendants, it was an electromechanical device that blew air over patrons' wet hair to mechanically accelerate the evaporation of water.  

According to the New York Times, his patrons were attached “to any ‘suitable form of heater,’ which would send hot air through a pipe to a dome surrounding the woman’s head.”

The modern world would be a very different place today without hairdryers.

8. Pasteurization, the process that revolutionized food - 1864

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Source: Stefan Kühn/Wikimedia Commons

Without a doubt, pasteurization is one of the greatest French inventions of all time.

Named after its creator Louis Pasteur this process has made preserving milk common practice around the world. His process of killing bacteria in food and drink, like milk, prevents them from spoiling too early.

Pasteurization does differ from sterilization as it does not aim to eliminate all micro-organisms.

9. The Aqua-Lung, the first underwater oxygen supply by Cousteau - 1943

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Source: Anthony Appleyard/Wikimedia Commons

Famous deep-sea explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau invented the aqualung, with the help of engineer Emile Gagnan, in 1943.

This apparatus in a snip enabled divers to stay underwater for several hours thanks to a constant supply of oxygen.

The Aqua-Lung combined an improved demand regulator with high-pressure tanks to supply breathable air to the equipment's user. 

It was the first easy-to-use and reliable device that became the first modern scuba system.

10. The metric system dates back to the 1700s - 1793

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Source: Scott Brody/Wikimedia Commons

In the late 1700s, the French National Assembly directed the Academy of Sciences of Paris to standardize units of measurement.

The Academy devised a decimal system that they termed "metric" from the Greek word Metron (to measure).

It was passed into law by the French in 1793 and has since been adopted by many other countries around the world.

11. The Baroque Oboe, played by almost every composer of the 18th century - 1750's

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Source: Hustvedt/Wikimedia Commons

Although depictions of oboe-like instruments have been seen in ancient drawings, the modern oboe traces its origins to the mid-1700s in France. 

Like other woodwind instruments, the Oboe works by blowing through a reed. This action causes a column of air inside the instrument to vibrate and produce its characteristic sound.

Made of boxwood with several holes but only two or three keys, it gained immediate popularity in many countries.

12. The first mechanical metronome - 1696

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Wittner metronome, Source: Paco/Flickr

Etienne Loulié was the first recorded person to make a mechanical metronome in 1696.

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His design was silent, however, and did not have an escapement to keep the pendulum in motion like the ones we are familiar with today.

Musicians would need to watch the pendulum, just like watching a conductor's baton. 

It would ultimately be replaced with the more familiar musical chronometer devised by Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel in 1814

13. Photolithography, the creator of photography - 1822

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
View from the Window at Le Gras, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, Source: Ed g2s/Wikimedia Commons

Nicephore Niepce devised a photographic process that used Bitumen of Judea (a natural asphalt) at the first photoresist in 1822.

Nicephore is also widely credited as the inventor of photography as well as a pioneer in the field.

Using his methods he also took the world's first photograph in 1826 or 1827.

14. The Leblanc process that made soda water - 1791

Nicolas Leblanc devised his method of producing soda ash (Sodium Carbonate) in 1791.

His process was in two stages. The first led to the production of sodium sulfate from salt.

The second turned the sodium sulfate to sodium carbonate by adding coal and calcium carbonate.

His process became very popular throughout the 19th Century but was gradually phased out after the development of the Solvay process

15. Canned foods during the Napoleonic Wars - 1809

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Appert canning jar, Source: Jpbarbier/Wikimedia Commons

During the Napoleonic Wars, a large cash reward was offered by the French to anyone who could devise a means of preserving large amounts of food.

The ever-increasing size of armies during that period needed a solution to keep their troops fed.

Nicholas Appert, a French confectioner and brewer, noticed cooked food in a jar did not spoil if airtight in 1809.

He thus developed a method of sealing food in glass jars and was awarded the prize in 1810. His process would ultimately lead to the development of tin cans.

16. The mechanical printing that brought us the first postcards - 1856

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Postcard with the theme of "Alte Oper" in Frankfurt am Main, circa 1900, Source: Cussi Cussi/Wikimedia Commons

Alphonse Poitevin devised the process known as Collotype in 1856.

This was a dichromate based photographic process that produced images similar to metal-based photographic prints.

This was used to produce large volumes of mechanical printing before the invention of the cheaper offset lithography. It was often used to produce early postcards. 

Although popular at the time, it was ultimately replaced by offset lithography.

17. The Praxinoscope, the first step to filmmaking - 1877

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
A praxinoscope made by Ernst Plank, Source: Pigsonthewing/Wikimedia Commons

The successor of the zeotrope, the Praxinoscope was an early animation device devised by Charles-Émile Reynaud in 1877.

Like its predecessor, it used a strip of pictures placed around an inner surface of a spinning cylinder to produce a "moving picture".

It improved on the zeotrope by replacing narrow viewing slits with a circle of mirrors.

It would later be replaced by the photographic film projector developed by his fellow countrymen the Lumiere brothers.

18. The first practical sewing machine - 1830

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
A later American Singer Treadle Sewing Machine, Source: Pigsonthewing/Wikimedia Commons

Although the first patent for the sewing machine was in 1755 in Britain, the first practical one was invented by Barthélemy Thimonnier in 1829.

He patented his design in 1830. Thimonnier opened a factory soon after and began creating uniforms for the French army using his new machines.

This was burned down soon after, reportedly by fearful workers who felt their livelihoods were under threat. 

19. The first bicycle with pedal power - 1868

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Source: Lesseps/Wikipedia Commons

Although the first modes of transport we might identify as a bicycle was created by German Baron Karl von Drais in 1817, it was the French who added pedal power.

Two Frenchmen, Pierre Michaux and Pierre Lallement added a mechanical crank drive with pedals to an enlarged front wheel to produce the newfangled, pedal-powered, Velocipede.

It immediately went into mass production but would ultimately be replaced by modern geared chain bicycles.

20. The first ramjet engine - 1913

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Basic diagram of a ramjet, Source: Cryonic07/Wikimedia Commons

The world's first patent for Ramjet technology was awarded in 1908 to French inventor Rene Lorin.

As impressive as this might sound to us today, there were inadequate materials at the time to actually build and test one.

His design required the engine's forward motion to compress incoming air with the need for an axial compressor or centrifugal compressor.

For this reason, they cannot be used to move an aircraft at zero airspeeds.

When another Frenchman, Rene Leduc, attempted to file a similar patent in 1933, he discovered, to his amazement, he was not the first.

He even attempted to contact Lorin only to discover he had died early that year. 

21. The catalytic device that converts toxic gases - 1956

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Houdry's patent, Source: Hermann Luyken/Wikimedia Commons

When Eugene Houdry, a French mechanical engineer, moved to the U.S. in 1930 he became concerned about the level of smog inflicting cities like Los Angeles.

He quickly put his engineering mind to the task and developed a catalytic converter for gasoline engines.

His insight was to design a device that converted toxic gases and pollutants into less-toxic substances. It does this by catalyzing a redox reaction of the exhaust gases.

He filed for and was awarded a U.S. patent for his technology in 1956

This invention has contributed significantly to improving the air quality of many cities around the world.

22. Smokeless gunpowder: 3 times more powerful - 1884

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
 Black powder for muzzleloading rifles, Source: Mondebleu/Wikimedia Commons

Paul Marie Eugène Vieille developed a new form of gunpowder in 1884 that was also three times more powerful than conventional gunpowder at the time.

His new gunpowder could be used in small arms and full-scale artillery and was quickly adopted by all major military powers shortly after.

Unlike black powder, these gunpowders combustion products were mainly gas rather than solid particulates.

Vieille received the Prix Leconte of 50,000 Francs in 1889 in recognition of his discovery.

23. The first formalized national air force - 1909

In 1909 the French Army officially founded the first aviation force in the world, the Aviation Militaire.

This force morphed into the L'Armée de l'Air.

It would eventually become an independent military force in France in 1934

24. The most popular semaphore telegraph - 1792

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Replica Semaphore tower, Source: Lokilech/Wikimedia Commons

The most widely used Semaphore telegraph system ever was that of Claude Chappe.

He invented it in 1792 and it remained popular right up to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

This system worked by having lines of relay towers with semaphore rigs on top at distances of between 5 and 20 miles.

It would ultimately be replaced by electrical telegraph systems

25. The stapler, made for Louis XV - 1866

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
1879 McGill Stapler, Source: Mikebartnz/Wikimedia Commons

The very first stapler was made in the 19th Century for King Louis XV. Each and every staple was inscribed with the royal court's insignia.

The mass adoption and use of paper in the 19th Century suddenly created a demand for a more efficient paper fastener.

But it wouldn't be until 1879 that George McGill would receive a patent for the first commercially successful stapler that we would recognize today.

26. The first true blueprints - 1861

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
SourceAdrian Michael/Wikimedia Commons

Building on the seminal work of John Herschel and his cyanotype process in 1839, it was the French who took this to its inevitable conclusion.

In 1861, Alphonse Louis Poitevin, a French chemist, successfully invented 'true' blueprints.

Using Ferro-gallate in gum, he realized exposing this to light turned it an insoluble blue color that could be used to copy images from a translucent document.

Blueprints were largely replaced by the diazo whiteprint process and xerographic photocopiers.

27. The first rechargeable battery based on lead-acid - 1859

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Modern Lead Acid rechargeable battery, Source: Bisapien/Wikimedia Commons

The history of batteries was changed forever in 1859 with the invention of the first rechargeable battery. At least those based on lead-acid.

This breakthrough was thanks to the genius of Gaston Planté and is a system still in use today.

Up until its invention, all batteries were primary and could not be recharged.

28. Kiln-fired powdered graphite for pencils - 1795

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Source: TJ Cosgrove/Wikimedia Commons

Although 'lead' pencils were invented in 1564 when an enormous graphite mine was discovered in England, it took a Frenchman to refine the process.

In 1795Nicolas Jacques Conte, who was a French Army officer, patented a process for kiln-firing powdered graphite with clay.

This enabled pencils to be made to any desired hardness. 

29. The study of dinosaurs and anatomy - 1797-1805

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Georges Cuvier, the modern scientific paleontology, Source: TomCatX/Wikimedia Commons

It is widely acknowledged that Georges Cuvier, a French zoologist, and statesman, established the fields of comparative anatomy and paleontology.

This would ultimately lead to an explosion in interest in extinct organisms throughout the 19th Century.

It could be argued that this ultimately led to the development of the Theory of EvolutionNot to mention the identification of Dinosaurs and their study.

30. The Lumière Brothers and how they invented cinema - 1895

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Source: Victorgrigas/Wikimedia Commons

Two brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumiere were the first to charge for admission to see some short films in December of 1895.

Each film was around a minute each and the viewings were held in Paris.

This is widely considered the first commercial use of motion pictures using a device called the Cinématographe.

Its invention would eventually make the aforementioned Praxinoscope obsolete. It would also create an entirely new industry still enjoyed by millions today.

31. Neon lamps, before the 90s - 1910

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Source: Lestat/Wikimedia Commons

In 1910, a French chemist and engineer, Georges Claude, first demonstrated to the world an electric discharge in a sealed tube of neon gas.

This was the very first example of modern neon lighting. He would later patent it in the U.S. in 1915.

8 years later he would found a company, Claude Neon, in the United States and begin selling Neon gas signs.

These lamps are now widely used as indicator lamps on displays of electronic instruments and appliances.

32. Clavecin électrique, the first electric musical instrument - 1759

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time

Diagram of a Clavecin électrique, Source: Driante70/Wikimedia Commons

The Clavecin électrique is widely recognized as the world's earliest electric-powered musical instrument.

It was devised by Jean-Baptiste Thillaie Delaborde in 1759. This instrument was essentially an electric carillon. 

It is thought to have been predated by the Denis d'Or but this instrument only exists in written documents.

This instrument would be admired by the public and press at the time but it wouldn't be developed further.

33. Photovoltaic effect discovered by Becquerel - 1839

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Source: Oregon Department of Transportation/Wikimedia Commons

The photovoltaic effect was first discovered by French physicist A. E. Becquerel in 1839.

Becquerel described it as "the production of an electric current when two plates of platinum or gold immersed in an acid, neutral, or alkaline solution are exposed in an uneven way to solar radiation." 

His observations would lead directly to the creation of the first solar cell in 1884 by Charles Fritt.

Today the photovoltaic industry is rapidly expanding worldwide.

34. The discovery of radioactivity - 1896

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Source: Kjerish/Wikimedia Commons

Famed French scientist Henri Becquerel, yes, A. E. Becquerel's son, discovered radioactivity quite by accident in 1896.

His discovery of radioactivity came about whilst studying phosphorescent materials, believing that the glow they made might have something to do with the newly discovered and mysterious X-Rays.

His work on radioactivity, followed by the works of visionary scientists like the Curie's, would change the world forever. 

35. Medicinal quinine treating malaria - 1737-1820

The best form quinine for treating Malaria was first discovered by Charles Marie de La Condamine in 1737.

It would be another 83 years for the chemical to be isolated from the bark of the Cinchona tree by Pierre Joseph Pelletier and Joseph Bienaimé Caventou.

Large-scale use of it to treat malaria began around 1850.

Today it is one of the WHO most essential medicines and has saved countless lives over the years.

36. The modern frameless parachute - 1783

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
19th Century depiction of Lenormand's 1783 test of his frameless parachute, Source: Trialsanderrors/Wikimedia Commons

Despite there being various examples of earlier designs, it is widely accepted that modern, frameless, parachutes were invented by Louis-Sébastien Lenormand.

His design would be recognizable to many a skydiver today.

He built and tested his design in public in 1783 by jumping off the Montpellier observatory.

Parachute technology has, however, changed considerably since these pioneering days. 

37. First air-powered submarine - 1863

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Drawings of the Plongeur, Source: PHGCOM/Wikimedia Commons

The world's first submarine that didn't need human manpower for propulsion was the Le Plongeur, meaning 'The Diver'.

This vessel was launched in 1863 and was powered by 180 psi of compressed air.

The ship was designed by Captain Siméon Bourgeois and Charles Brun, who both started working on the design in 1859.

Their design would ultimately be obscured by the works of other submarine engineers like John Phillip Holland

38. First quadcopter - 1906-7

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Breguet Gyroplane 1907, Source: PHGCOM/Wikimedia Commons

Two intrepid French brothers, Jacques and Louis Breguet, began to experiment with airfoils for helicopters.

Their endeavors would lead to the development of Gyroplane 1. This was an early type of quadcopter that actually flew. 

Sometime between August and September of 1907, the duo managed to hover about 0.6 meters above the ground for 1 minute in their flimsy contraption. 

The design was somewhat unstable, however, and needed a man at each corner to hold it steady. It is now recognized as the first manned flight of a helicopter, but not untethered.

39. The early pressure cooker of the 1700s - 1679

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Papin's digester, Source: Rama/Wikimedia Commons

The steam digester, aka bone or Papin's digester, is a high-pressure cooker invented by French physicist Denis Papin in 1679.

The basic concept for the device is to extract lipids or fats from bones in a high-pressure steam environment.

The process had the secondary benefit of softening the bones enough to ground them into bone meal.

It was, in effect, the direct forerunner of the autoclave and modern domestic pressure cooker. 

40. Using heat to cool off: absorption cooling - 1859

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Carré's ice-making device, Source: Hchc2009/Wikimedia Commons

Absorption cooling was invented by Edmond and Ferdinand Carre, both French scientists, in 1859.

This process uses a heat source to provide the energy to drive a cooling process which is ideal for refrigeration.

Edmond's process relied on water and sulphuric acid whilst his brother replaced sulphuric acid with ammonia as the refrigerant. 

Today this principle is put into practice for food storage in recreational vehicles and air conditioning in buildings.

41. The contest to find margarine - 1869

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Source: Kai Hendry/Wikimedia Commons

Emperor Napoleon the 3rd offered a large cash prize for anyone to create an alternative to butter that could be used by the army and poor at a fraction of the cost of butter. 

Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès answered the call and patented oleomargarine, margarine for short, in 1869

Margarine has become one of the world's favorite spreads and is an integral component of many food products.

42. The first naval periscope - 1854

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Photograph from a periscope of the sinking of the Japanese Destroyer Yamakaze, June 25th, 1942, Source: Cobatfor/Wikimedia Commons

The first naval periscope was invented by a Frenchman, Hippolyte Marié-Davy in 1854

His invention consisted of a vertical tube with two small mirrors that were fixed at 45 degrees at each end. 

The design would be refined over the years by other engineers and scientists until it became an integral piece of equipment on submarines. 

43. The wingsuit of today - 1990's

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Source: Magnus Manske/Wikimedia Commons

Although earlier attempts were made in 1912 and 1930, by a Frenchman and American respectively, neither of these were successful.

The 1912 experiment proved fatal for its inventor when he tested it from the Eiffel Tower.

The first true Wingsuit was devised by Patrick de Gayardon in the mid-1990s.

Today it has become very popular with thrill-seekers the world over.

44. The most widely used medicine: Aspirin - 1853

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Source: Sauligno/Wikimedia Commons

Acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) was first prepared by the French chemist Charles Frederic Gerhardt in 1853.

Today Aspirin is one of the most widely used medicines in the world.

According to the International Aspirin Foundation around 35,000 metric tonnes are produced and consumed each year.

Also, like Quinine, it is recognized by the WHO as an essential medicine

45. The first commercially successful combustion engine - 1859

45+ of the Greatest French Inventions of All Time
Lenoir engine, Source: Jojhnjoy/Wikimedia Commons

Last, but by no means least on our list of the Greatest French Inventions, comes from one Étienne LenoirHe built and marketed the world's first commercially successful internal combustion engine.

Demand was high enough for his engine that a large enough quantity was sold to consider it a success. Lenoir's engine burnt a mixture of coal gas and air that was ignited by "jumping sparks" from a Ruhmkorff coil.

It was effectively a steam engine converted for this purpose. Various automobiles were also built using his engine between 1860 and 1863.

Ultimately his invention would be superseded by the works of Nikolaus Otto and his modern internal combustion engine. 

46. One of the first calculating machines was also originally French

Called the Pascaline or the Arithmetic Machine, one of the first true calculators produced en masse was also a French invention. Designed by the French inventor and mathematician-philosopher Blaise Pascal, it was first created in the 1640s. 

This early calculator could only handle addition and subtractions with numbers entered by manipulating dials. It was invented, so it is said, for Pascal's father who happened to be a tax collector.

For this reason, it is also called the first business machine as well (excluding the abacus, of course). Somewhere in the region of 50 were ever built between the 1640s and 1650s. 

47. One of the first camera phones was also a French invention

greatest french inventions the camera phone
Philippe Kahn working on the first camera phones, Source: Arthbkins/Wikimedia Commons

And finally, another major French invention is the camera phone. Invention by a Parisian called Phillippe Kahn, he is also credited with many other technological innovations and patents covering things related to the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence modeling, wearable, eyewear, smartphone, mobile, imaging, wireless, synchronization and medical technologies.

In 1997, Kahn created the first camera phone that was capable of sharing pictures instantly on public networks. Apparently, he was inspired to create the technology after the birth of his daughter.

Prior to developing the camera phone, Kahn had been working for a web server-based infrastructure for pictures called Picture Mail. The technology would hit the road running and in 2016 he was honored by Time Magazine by including his first phone photo as one of the 100 most influential photos of all time.