Here are 47 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 pretty inventive, as it turns out.
Christopher McFadden
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  • The country of France and its people have a long and noble history.
  • Apart from great food and culture, they have their fair share of inventions.
  • But which are the most important?

The French are great cooks and artists and pretty good at inventing things. The following article will explore 47 of the greatest French inventions ever.

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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
The stethoscope has proven itself time and again.

The first entry on our list of the greatest French inventions has saved innumerable lives. This lifesaver was the humble stethoscope devised by the French physician René Laennec in 1816. It would immediately become one of the doctors' kit's most important non-invasive medical instruments.

It uses a small disc-shaped resonator to amplify the internal sounds of the patient. 

The stethoscope changed how doctors could diagnose disorders forever and are one of the greatest French inventions ever.

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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
This is French too.

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

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

To clear the image, a user must turn the device upside down and shake it. This causes polystyrene beads to re-coat the glass panel with aluminum powder. Everyone, old and young, fondly loves it.

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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Bet you never thought this was French?

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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Yup, French too.

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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Probably French.

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

It was believed to be devised in 1756 after the French army took Port Mahon, Minorca.

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 historians and mayonnaise lovers alike hotly debate this.

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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Braille is an other great French invention.

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 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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
1930'sHaartrockner AEG Modell Nr. 72355,

The hairdryer was invented by a French hairstylist in 1888. However, Alexandre Godefroy's original design was too cumbersome to move or hold.

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

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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
You can thank the French for this too.

Pasteurization is undoubtedly one of the greatest French inventions of all time. Named after its creator Louis Pasteur, this process has made preserving milk a common practice worldwide. 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 microorganisms.

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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Also French.

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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
A good invention? We'll let you decide.

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 called "metric" from the Greek word Metron (to measure). The French passed it into law in 1793, and it has since been adopted by many other countries worldwide.

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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Baroque Oboe is a beautiful instrument.

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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time

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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time

Nicephore Niepce devised a photographic process that used the Bitumen of Judea (a natural asphalt) at the first photoresist in 1822. Nicephore is also widely credited as the inventor of photography and 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.

Second, he turned the sodium sulfate into 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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Appert canning jar.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the French offered a large cash reward 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. A French confectioner and brewer, Nicholas Appert, noticed that 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 1810His process would ultimately lead to the development of tin cans.

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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time

Alphonse Poitevin devised the process known as Collotype in 1856. This dichromate-based photographic process produced images similar to metal-based photographic prints.

This was used to produce large volumes of mechanical printing before the invention of 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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
A praxinoscope made by Ernst Plank.

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 the zeotrope by replacing narrow viewing slits with a circle of mirrors. It would later be replaced by the photographic film projector his fellow countrymen, the Lumiere brothers, developed.

18. The first practical sewing machine - 1830

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
A later American SingerTreadle Sewing Machine.

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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
The first bicycle was also French.

Although the first mode of transport we might identify as a bicycle was created by German Baron Karl von Drais in 1817, the French 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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Basic diagram of a ramjet.

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 to build and test one at the time.

His design required the engine's forward motion to compress incoming air with the need for an axial 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 tried to contact Lorin only to discover he had died early that year. 

21. The catalytic device that converts toxic gases - 1956

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Houdry's patent.

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 significantly improved the air quality of many cities worldwide.

22. Smokeless gunpowder: 3 times more powerful - 1884

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Black powder for muzzleloading rifles.

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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Replica Semaphore tower.

The most widely used Semaphore telegraph system ever was that of Claude Chappe. He invented it in 1792 and remained popular until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

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

Electrical telegraph systems would ultimately replace it

25. The stapler, made for Louis XV - 1866

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
1879 McGill Stapler.

The first stapler was made in the 19th Century for King Louis XV. 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 we would recognize today.

26. The first true blueprints - 1861

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Blueprints were originally French.

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 into an insoluble blue color that could be used to copy images from a translucent document.

The diazo whiteprint process and xerographic photocopiers largely replaced blueprints.

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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Modern lead acid rechargeable battery.

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.

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

28. Kiln-fired powdered graphite for pencils - 1795

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Kiln-fired powdered graphite was also a French invention.

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 1795, Nicolas Jacques Conte, 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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Georges Cuvier, the father of modern scientific paleontolology.

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 Evolution. Not to mention the identification of Dinosaurs and their study.

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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
This was revolutionary.

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 the first commercial use of motion pictures using the Cinématographe. Its invention would eventually make the Praxinoscope mentioned above obsolete. It would also create an entirely new industry still enjoyed by millions today.

31. Neon lamps, before the 90s - 1910

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Neon lights are also French.

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

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

Eight years later, he founded Claude Neon in the United States and sold 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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time

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. The public and press would admire this instrument at the time, but it wouldn't be developed further.

33. Photovoltaic effect discovered by Becquerel - 1839

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
You can thank the French for PV panels.

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 unevenly 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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
This was another revolutionary idea.

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

His discovery of radioactivity came about while 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 Curies, would change the world forever. 

35. Medicinal quinine treating malaria - 1737-1820

Charles Marie de La Condamine discovered the best form of quinine for treating malaria 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's most essential medicines and has saved countless lives.

36. The modern frameless parachute - 1783

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
19th Century depiction of Lenormand's 1783 test of his frameless parachute.

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

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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Drawings of the Plongeur.

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.

The works of other submarine engineers like John Phillip Holland would ultimately obscure their design. 

38. First quadcopter - 1906-7

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time

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

Their endeavors would lead hovered the development of Gyroplane 1. This was an early type of quadcopter that flew. Sometime between August and September of 1907, the duo hovered about 0.6 meters above the ground for 1 minute in their flimsy contraption. 

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

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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Papin's digester.

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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Carré's ice-making device.

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 ideal for refrigeration.

Edmond's process relied on water and sulphuric acid, while his brother replaced sulphuric acid with ammonia as the refrigerant. Today this principle is implemented for food storage in recreational vehicles and air conditioning in buildings.

41. The contest to find margarine - 1869

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
We can't believe it's not butter.

Emperor Napoleon the 3rd offered a large cash prize for anyone to create an alternative to butter that the army could use 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 integral to many food products.

42. The first naval periscope - 1854

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Photograph from a periscope of the sinking of the Japanese Destroyer Yamakaze, June 25th, 1942.

The Frenchman, Hippolyte Marié-Davy, invented the first naval periscope in 1854. His invention consisted of a vertical tube with two small mirrors 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 submarine equipment. 

43. The wingsuit of today - 1990's

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
A hobby only for the bravest.

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

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

Patrick de Gayardon devised the first true Wingsuit in the mid-1990s. Today it has become very popular with thrill-seekers the world over.

44. The most widely used medicine: Aspirin - 1853

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
What a great little invention.

The French chemist Charles Frederic Gerhardt prepared acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) 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 annually.

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

45. The first commercially successful combustion engine - 1859

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Lenoir engine.

Another of the greatest French inventions comes from one Étienne Lenoir. He 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 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 subtraction with numbers entered by manipulating dials. It was invented, so it is said, for Pascal's father, 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 built between the 1640s and 1650s. 

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

Here are 47 of the greatest French inventions of all time
Philippe Kahn working on the first camera phones,

And finally, another major French invention is the camera phone. Invention by a Parisian called Phillippe Kahn; he is also credited with many 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 to share pictures on public networks instantly. He was inspired to develop the technology after the birth of his daughter.

Before 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, Time Magazine honored him by including his first phone photo as one of the 100 most influential photos of all time.

And that is your lot for today.

France has been the birthplace of many revolutionary inventions that have changed the world in countless ways. From the simple but essential bicycle, French innovation has been a driving force in human progress. Whether it's art, science, or technology, France has always been at the forefront of human achievement, and these inventions are a testament to the country's enduring legacy.

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