A History of French Inventions

Guest post by Kathleen McGintry

What do braille, the polariscope and aspirin all have in common? They were all invented by the French. Over the last 600 years, French scientists and inventors have made immeasurable contributions to medicine, engineering, fashion, communications and sports.

If you’re interested in the history of inventions, there are more than enough attractions to consider while planning city breaks to Paris. For example, after settling into your hotel, spend an afternoon at the Paris Science Museum, Europe’s largest science museum. This will walk you through a wealth of technological discoveries, including a special theatre devoted to Louis Lumiére. Lumiére and his brother Auguste were two of the earliest inventors of cinema.

The World’s First Photographic Image

In fact, while you’re taking your holiday snaps in the City of Lights, don’t forget photography in general owes a lot to French inventors — the first photograph ever produced was by Nicéphore Niépce, an inventor who also collaborated on the world’s first internal combustion engine.

Hermagis lens kit

Hermagis lens kit made in Paris between 1879-1891

If you have time for a jaunt to Bourgogne, a museum in Niepce’s old house in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes explains more about the inventor’s life and work. If it seems that the digital images we take nowadays have little in common with those early images made by Niépce, pause before uploading your pics on your mobile phone and reflect that Paris native Philippe Khan is credited with developing the technology for your phone to share images on public networks.

Ride a “Vélo”

The British laid claim to the world’s first underground railway in the world, with our oldest tracks opening in London in 1863. Across the Channel it took Paris almost 40 more years until they opened the Métro, but at the same time French inventors were perfecting their balance. They were designing the first two-wheeled vehicles to use a crank drive with pedals: an invention that turned into what we now call a bicycle. Appreciate this French innovation by taking a ride on one of the Vélib’ public-share bicycles. Borrow these three-speed grey bicycles at one of the city’s 1,200 rental stations and cycle over to another interesting historical spot: the location of the first cycling race, a park in the suburb named Saint-Cloud. No Tour de France, the first documented cycling race was only 1,200 metres long. It was held in 1868 (and Englishman James Moore won, so you could say we invented winning cycling races).

In fact, as you travel through the city of Paris, many of the everyday items you notice were actually invented by Frenchmen. Reinforced concrete, artificial cement, letterboxes and waste containers are all credited to French inventors.

Go Shopping and Think About … History

During your stay in Paris, head for the haute couture district near Rue Faubourg-Saint-Honoré, and browse designer fashion while mulling over the French inventions near you. If any of the textile creations in shop windows you see are made of brocades or other complex patterns, they may have been woven with the help of a machine inspired by the Jacquard loom, invented in 1801. This mechanical loom, which was programmable, provided inspiration when later programmable machines — such as the computer — were designed.

Certainly, Coco Chanel’s iconic “little black dress” wouldn’t have become such a must-have garment without the help of two more French inventions — the sewing machine, invented by Barthélemy Thimonnier in 1829, and the modern brassiere, invented by Herminie Cadolle and exhibited at Great Paris Exposition in 1900.

Un Peu Plus

Before you head back to the U.K., take the time to notice a few other French inventions in their native land. Going to a nightclub? Neon signs were invented by engineer Georges Claude in 1910. Taking a motorboat cruise on the Seine? Former clockmaker Gustave Trouvé patented the outboard motor in 1880. Ask a police officer for directions? The science of criminology was founded by Eugène François Vidocq, a criminal himself. Vidocq was also the world’s first private detective — sorry Holmes.

If you’re flying back home, modern aviation has much to owe French minds: Hot air balloons, parachutes, primitive aircraft, helicopters and seaplanes all came about because of inventors from across the Channel. Vive l’innovation!

About the Author: Kathleen McGintry teaches French language and literature in Liverpool. She visits the French capital every year with her students and loves showing them the history under the surface of modern-day Paris.