The Ingenuity of French Inventions

French inventions - what immediately comes to your mind? A croissant and film noir? Fashion and wine? Culture, entertainment, the film and photography industries, dances, musical instruments – and of course, cooking are all areas the French have contributed to.

French innovation was far reaching in many fields. But let’s look at some less stereotypical inventions or innovative developments, attributed to the French.

Invention #1 - Braille system

The Braille system is the global reading and writing system for the blind. Louis Braille, the inventor, was also blind. He accidentally stabbed himself with his father’s work tools when he was three, leaving an eye infection which led to blindness. He went to a school for the blind youth in Paris where he was frustrated by the embossed letters the teachers used to teach students how to read. When he was twelve, he was inspired by the demonstration of a former French army officer about a code of 12 embossed dots and dashes used at night to communicate combat orders. He was only 15 when he had developed a simpler system of six dots that can be easily felt with a fingertip. Read more about his story in our inventions made by kids page.

French Inventions #2 - Canning

Napoleon Bonaparte issued a challenge to his constituents, promising to reward them 12,000 francs to find a way to preserve food so that the French troupes can be supplied with daily rations for extended periods of time.

It was 1880. Napoleon was worried about how to keep his troupes well-fed when out in the field and with lines of supply in jeopardy. Nicolas Francois Appert found a way. He sealed a thick glass bottle full of food, wrapped it in canvas for protection, and then dunked it into boiling water to cook. Later on, Pierre Durand replaced the glass jars with tin cans, where the term “canning” comes from.

French Inventions #3 - Hot air balloon

Though hot air balloon experiments existed in ancient China, and one has also been recorded in historical Portugal, two French brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier, had launched the first successful manned hot air balloon flight. Their first hot air balloon flight went up in December 1782. The balloon went up, flying up to 300 meters. The source of the flame was a burn of paper, burned wool and moist straw to sustain flight.

In September 1783, the first hot air balloon containing passengers went up to the sky, with its first passengers being a rooster, a sheep, and a duck. The balloon reached the height of 500 meters and lasted eight minutes up in the air.

Eventually, in October 15, 1783, the first manned flight was successful through the efforts of the pilots, Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent d’Arlandes. King Louis XVI originally announced that condemned criminals would be the first pilots but de Rozier and d’Arlandes petitioned to be allowed on the first flight – and won.

French Inventions #4 -Denim

The most popular textile used for blue jeans is denim. Its name originated from the French city of Nîmes or “de Nîmes” – translated literally as “from Nîmes”, although it was originally called Serge de Nîme –a fabric originating in Nimes. The fabric, was first made by the Andre family.

The word jeans, in fact, was from the French phrase “bleu de Genes” or “the blue of Genoa”. The Genoese Navy first wore jeans made of denim in the 1500’s. The fabric was mostly used by workers because of its durability. It was even used in ship sails and upholstery.

Its appeal to the masses was strong because the fabric lasted despite being washed frequently. The strength of the fabric was popularized by Levi Strauss in the 1870’s, during which he produced denim overalls for gold miners in San Francisco.

French Inventions #5 -Sewing machine

Barthelemy Thimonnier, a tailor, dedicated his life to the perfection of the sewing machine, which he called “couseuse”. His machine was made of wood. The first sewing machine used a barbed needle, which was able to move down through the cloth to pick the thread and pull it up in a loop to be locked by the next loop, thus, implementing “chain-stitching”.

Auguste Ferrand, a mining engineer, made the drawings for the first machine and acquired a patent for the two men. In 1831, his sewing factory in Paris, set up in order to create army uniforms, was destroyed by his 200 tailors, who believed his machines threatened their livelihood.

Although his invention won prizes and was praised, Thimonnier’s machine was not popular among the masses. Isaac Merrit Singer, an American, made the use of sewing machines boom utilising great marketing strategies, proving again, that sometimes just inventing a product is not enough, and you need to help it sell.

French Inventions #6 -Calculator

Although the Abacus (a counting frame using beads) was used for ages and indeed was of great help, it was Blaise Pascal who first invented a device that could perform all four arithmetic operations without relying on human intelligence in 1642.

His invention was just one among the multitude French inventions that made huge strides in the field of computing.

While helping his father who was given the task of reorganizing tax revenues for Haute-Normandie, Blaise came up with the idea of a computing machine. He made 50 prototypes before successfully presenting the first machine to the public in 1645.

He further improved his design, creating 20 more prototypes. His calculator was the only functional calculator throughout the entire 17th century, and thus, fuelled the development of calculators all over the world.

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