French Inventions That Changed the World

From Blaise Pascal’s mechanical calculator to Roland Moreno’s chip card, French innovations have helped shape today’s world.
© Pierre-Paul Pariseau

A smart defibrillator enabling paramedics to locate heart attack victims; a transportable kitchen appliance with stove, hot plate, and toaster functions suitable for everything from BBQ to fondue; a construction brick made with solid cellulose; a backlit badge for displaying invisible disabilities. What do all these objects have in common? Each one picked up a prize at the 2022 Concours Lépine invention awards in Paris.

Launched in 1901 by the prefect of Paris, Louis Lépine, in the hope of battling the crisis affecting the city’s toymakers and hardware stores, this competition and exhibition has unearthed all sorts of gems over the years. Some have been rather eccentric, such as soundproofed restrooms, socks with pockets, an automatic bread-buttering device, a magnetic necktie that saves the wearer the struggle of knots, and an anti-sleep alarm for those who inconsiderately doze off. Others, however, have become everyday objects, such as the ballpoint pen (1919), the washing machine (1922), the lawnmower (1930), the potato masher (1931), and contact lenses (1948).

All this may seem anecdotal, but this invention frenzy seems to be part of French genius. While the country that gave us pioneering microbiologist Louis Pasteur and radium discoverers Pierre and Marie Curie seems to be lagging behind in many scientific fields, it can pride itself on several creations that have helped shape the world as we know it. One of these feats was the work of Blaise Pascal. In 1642, at the age of 19, the author of Les Pensées and Les Provinciales designed a mechanical device capable of addition and subtraction. With that, the calculator was born! What’s more, we often forget that his “Pascaline” is still used for calculating mileage in automobiles.

Cans, Braille, and Chip Cards

One of today’s most common objects revolutionized the daily lives of millions of people: the can. In 1795, at the height of the French Revolution, Parisian confectioner Nicolas Appert invented a long-term preservation technique. According to his method, food was placed in an airtight container and then heated to high temperatures to destroy bacteria. The term appertisation (canning) is still used in French to describe this process.

Another French person is unknowingly thanked daily by those with visual impairments. In 1802, a young Louis Braille, 15, who had lost his sight at the age of 3, developed a tactile system of reading and writing. Alphabets the world over have since adopted it.

On March 19, 1895, brothers Louis and August Lumière released the very first movie, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, a short film lasting less than 40 seconds. The Lumière brothers called their camera-projector ensemble the “cinematograph,” and in doing so invented cinema. Several decades before, photography was also created in France when Nicéphore Niépce designed a box for recording still images on a tin plate covered with bitumen. The first photograph was taken in 1826.

The chip card was another invention that turned our daily lives upside down. In 1974, engineer Roland Moreno designed a technological process used to put integrated-circuit memory chips into a standard-size card. These are now found in bank cards, passports, SIM cards, fobs, and all sorts of passes.

The Revolution of Transportation

Transportation is probably the field in which French inventors have been the most ingenious. In the 18th century, Joseph Cugnot, a military engineer from Lorraine, produced the first automobile by equipping a fully loaded cart with a steam boiler. In 1770, his vehicle caused quite the stir when it traveled a few dozen feet at 2 miles per hour.

While a German inventor discovered the theory behind the velocipede, the ancestor of the bicycle, it was Pierre Michaud, a locksmith in Paris, who developed the pedal system around 1860. As the old French saying goes, a bicycle without pedals is about as much use as a piano without keys!

Clément Ader then went down in history in 1890 – almost a century after the invention of the hot air balloon, or aerostat, by the Mongolfier brothers in 1793 – by flying the first airplane worthy of the name. Featuring two bamboo propellers and a 20-horsepower steam engine, the machine lifted 8 inches off the ground and flew for a full 160 feet!

© Pierre-Paul Pariseau

The Bidet, Champagne, and the Guillotine

The French can also boast about other remarkable inventions, including the pressure cooker (1679), the parachute (1797), the stethoscope (1816), bleach (1820), the gyroscope (1825), matches (1831), medical bandages (1870), the bra as we know it today (1889), and in all likelihood the lightning rod (1752), given that Benjamin Franklin simply voiced the idea instead of actually developing it. We could also add the foldable umbrella (1705) and the bidet, which first appeared in France around 1710.

When compiling any Prévert-esque inventory, we would be remiss to forget Champagne. It was a Benedictine monk nicknamed Dom Pérignon who, in 1688, had the idea of applying the methods used to make sparkling wines in the southern French town of Limoux to the production of wines in the Champagne region.

It has to be said that France and its inhabitants have also earned a reputation for their less glamorous finds, such as VAT (value-added tax), dreamed up in 1954 by Maurice Lauré, a young finance inspector, and the parking meter, designed in Besançon in 1972. Then there is the sadly famous guillotine, inaugurated during the French Revolution on April 25, 1792. Pitched to the National Assembly by Doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who hoped to reduce the suffering of those sentenced to death, it was actually invented by another doctor, Antoine Louis. This decapitation machine was exported to several neighboring countries such as Germany and Switzerland, and was used for the last time in France in 1977.

The Inventions of the Future

That’s all well and good, but all these inventions are from the past. What do the French currently contribute to humanity? In the environmental sector, for starters, brilliant ideas and projects are springing up everywhere. They are focused on renewable energy storage, given this resource’s generally intermittent availability. In fact, it was a French inventor who developed the solar-powered electric bicycle in 1993. Another point of national pride is the fully electric helicopter, which was invented in France in 2011!

France has also made considerable contributions to the latest advances in medicine. With its hundreds of biotech and medtech start-ups, along with its major pharmaceutical groups, it is now one of the leading countries for innovations in the field. Inventions in recent years include synthetic erythrocytes (red blood cells), an artificial larynx, nanoparticles for targeting cancer, an exoskeleton designed to help people with disabilities walk, and an innovative treatment to restore sight to those with visual impairments by making certain retina cells sensitive to light.

The slogan declared by President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1976, during an increase in gas prices, still rings true today: “We don’t have oil in France, but we do have ideas!”


Article published in the July 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.