Did you know that European companies register each year in Europe more than 260.000 patents for their inventions? If all inventions are not necessary revolutionary, some of them may change radically our industrial technics, our communication channels or -more basically- our way of life. Over the last centuries, Europe brought to humanity many of the greatest breakthroughs. Think about great inventions such as the telephone, the printed press, cinema, the world wide web or the telescope… Or inventions of our daily lives such as eyeglasses, soft contact lenses, swiss army knives or perfume atomisers… Europe is all about this creativity and the continuous aspiration for innovation and improvement. The list below is a tribute to all European inventors who contributed significantly to the expanding influence of Europe in technics and technology…
Most Europeans now associate sea navigation with big and strong boats and we tend to forget how breakthrough the invention of the Caravel in the 15th century was. Let’s consider that until this invention, Europeans were limited to coastal cabotage navigation using ancient Mediterranean cargo vessels of around 50 to 200 tons. These boats were fragile, with only one mast with a fixed square sails that could not overcome the navigational difficulties of Southward oceanic exploration. With the caravel, navigation became easier, with small, highly maneuverable sailing ships which enable Portuguese navigator to explore the earth during the age of discovery.
Americans may claim to be the first country to land a man on the moon, but it was thanks to a Spaniard that Amstrong could actually leave the spacecraft. Emilio Herrera Linares designed and built a full pressure suit called escafandra estratonáutica in 1935. The Russians then used a model of Herrera’s suit when first flying into space. At that time, the suit even included a microphone, an anti-vapour breathing system, thermometers, barometers, and various instruments for measuring and obtaining samples. When tested at Cuatro Vientos Experimental Station, the suit’s pressurized mobility was found to be “thoroughly satisfactory”, according to its inventor.
Imagine a world without cinema! You might not be aware of this, but we owe the invention to the French! The Lumière brothers are generally considered as the inventors of cinema. But at the end of the 19th century, other genius inventors had found processes capable of projecting moving images or photographs. In France the Praxinoscope attracted a large audience at the Grévin Theatre, while in the US, Thomas Edison tried to launch his Kinetoscope, or peep-hole viewer. However none of these machines would encounter the success of the Cinematograph presented by the brothers on the 28th of December 1895 at the Grand Café in Paris.
Iceland has been pioneering in transmission grid and power transformers. Chester Hjortur Thordarson (1867 – 1945) was an Icelandic-American inventor who was instrumental in the development of the modern energy transmission grid with his work on transformers. Thordarson’s first opportunity of distinction came through his association with universities. An order came from Purdue University that requested building a half-million volt transformer to be exhibited at the 1904 St. Louis Fair — it was slated to be used for experimental purposes at Purdue thereafter. Eleven years later, Thordarson built a million volt transformer, and received a gold medal for the accomplishment.
Irish people have changed the world: the first submarine to be used by the US navy was invented by Irishman, John Philip Holland. In 1897 he launched a submarine that was powerful enough to travel for four hours beneath the surface of the water. It was the first of its kind and superior to similar vessels being developed in France. It was powered by both electric motors and gasoline engines. The US Navy was suitably impressed and purchased the submarine in 1900 and it became known as USS Holland. The navy then ordered six more to be built. John Philip Holland later sold his designs to other navies including the British and Japanese.
If the invention of the telephone was the culmination of work done by many individuals, the history of which involves a collection of claims and counterclaims, we commonly credit to the Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell the invention of the first practical telephone. The classic story of his crying out “Watson, come here! I want to see you!” is now well-known in the history of the telephone. Bell was the first to obtain a patent, in 1876, for an “apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically”, after experimenting with many primitive sound transmitters and receivers. Bell was also an astute and articulate businessman with influential and wealthy friends.
Even basic inventions have an interesting story. The concept of an aerosol originated as early as 1790, when self-pressurized carbonated beverages were introduced in France. But it is not until 1927 that the Norwegian engineer Erik Rotheim patented the first aerosol can and valve that could hold and dispense products and propellant systems. This was the forerunner of the modern aerosol can and valve. Commercial exploitation of the patent was not significant until it was introduced in the United States in the 1940s. In 1998, the Norwegian post office issued a stamp celebrating the Norwegian invention of the spray can to pay tribute to its inventor.
Several pioneers designed a version of the thermoscope at the same time. In 1593, Galileo Galilei invented a rudimentary water thermoscope, which for the first time, allowed temperature variations to be measured. But it is not until 1742 that the Celsius scale was invented by Swedish Astronomer Anders Celsius. The Celsius temperature scale is also referred to as the “centigrade” scale. Centigrade means “consisting of or divided into 100 degrees”. The Celsius scale has 100 degrees between the freezing point (0°C) and boiling point (100°C) of pure water at sea level air pressure. The term “Celsius” was adopted in 1948 by an international conference.
The invention of heart rate monitor is to be found in a cold nordic country with a strong ski culture. The first wireless heart rate monitor was invented in 1977 as a training aid for the Finnish National Cross Country Ski team and as ‘intensity training’ became a popular concept in athletic circles in the mid-80s, retail sales of wireless personal heart monitors started from 1983. Strapless heart rate monitors now allow the user to just touch two sensors on a wristwatch display for a few seconds to view their heart rate. These are popular for their comfort and ease of use though they don’t give as much detail as monitors which use a chest strap.
On Christmas Eve 1915, an expectant crowd of 75,000 people stood in front of the City Hall in San Francisco to watch the Danish inventor Peter L. Jensen demonstrate the world’s first loudspeaker. Cheers erupted as the singing voice of a well-known opera diva of the day filled the airwaves, and resonated over a distance of 1½ kilometres. In the USA, Peter L. Jensen was regarded as the Danish Edison, and one of the most expensive loudspeaker brands is still called Jensen. Peter L. Jensen later said that he came to regret his invention when he heard how Hitler and other dictators misused loudspeakers as a propaganda weapon.
Who invented the telescope? The answer is still a mystery. It is highly probable that as lens-grinding techniques improved in the late 1500s, someone held up two lenses and discovered what they could do. However, it is commonly acknowledged that the first person to apply for a patent for a telescope was a Dutch eyeglass maker named Hans Lippershey. In 1608, he tried to lay claim on a device with three-times magnification. His telescope had a concave eyepiece aligned with a convex objective lens. One story goes that he got the idea after observing children in his shop holding up two lenses that made a distant weather vane appear close.
Can you believe it? The World Wide Web is half Belgian! The name Robert Cailliau may not ring a bell to the general public, but his invention is the reason why you are reading this: Dr. Cailliau together with his British colleague Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, making the internet accessible so it could grow from an academic tool to a mass communication medium. In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee proposed a hypertext system for access to the many forms of documentation at and related to CERN. During this time, Cailliau co-authored a proposal for funding for the project for which he even designed the first WWW logo…
Ok, Étienne Lenoir was born in Mussy-la-Ville, which is now part of Belgium, but the city was at that time in Luxembourg… Ok, Étienne Lenoir was not the first one to patent the invention of the internal Combustion Engine… But he was the first one to commercialize it in sufficient quantities to be considered a success! By 1859, Lenoir’s experimentation without electricity led him to develop the first single-cylinder two-stroke engine which burnt a mixture of coal gas and air. Most applications of the Lenoir engine were as a stationary power plant powering printing presses, water pumps, and machine tools. They “proved to be rough and noisy after prolonged use”, however.
Most of us tend to take printed materials for granted, but imagine life today if the printing press had never been invented. Around the late 1430s, a German man named Johann Gutenberg was quite desperate to find a way to make money. Gutenberg already had previous experience working at a mint, and he realized that if he could use cut blocks within a machine, he could make the printing process a lot faster. However, instead of using wood blocks, he used metal instead. The German goldsmith’s contribution to the technology became then revolutionary — enabling the mass production of books and the rapid dissemination of knowledge throughout Europe
The Kaplan turbine is a propeller-type water turbine which has adjustable blades. It was developed in 1913 by the Austrian professor Viktor Kaplan, who combined automatically adjusted propeller blades with automatically adjusted wicket gates to achieve efficiency over a wide range of flow and water level. Kaplan turbines are widely used for electrical power production. They cover the lowest head hydro sites and are especially suited for high flow conditions. They have recently found a new home in offshore wave energy generation. Inexpensive micro Kaplan turbines are also manufactured for individual power production with as little as two feet of head.
Of course! We couldn’t avoid mentioning the Swiss Army Knife in an article devoted to European inventions! During the late 1880s, the Swiss Army decided to purchase a new folding pocket knife for their soldiers. This knife was to be suitable for use by the army in opening canned food and disassembling the Swiss service rifle, the Schmidt-Rubin M1889, which required a screwdriver for assembly. The first knife had a blade, reamer, can-opener, screwdriver, and grips made out of dark oak wood. At that time no Swiss company had the necessary production capacity, so the initial order for 15,000 knives was placed with a German knife manufacturer.
Eyeglasses with convex lenses for correcting farsighted vision were probably invented in Italy around the year 1268-1284, perhaps by Salvino D’Armate or by Alessandro Spina. Early glasses were also made in China around the same time. The earliest glasses did not have arms: they perched on the bridge of the nose. Eyeglasses with concave lenses for myopia were not invented until the 1400s. According to a sermon delivered on February 23, 1306, by the Dominican friar Giordano da Pisa: “It is not yet twenty years since there was found the art of making eyeglasses, which make for good vision…” Interesting to know: glasses with arms were invented only in the 1600s
Italians may have invented eyeglasses, we owe however the invention of soft contact lenses to a Czech inventor! The first practicable soft contact lens was produced in 1961 by Otto Wichterle on a device he set up on his kitchen table consisting of a gramophone motor and bits from a toy construction set. He tried the lenses in his own eyes and although they were the wrong power they were comfortable. The lens was spun from a plastic that retained water and stayed moist on the eyeball. In essence this is the way soft lenses are still produced for the 100m people around the world who prefer them to spectacles. Otto Wichterle never became rich. The state sold his discoveries for whatever it could get…
Štefan Banič from Slovakia built the first parachutes to see use beyond the experimental stage, patenting it in 1914. Having witnessed a plane crash in 1912, Banič constructed a prototype of a parachute in 1913 and tested it in Washington, D.C. before U.S. Patent Office and military representatives, jumping first from a 15-storey building and subsequently from an airplane in 1914. Banič donated his patent, No. 1,108,484 to the U.S. Army. He received little fame or fortune for his invention. But his parachute saved the lives of many American aviators during World War I. In gratitude he was made an honorary member of the Army Air Corps (now Air Force) and the Society.
Did you know that bullet proof vest was actually invented by a Polish priest in 1893? When he wasn’t baptizing, burying or marrying people, Kazimierz Żegleń indulged in his secret passion for bullet resistant clothing. Having experimented with jackets stuffed with hair, moss, and week-old doughnuts Żegleń finally hit on the idea of using that notoriously tough and resistant material silk. Żegleń proved it worked by bravely volunteering a friend to be shot eight times in the chest. In June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was wearing a silk bulletproof vest when he was attacked by a gun-wielding assassin. But he was shot in the neck…
This is probably the most modern and well known Estonian invention in the World today. Skype, a system of peer-to-peer telephone was invented and written by Estonian software developers Ahti Heinla and Priit Kasesalu. The program is widely popular because it allows users to communicate by video using a webcam or by voice chat using a microphone. With its name derived from the words “sky” and “peer and originally named Skyper, the inventors had to register domain names Skype.com and Skype.net as Skyper.com was not available. The very first version of Skype was released in August 2003, but it is now owned by Microsoft.
We owe to Lithuania the invention of a modern system to classify stars from ground based observations. The Vilnius photometric system is a medium-band seven-colour photometric system, created in 1963 by Vytautas Straižys and his coworkers to optimize the classification of stars and ensure the possibility to measure faint stars. The Vilnius Standard Photometric System is said to have several advantages over other photometric systems; reduction procedures free of systematic errors, a homogeneous set of standard stars, accurate dereddening, spectral classification and calibration of physical parameters for normal stars, and a good detection rate of abnormal stars…
In 1937, the State Electrotechnical Plant (VEF) launched production of the first miniature camera in the world, VEF Minox, produced in 1936 by the Latvian Walter Zapp. A camera smaller than a cigar and weighing less than a cigarette lighter. And featuring an excellent lens. After World War II, the camera was redesigned and production resumed in Germany in 1948. Originally envisioned as a luxury item, the original Minox camera gained wide notoriety as a spy camera and extremely popular during the Cold War. It was used by both sides of the Iron Curtain. The innovative design and technical solutions of Zapp’s camera were patented around the world.
The astrophysicist and astrobiologist Gavriil Adrianovich Tikhov originated the idea of the “feathering spectrograph.” Most glass lenses show the effect of chromatic aberration, in which rays at different wavelengths from a star are not focussed at a single point on a photographic image but instead form a round halo. Tikhov installed a special ring-shaped diaphragm in front of the astrograph objective to enable the brightness distribution along the radius of such haloes to be studied and so provide data on the color distribution of stars of different spectral classes. These studies emerged and formed a new branch of astronomy called GA Tikhov Astrobotany.
Aerosani are a type of propeller-driven snowmobile, running on skis, used for communications, mail deliveries, medical aid, emergency recovery and border patrolling. In 1909–10 young Ukrainian Igor Sikorsky tested the first self designed aerosani. They were very light plywood vehicles on skis, propelled by old airplane engines and propellers. Born in Kiev, Russia (now Ukraine), Sikorsky was interested in aircraft as a young boy. At 11, he dreamed of a palatial flying machine luxuriously decorated, a dream that he fulfilled years later when he designed a flying passenger boat, the S-40, built for Pan American World Airways as it pioneered international air travel.
Dr Stefan Odobleja is known as the father of cybernetics. Practicaly he is the inventor of the modern cybernetics as he published in 1929 “Method of transonic chest” which states the first law of reversibility. Despite poverty stricken and, in some ways, a difficult life, he managed to remain productive. His completed works in cybernetics run to over 50,000 pages. As a reminder, cybernetics is the theory of control by retroaction. The term has spread especially related to digital systems, but the field is much wider: it deals with how a system (digital, mechanical, biological) processes information and reacts to these, also is interested in how cyber-based systems allow changes.
In 1929, Hungarian physicist Kálmán Tihanyi invented the infrared-sensitive (night vision) electronic television camera for anti-aircraft defense in Britain. The first conventional thermographic cameras began with the development of the first infrared line scanner. This was created by the US military and Texas Instruments in 1947 and took one hour to produce a single image. While several approaches were investigated to improve the speed and accuracy of the technology, one of the most crucial factors that needed to be considered dealt with scanning an image, which the AGA company was able to commercialize using a cooled photoconductor.
Peter Florjančič has an interesting story. In 1943, during Nazi German occupation of Slovenia, he decided to join a friend to Kitzbuehel, Austria, knowing he would be called up to serve in the German Army on the Eastern Front. He became there a prolific inventor: his successful inventions have included the perfume atomiser, plastic injection molding machines and the plastic photographic slide frame. In his biography, he wrote: “I’ve had five citizenships, 43 cars and the longest passport. The profession of inventor forced me to spend 25 years in hotels, four years in cars, three years on trains, a year and a half on airplanes and a year on board of ships”
Croatia – Serbia
It’s hard to choose just one of Nikola Tesla’s hundreds of inventions, but the Serbian-born inventor in today´s Croatia is perhaps most famous for developing alternating current, the system that powers our homes and businesses even today. It also sparked the feud between Tesla and Thomas Edison, whose direct current system was more dangerous, though Edison claimed otherwise. To make his case, Edison occasionally electrocuted animals to “prove” the dangers of AC. In response, Tesla sent alternating current through his own body at low voltages, using it as an electrical conductor to light bulbs and proving the system’s safety.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
The story of the invention of safety gas pressure regulator, as well as of its author Josip Nosse, originates from the destroying war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992-95! Lacking of a reliable gas supply, the people in Sarajevo used any kind of tubes to connect to the city gas net. That practice was so dangerous that Sarajevogas issued a booklet in 30.000 copies reading „Be careful with the gas!“. Constructor Josip Nosse thus had the idea to design and build a device enabling security of high and low gas pressure in the home gas installations. The invention saved then many lives and contributed to the safety of the city.
“Look at this my son, this is the best book that I’ve ever read”, said Hasan Masurica to his son Fehmi. The book was about Leonardo da Vinci, written in Arabic. The idea of constructing an airplane which would fly had come exactly from reading about various inventions of Da Vinci. Hasan Masurica expressed his will of building such a device to members of the community, but always complained he lacked the materials and elements of realizing this idea. One day, he bought poplar and fabric which he softened with wax in order for air not to pass through. One windy summer day in 1899, Hasan called his neighbors and his admirers to come and see him lift the airplane…
There is a major Bulgarian invention in motor vehicles – the automatic automotive transmission devised by Rumen Antonov that cuts fuel spending and is applicable in small cars. The patented invention has been sold to major automotive companies including Honda, Renault, Peugeot, Rover, DaimlerChrysler and Suzuki. An automatic transmission (also called automatic gearbox) is a type of motor vehicle transmission that can automatically change gear ratios as the vehicle moves, freeing the driver from having to shift gears manually. Like other transmission systems, it allows an internal combustion engine, best suited to run at a relatively high rotational speed.
One of the most commonly used gadget these days, the alarm clock, had its origin in ancient Greece. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato said to possess a large water clock with an unspecified alarm signal similar to the sound of a water organ; he used it at night, possibly for signaling the beginning of his lectures at dawn. The Hellenistic inventor Ctesibius (285–222 BC) fitted his clepsydras with dial and pointer for indicating the time, and added elaborate “alarm systems, which could be made to drop pebbles on a gong, or blow trumpets at pre-set times”. With the proper sophistication of technology, the alarm clock went afterwards through a number of changes…
Evliya Çelebi purported that in 1633, Lagari Hasan Çelebi was launched in a 7-winged rocket using 140 lbs of gunpowder from Sarayburnu, the point below Topkapı Palace in Istanbul. The flight was said to be undertaken at the time of the birth of sultan Murad IV’s daughter. As Evliya Celebi wrote, Lagari proclaimed before launch “O my sultan! Be blessed, I am going to talk to Jesus!”; after ascending in the rocket, he landed in the sea, swimming ashore and reporting “O my sultan! Jesus sends his regards to you!”; he was rewarded by the Sultan with silver and the rank of sipahi in the Ottoman army
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