10 Famous French Inventions That Will Surprise You

by Alice White Walker
a black and white still from the film dr no

France’s influence on the world is mainly felt in food and arts, but there are many more famous French inventions than you would think. Read on to discover our favorite French inventors and their creations, some more useful than others!

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The Silent Metronome

The first rhythm-keeping tool was invented in 1696 by Étienne Loulié, musical theorist and consummate inventor. He crafted his device to help fellow musicians reach a level of precision and timing comparable to his own. 

While the Chronomètre de Loulié was just as accurate and reliable as modern metronomes it did have a significant drawback as a musical aide: it was absolutely silent!

Pasteurization

There is little doubt that Louis Pasteur knew the impact his discovery would have on the world, and how celebrated it would make him.

Louis’ revolutionary procedure allowed the long-term conservation of food and drink by killing the bacteria that cause them to spoil early. 

It is a typical French concept in that it preserves food, and it is a famous French invention because it does not affect the food’s taste! Unlike sterilization that eliminates many of the microorganisms that mature food and imbue it with flavor, pasteurization combines conservation and maturation, with one feeding into the other.

The (“Atomic”) Bikini

As he basked on a sunny beach in 1946, Louis Réard bemusedly observed the contortions of women struggling to fold or roll up their bathing suits. They were clearly trying to obtain an even tan, a feat made difficult by the stringent morals and correspondingly large bathing suits of the day. 

This ingenious creative would soon come up with an answer to the problem; one so explosive that it was banned in several countries and named after a Pacific island that was an atomic bomb test site.

The bikini was first worn in Paris in 1946, and after a few years of scandal would progressively become accepted thanks to stars such as Ursula Andres and Brigitte Bardot. If not the most famous French invention, it is certainly the most shocking!

The Hairdryer

Although the object was perfected and popularized in the United States, the credit for the conception of the hairdryer (sèche-cheveux) goes to a Frenchman: Alexandre Godefroy. 

Just like the ones we know today, it was an electromechanical apparatus that blew hot air to dry water. Unlike modern dryers, they were too big to move, and had to be plugged into a heat source.

One wonders whether an imaginative stylist ever tried the fireplace…

Cinema

Undoubtedly the most famous of French inventions, and probably the one they are most proud of after the bikini. 

A common misconception is that the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, created film itself. They are actually the inventors of commercial cinema, the industry that spawned le Septième Art (Editor’s note: the French expression for cinema.) 

The very first movie tickets were bought in 1895 in Paris, for a series of movies mostly showcasing the Lumière brothers’ industrial operations and workers. These minute-long, drab industrial documentaries are the surprising ancestors of every movie ever made.

Margarine

Not all famous French inventions were steps forward, as evidenced by margarine. 

Butter had fallen out of favor under the Roman Empire and only regained its popularity during the 17th century with the apparition of variants such as beurre d’Isigny. However, during the 19th century, Emperor Napoleon III offered a small fortune to the creator of a cheap alternative to butter, that could be used for his armies and France’s poor.

Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès rose to the challenge and invented oleomargarine, shortened to margarine, in 1869.

Mayonnaise

The origins of mayonnaise is a hotly disputed topic, and the truth is likely now lost to time. 

One of the most popular theories is that it was first whipped up by the cook of a French battalion in 1756. The army had just seized a Spanish city, but supplies were running low and the chef was short of ingredients for the victory feast.

The story goes that he made a replacement cream by mixing oil and eggs, to the delighted surprise of the famished, but discerning, French soldiers.

The Hot Air Balloon, Parachute & Wingsuit

The history of the hot air balloon dates back to the 18th century and was invented in France. You may not know that before inventing a way of going up, the French had a few interesting ideas on going down.

The very first parachute was to all intents and purposes an umbrella! Louis-Sébastien Lenormand was clutching one very firmly when he jumped off his town’s observatory in 1783. Remarkably he survived and is considered the father of modern parachutes. 

Another French inventor was not so fortunate and tragically died in pursuit of his vision. Patrick de Gayardon, the inventor of the wingsuit, fell to his death when testing a new parachute mechanism. Testament to the fact that both progress and greatness carry risks.

Lenormand jumps from the tower of the Montpellier observatory, 1783. Illustration from the late 19th century.

Read next: The History of the Croissant

birds eye view of freshly baked croissants by cedric grolet patissier

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