The Real Inventors of Some of History's Most Famous Creations
The Real Inventors of Some of History’s Most Famous Creations

The Real Inventors of Some of History’s Most Famous Creations

Larry Holzwarth - September 16, 2019

The Real Inventors of Some of History’s Most Famous Creations
Thomas Edison was an early master in the art of self-promotion. Wikimedia

13. Thomas Edison and the light bulb

Edison’s supposed invention of the light bulb has long been disputed, and he is generally considered to have been one of many who studied the problem of using electricity as a viable source for lighting. At least twenty patents existed for electric lightbulbs before Edison and his laboratory began considering the problem of a workable electric light. So while Edison did not invent the light bulb, it can be argued that it was he who perfected it, though even that is disputed. His work coincided in time with that of Joseph Swan, who perfected a similar bulb using the same materials at roughly the same time. Edison and Swan later entered business together in England.

Edison became known as the inventor of the light bulb, as well as several other items which he did not invent, because of his abilities as a public relations specialist. He was a showman to the general public, creating interest in the inventions which came out of his factories and laboratories, which in turn helped to attract investors. His true greatest invention was the art of industrial research by assigned teams, which he created at Menlo Park. It was the teams which labored over what became known as his inventions, while he invented his image as the Wizard of Menlo Park, an image which he still retains today.

The Real Inventors of Some of History’s Most Famous Creations
Edison leaned freely on the work of predecessors whom he did not acknowledge in the creation of the phonograph. Wikimedia

14. Edison and the phonograph

Thomas Edison is credited with the invention of the phonograph, a device which he first patented in 1878. It was not the first device which was capable of recording sound, though it was the first which could faithfully reproduce the sound in the form of playback. Earlier devices recorded sound and could reproduce it visually rather than audibly. Although Edison had a reputation as an innovator in the telegraph industry prior to the invention, it was the phonograph which first placed him in the public mind as the greatest inventor in America. Using foil as the medium upon which the sound was recorded, Edison did not at first aggressively market the invention.

Nor did he and his team acknowledge the work of an earlier inventor, a Frenchman named Edouard-Leon Scot de Martinville. In 1857 de Martinville was awarded a French patent for his invention of a device which he called the phonautograph. The phonautograph mimicked the human ear in design and recorded sound by converting it to visual images, by vibrating a reed over inked paper or glass plates. De Martinville failed to create a market for his device. Though Edison and his team used a similar approach to etch sound vibrations on tinfoil, they never credited de Martinville’s invention or work as contributing to the invention of the phonograph.

The Real Inventors of Some of History’s Most Famous Creations
The strange disappearance of Louis le Prince, the first to create motion pictures, continues to baffle researchers. WIkimedia

15. Louis le Prince and the invention of motion pictures

Louis le Prince was the first to record moving pictures using a single lens camera, with the images captured on paper. In 1888 he received an American patent for a camera which served as both the recorder and projector of the images. By 1889 le Prince was prepared to demonstrate his invention in the United States for the benefit of potential investors and he moved to New York City with his family. He scheduled a public demonstration of his device for September, 1890. A trip to England to obtain patents there and a brief trip to France preceded his scheduled demonstration of motion pictures, using a system patented before Edison’s.

He disappeared without a trace while traveling by train in France. Neither his body nor his luggage were ever found though some claim parts of his luggage turned up in Paris. In 1898 the American Mutoscope Company was involved in a patent infringement case with Edison, who by then claimed to have invented the motion picture camera. Mutoscope was the company formed to market the device invented by le Prince, and his son Adolphe, who had long assisted his father, was called to testify. Edison prevailed in the case which was heard in American courts, and two years later Adolphe was killed in a shooting accident on Fire Island in New York.

The Real Inventors of Some of History’s Most Famous Creations
Edison flooded America with pirated copies of Melies’ masterpiece, A Trip to the Moon. WIkimedia

16. Did Thomas Edison invent the pirating of film?

In 1902 French filmmaker Georges Melies produced A Trip to the Moon, which became a classic and is considered the first science fiction film in history. It was a sensation in France and England, and Thomas Edison, determined to monopolize the motion picture market in all of its aspects, not only the manufacturing of cameras and projectors, took steps to ensure Melies would not profit from the film in the United States. Edison paid a projectionist in England to deliver a copy of the film to him, from which he made multiple copies and distributed them across America. The film was presented in America as an Edison production and the royalties went into Edison’s pockets. Melies never received so much as a dime.

Edison’s actions effectively eliminated Melies from the lucrative American film market, but that was not the limit of Edison’s actions regarding film piracy. At the same time he employed enforcers to ensure that films produced by his studios were protected from unscrupulous theater owners, in effect suppressing the very acts of piracy he also practiced. Edison’s domineering hand on the film industry led to many producers, who initially clustered around New York and New Jersey, moving to the west, including outside of Los Angeles.

The Real Inventors of Some of History’s Most Famous Creations
Franklin’s many inventions included the Franklin Stove, but he did not invent street lamps. Wikimedia

17. Benjamin Franklin did not invent streetlamps, but he did improve them

Before electric lights municipalities provided light on their streets through the use of streetlamps, which Benjamin Franklin observed in London. He found the London design to be inefficient, the round lamps did not allow smoke to exit. The smoke obstructed the light, and the oily soot left behind obstructed it further. Cleaning was problematic. It was time consuming, and it was lamp globe consuming; the globes were fragile and easily broken when being removed for cleaning. Thus London was burning expensive whale oil to provide light which was of little benefit for its citizens.

It was Franklin who proposed replacing the round globes with rectangular panes of glass, sloped outward as they rose to the top of the lamp, which included a central chimney which efficiently allowed the smoke to exhaust. The outward slope of the panes helped to keep the lamps dry. They were also easier to clean, as the panels were thicker and thus less fragile than the round globes previously used. For this, Franklin is often credited with the invention of streetlamps but, as with Edison more than a century later, Franklin actually developed an improvement to an existing light source. Franklin copied a design which he had seen in use in the house of a friend, with adjustments to the lamp’s wick as well as the chimney.

The Real Inventors of Some of History’s Most Famous Creations
Sikorsky and a prototype helicopter in Russia, circa 1910. Wikimedia

18. Igor Sikorsky and the invention of the helicopter

Igor Sikorsky is credited as the inventor of the helicopter. Though the first commercially and militarily viable helicopter in the United States was his design, (the Vought-Sikorsky VS-300), he did not invent the propulsion of aircraft via the use of rotors. His first helicopter design was the H-1, which he produced in 1909. The word itself (helicopter) was coined in 1861, when a French inventor and designer built a version using a steam engine as the power source, which proved to be too heavy to be lifted off the ground. By the end of the decade Frenchman Alphonse Penaud built rotary helicopter models and produced them as toys. Some of these were purchased by an American minister as gifts for his sons. His name was Milton Wright.

In 1908 Thomas Edison patented a helicopter design, but the aircraft never advanced beyond the modeling stage, and never flew. By then several other helicopters had, some manned and some tethered. In short, no one man or woman can be credited as the sole inventor of the helicopter, with working models or drawings of proposed rotor powered aircraft going back to ancient China. Leonardo da Vinci proposed a design, which he called an “aerial screw”. Da Vinci built models and according to his notes flew them, but they would have been unsuitable for manned flight as the entire device rotated in the air to achieve lift.

The Real Inventors of Some of History’s Most Famous Creations
Poe is credited with the invention of the detective story in literature, though others including Voltaire preceded him. Library of Congress

19. Edgar Allan Poe and the mystery novel

The American master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe was a writer and literary critic who is widely believed to have created the fiction genre of the mystery novel. Mysteries as a form of written entertainment did not emerge until the early 19th century, in part because formal police departments, with investigators who examined crimes, did not exist. Poe wrote mysteries, including his Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841), and was an early contributor to the detective story. Poe is credited with the creation of the detective story through his character C. Auguste Dupin, who first appeared in the above mentioned short story. He was the basis for subsequent fictional detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.

But detective fiction is merely a branch of the genre which includes the mystery novel, and while Poe was an early contributor he did not invent it. Zadig, an eighteenth century novella written by Voltaire presented a mystery as its central story, and was likely an influence on Poe nearly a century later. In 1819 E. T. A. Hoffman produced the novella Mademoiselle de Scuderi, in which the eponymous character attempts to solve a mystery by deciphering clues and making corresponding deductions, though often erroneous. Edgar Allan Poe is nonetheless usually cited as the inventor of the mystery/detective story, and an annual award, the Edgars, are presented to the best in several crime writing categories by the Mystery Writers of America.

The Real Inventors of Some of History’s Most Famous Creations
Cooke and Wheatstone telegraphs were operating profitably before Morse “invented” the telegraph. Wikimedia

20. Samuel Morse and the electrical telegraph

The first commercial electrical telegraph system was not that invented by Samuel Morse in 1838. Morse’s system was instead an improvement over systems which used a series of separate wires to stimulate needles on a receiver. The needles then pointed to corresponding letters and numbers on a grid, allowing words to be spelled. The Cooke and Wheatstone electrical telegraph system was in use in England for over a year before the Morse system was introduced, and remained as a competitive alternative for years later, offering what was seen by some operators as an advantage. Its operators were not required to master a new code.

Morse invented a single wire system which was simpler in design and contained far fewer components, making it cheaper to manufacture and maintain. But its operation required the use of a special code, which Morse invented, known to history and still in use as Morse code. By the time of the American Civil War the Morse system was the standard in Europe and the United States, but the Cooke and Wheatstone system was the first patented electrical telegraph system to be put into commercial use, making Morse’s reputation as the inventor of the electrical telegraph dubious. And Modern International Morse Code was created not by Morse but by Friedrich Gerke, replacing Morse’s original code and with some changes remains the form of Morse code used internationally today.

The Real Inventors of Some of History’s Most Famous Creations
Louis XVI of France was one of thousands to die on the guillotine during the French Revolution and Revolutionary Wars. Wikimedia

21. Joseph Guillotin and the beheading machine

A myth provably false but presenting a stubborn resistance to dying out is that the beheading machine known as the guillotine was invented by French doctor Joseph Guillotin. Some versions of the tale include the additional tidbit – also false – that Guillotin died by being executed on the machine. There were in fact several machines developed for the purpose of quickly removing the head from the human body over the centuries, but that which most resembles the guillotine of France was developed by a German, Tobias Schmidt, working with the Frenchman Louis Antoine. Their model featured the angled blade, which severed the head more cleanly. Guillotin did nothing more than propose the use of the machine in French executions.

Joseph Guillotin was a physician and politician who was an early opponent of capital punishment. Recognizing that the form of punishment was unlikely to be banned in France, he proposed beheading as the universal means of execution, replacing the various systems in use (which including the rack and other tortures) with a mercifully quick death. He lobbied for the machine to be used and his support was so vocal that it became known in France as Guillotin’s machine, which quickly became simplified as the guillotine. During the French Revolution its use was enthusiastically embraced. Guillotin did not meet his end on the guillotine however, he died in Paris in 1814, of natural causes.

The Real Inventors of Some of History’s Most Famous Creations
Peanut butter was not invented by George Washington Carver as many have long believed. Wikimedia

22. George Washington Carver and peanut butter

George Washington Carver has long been called the inventor of a ubiquitous product in American life, peanut butter. Carver was an agricultural scientist of note, contributing innovations in crop rotations and the reduction of soil erosion. He did produce more than 100 recipes for food items using peanuts, which he distributed to farmers through what he called his practical bulletins. He also researched the use of peanuts in other products, none of which brought financial success. From 1915 to 1923, while at Tuskegee Institute, his experimentation into alternative uses for several foods included soybeans, pecans and other tree nuts, sweet potatoes, and legumes. But he did not invent peanut butter.

Although evidence of grinding nuts into a paste dates to the ancient Aztecs in the Americas, it was a Canadian, Marcellus Edson, who obtained the first American patent for milling roasted peanuts into a paste, which he mixed with sugar. Cereal magnate John Kellogg patented a form of peanut butter (made from boiled peanuts) in 1898. Several Kellogg employees developed recipes of their own and marketed them under differing names after leaving the cereal company. By the 1930s nationally known brands emerged, including Peter Pan (1928) and Skippy (1932). Today, the United States Peanut Butter Board includes a statement on their website which reads, “Contrary to popular belief, George Washington Carver did not invent peanut butter”.

The Real Inventors of Some of History’s Most Famous Creations
A 1762 drawing of Jethro Tull’s seed drill, which performed similarly to Washington’s. Wikimedia

23. George Washington and the seed drill

As a farmer George Washington was an innovator, converting his Mount Vernon farms to grow alternative crops when tobacco depleted the soil. From the new crops, chiefly grains, he created new products, including beers, whiskey, and flours ground in his own mills. He once recorded an entry in his farm diary in which he referred to a seed drill of his own design, which “answered very well in the field in the lower pasture”. From this reference came the belief that George Washington invented what he called a “Drill Plow”, and while his shops fabricated the device “of my own invention” his reference was to the design, rather than the farming implement decades old known as the seed drill.

Washington was familiar with seed drills, through his extensive research and correspondence with other farmers, in Europe and America. A horse drawn seed drill which planted seeds in rows in a manner similar to that described by Washington was invented in England by an agriculturist of the name Jethro Tull. The seed drill allowed seeds to be planted at the correct depth and distance, and was far more efficient than simply tossing them by hand (broadcasting) or hand digging and planting individual seeds. By 1760 Washington was an avid practitioner of the theories and methods espoused by Jethro Tull, including the use of implements invented earlier in the century by the Englishman.

The Real Inventors of Some of History’s Most Famous Creations
Edison sits in a swivel chair, a device invented by another famous American named Thomas. Wikimedia

24. Thomas Jefferson and the swivel chair

The swivel chair is not the invention of a furniture maker, nor a lazy boss, nor a publican providing barstools for his patrons. It was devised by Thomas Jefferson while he was in Philadelphia for the Continental Congress which produced the Declaration of Independence. Whether Jefferson used the chair while writing the drafts of that document is disputed; it may not have been ready in time. What is known is that Jefferson provided a Philadelphia furniture maker with the specifications for the chair. Jefferson took the chair to Monticello when he returned, and in his workshops there modified it exceedingly, an indication that he was not fully pleased with the product delivered in Philadelphia.

It was one of many inventions by Jefferson, which include his famous copying desk, and a pasta machine, to make the macaroni which he grew to love while in Paris and Italy. He is often credited with bringing ice cream to American, and developing an ice cream freezer, neither of which is true. There are written recipes in his own hand for several flavors of ice cream, which he provided to confectioners in Philadelphia, along with pastries to be served with it, but ice cream recipes appeared in American food books many decades before Jefferson became acquainted with them.

The Real Inventors of Some of History’s Most Famous Creations
Doubleday is widely attributed as the inventor of baseball, though the evidence indicates otherwise. Wikimedia

25. Abner Doubleday and the game of baseball

The story that Abner Doubleday invented baseball was deliberately created in 1908, by a group known as the Mills Commission, in order to separate the American game from the ancient British game of rounders. The commission was chaired by Abraham Mills, at the time president of the National League, and supported by American league president Albert Spaulding. The official story endorsed by the Mills Commission was that Doubleday invented the game and the rules in 1839, and the first game played under the rules took place in Cooperstown, New York, that year. The National Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame officially recognizes Doubleday as the inventor of baseball, but to date has not inducted him into the Hall.

Whether baseball was derived from rounders or grew out of its own remains a disputed aspect of the game and American history. References in documents from American towns mention baseball by that name, as well as rounders, being played long before 1839. Spalding worked tirelessly to perpetuate the myth. In his book America’s National Game he pointed out the invention of America’s game by a man who had been a hero during the Civil War (including at Gettysburg) was highly appropriate. So while the preponderance of evidence is that baseball evolved over time (and continues to do so today) Abner Doubleday continues to be officially credited with its invention.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Invention of the Telescope”. Albert Van Helden. 1977

“The First Steamboat”. John H. Lienhard, Engines of our Ingenuity. University of Houston. Online

“Who invented radio?” Tesla Life and Legacy, Public Broadcasting System. PBS.org

“The Inventive Mind of Walter Hunt, Yankee Mechanical Genius”. Jimmy Stamp, Smithsonian.com. October 24, 2013

“Charles F. Jenkins”. Entry, Ohio History Central. Online

“Bell did not invent telephone, US rules”. Rory Carroll, The Guardian. June 17, 2002

“Buckminster Fuller, International Outlaw”. Calvin Tomkins, The New Yorker. December 31, 1965

“The Sweet History of Chocolate”. Christopher Klein, History.com. February 13, 2013

“American Inventors, Entrepreneurs and Visionaries”. Charles W. Carey. 2010

“The Story of Henry Ford’s $5 a day wages: It’s not what you think”. Tim Worstall, Forbes. March 4, 2012

“The Monopolization of Monopoly: The $500 Buyout”. Burton H. Wolfe, San Francisco Bay Guardian. 1976

“Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville: the phonautograph”. Entry, Thomas Edison National Historical Park. National Park Service. Online

“Louis le Prince, who shot the world’s first film in Leeds”. Ian Youngs, BBC Entertainment and Arts. June 23, 2015. Online

“Was Hollywood Built on Piracy?” Terry Hart, Copyhype. May 7, 2012. Online

“It’s the little things”. Entry, Benjamin Franklin: Inquiring Mind. PBS.org. Online

“History of the Helicopter from Concept to Modern Day”. Entry, Prime Industries. August 31, 2015

“Crime Fiction (The New Critical Idiom)”. John Scaggs. 2005

“The Cooke and Wheatstone Needle Telegraph Systems”. Entry, Electromagnetic Telegraphy. Harvard.edu

“Dr. Guillotin”. William Chambers and Robert Chambers, Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal. 1844

“Who invented peanut butter?” Entry, National Peanut Board. Online

“Washington and the new agriculture”. Entry, George Washington Papers, Library of Congress. Online

“Revolving Windsor Armchair”. Entry, Thomas Jefferson, Monticello. Online

“The Man Who Didn’t Invent Baseball”. Victor Salvatore, American Heritage Magazine. June/July 1983

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