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
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.

“The Inventive Mind of Walter Hunt, Yankee Mechanical Genius”. Jimmy Stamp, 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, 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. 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.

“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