Happy Bastille Day! 5 French Inventors & Their Unique Inventions

Vive la France! Long live the country that brought us some fantastic French inventions.
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Today we honor Bastille Day, the French national holiday which commemorates the beginning of the French Revolution dating back to July 14, 1789. On this historical day, French revolutionaries stormed and captured The Bastille prison, renounced their king's power, and claimed their liberty.

Bastille Day marked a high point during the 18th century Industrial Revolution as French artists, craftsmen, and scientists contributed to some of the most inventive products and discoveries we still use today. Below we’ve rounded up 5 of our favorites to pay tribute to our fellow freedom fighters.

Celebrate France’s national holiday with these historical fun facts!

The Photograph

Nicéphore Niépce was the first inventor to make a permanent photographic image.

Nicéphore Niépce was the first inventor to make a permanent photographic image.

In the 1820s French inventor and army soldier Nicéphore Niépce was the first to make a permanent photographic image. Previously, Niépce experimented with other inventions including internal-combustion engine, called the Pyréolophore, to power a boat with his brother. In the 1810s, Niépce became fascinated with the popular art of Photolithography (also known as optical lithography in which a pattern is exposed to light), and began experimenting using images he collected from nature. Then in 1826 Niépce used a camera obscura to produce the first permanently fixed image of nature from his workroom window, using light-sensitive chemicals on a piece of metal. He continued this process solo until 1829 when he partnered with Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, who is credited with inventing the photographic process in 1839. We can thank them both for the evolution of still photographs that document the world around us.

The Bicycle

Cities around the world have embraced two-wheel transit in major ways. From the Dutch to the Vietnamese to New Yorkers, cycling has become the preferred mode of urban transportation. The French introduced us to the first wave of cycling with a chain that powered a bicycle in 1864, thanks to the work of several Frenchmen: J. F. Tretz, Pierre Michaux, and Pierre Lallement. Each contributed a distinct part to what is now the modern bicycle. Michaux was a blacksmith and baby carriage maker from Paris who began building bicycles with pedals in the early 1860s, adding on to the early designs of the velocipede. His son, Pierre Lallement, worked with him to create the first bicycle prototypes, later inventing a transmission with a rotary crank mechanism and pedals to attach to the front-wheel hub. Both Lallement and Michaux opened “Michaux and Company” in 1868 to mass produce their bicycles, continuing to advance their designs and materials, and further drive the bicycle craze around the world. Shortly after their success, J.F. Tretz built upon their pedal bicycles with a chain drive that enabled the front wheel to move.

Pierre Lallement Photo

French inventor Pierre Lallement riding a bicycle he invented, circa 1870. (Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Pencil Sharpener

Bernard Lassimone Photo

Parisian mathematician Bernard Lassimone patented his invention of the first mechanical pencil sharpener in 1828.

Efficiency was key during the Industrial Revolution so as the world continued to develop, so did the need for quicker and better communication. Writing of course has been a part of human history since the very beginning, but it wasn’t until 1828 when writing tools gained a radical upgrade. In October of 1828 Parisian mathematician Bernard Lassimone patented his invention of the first mechanical pencil sharpener, doing away the need for knives to sharpen pencils by hand. His sharpener “employed small metal files set at 90 degrees in a block of wood and worked to scrape and grind the edges of the pencil’s tip.” Parisian newspaper, Le Constitutionnel, named Lassimone’s sharpener as the preferable way to sharpen pencils. Despite this endorsement, his invention failed to please the masses due to its reliance on manual twisting of the pencil by hand. A decade following Lassimone’s debut, Walter K. Foster (an American) entered the scene with a cone-shaped design which proved favorable for mass production at pencil factories, resulting in wider accessibility.

The Hair Dryer

Alexandre Godefroy Photo

Alexandre Godefroy invented the first hair dryer in 1888

French hairstylist Alexandre Godefroy invented the first hair dryer in 1888, hooking up the dome-like device to a heater that would send hot air to a woman’s head. His invention included “an escape valve for steam so women’s heads wouldn’t cook” but lacked airflow. In fact, in the early 20th century, ads and inventors urged women to attach a hair-drying hose to their vacuum cleaners’ exhaust, selling not only dry locks but also supreme efficiency. One 1926 patent offered a brush that could connect “to a suitable suction apparatus or blower whereby the dust and dirt may be carried off as the said brush is being used.” Until the 19th century, the only way to dry and style hair was to simply run a brush through one’s hair on a sunny or windy day. With Godefroy’s device, a large, noisy motor connected to tubes that pointed to one’s head and blew warm air, allowing for control of the heat directly to the hair.

The A-Line Dress

French designer Yves Saint Laurent's Trapeze Line popularizes the A-line silhouette.

French designer Yves Saint Laurent's Trapeze Line popularizes the A-line silhouette.

Legendary French designer and couture pioneer Yves Saint Laurent took the fashion world by storm with revolutionary concepts during the 20th century. The son of an insurance company manager, Yves Henri Donat Mathieu Saint Laurent left home at the age of 17 to work for the French designer Christian Dior. Though designing dresses for women (like his mother and sister) since his teens, it was at Dior that his fresh designs quickly gained notice and he began to carve his own path. In 1955, the term A-line was first used by Christian Dior, during Saint Laurent’s "Trapeze Line" collection featuring dresses flaring out dramatically from a fitted shoulder line. An A-line skirt (or dress) is fitted at the hips and gradually widens towards the bottom, resembling the capital letter A. His trapeze dresses became the "most wanted silhouette in Paris” and til this day, the A-line design is widely applied to not only skirts but dresses and coats as well. In 1983, he became the first living fashion designer to be given a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

From the Bio Archives: This article was originally published on July 14, 2015.