Inventors and Inventions

Inventors and Inventions

What do you think Isaac Singer, Clarence Birdseye, Charles Goodyear and King Gillette all had in common? You may recognize their names because they gave them to their inventions. So today we have Singer sewing machines, Birdseye frozen foods, Goodyear tyres on Formula One racing cars and Gillette razor blades. We even refer to vacuum cleaners as Hoovers, after the man who widely marketed them—the American businessman William Hoover.

Note that it was the man who marketed the vacuum cleaners who ended up with the praise and the money, and not the man who invented the new machine. This often happened. Inventors who want the acclaim and the rewards new inventions can bring need to keep their inventions secret until they can make a profit from them. They do not want their rivals finding out their secrets.


Many inventors never had proper recognition for their inventions. Once you have an idea you need to register it with the authorities. They record details of the invention and the drawings or blueprints that explain how it works. Once your idea is registered, no one else can claim it as their own. Many inventors in the past did not realize this and lost their inventions to others.


Sometimes the original invention is not much more than a plan that needs someone to execute it properly. Most people think the American flyers Wilbur and Orville Wright invented the aeroplane just over 100 years ago. They were the first people we know about who flew a heavier-than-air aircraft with someone on board. The flight lasted just 12 seconds. The credit for the invention, however, should really go to Sir George Cayley. Who?

George Cayley was an English inventor who most people accept as the inventor of the modern aeroplane, though not in any practical form. He designed a fixed-wing structure driven by a separate engine in 1799. By 1853 he was building man-carrying gliders. However, at that time there was no engine powerful enough to propel one of his aircraft and it was not until 100 years later that the Wright brothers were able to put his ideas into practice.


In some cases two people working independently achieved the same innovation at almost the same time. For example, the inventors Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell applied for a patent on the telephone on the same day. Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz fought bitterly to be credited with the discovery of calculus, a method of making mathematical calculations.


Some inventors work for years to solve a problem and others discover something accidentally. The German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen discovered X-rays while he was experimenting with cathode rays.

British chemist William Perkin experimented with the drug quinine. One of the by-products of his work was a blue-purple colour, which he was tempted to throw away. Perkin eventually realized that he had produced the world’s first synthetic colour—mauve. The colour became all the rage: fashionable women wanted dresses dyed this new colour and even postage stamps were dyed mauve. Perkin patented his invention and became a very rich man.


Hook and loop tape is a very simple idea copied from nature. It was invented in 1948 by Georges de Mestral, an engineer from Switzerland. One day he went for a walk with his dog and the dog came back covered with burrs, a prickly seed that was very difficult to remove from his fur. Georges looked at the burrs under a microscope and saw that the surface was covered with hundreds of tiny hooks that caught and held on to cloth, hair or even dog fur! Some plants use this as a way of attaching their seeds to passing animals so that the animals spread the seeds around the countryside. He used this principle to invent hook and loop tape—two strips of nylon, one with hooks and one with loops, that are difficult to pull apart.


A number of inventions are much older than you might think. Contact lenses were invented by a German optician called Eugen Frick in the 1880s. He first tested them on rabbits—but because they cannot talk we cannot be really sure they worked! As far as we know, Leonardo da Vinci was the first person to suggest the idea of contact lenses, in the 1500s.


Leonardo is one of the most important inventors of all time. He was the first person to draw up designs for a military tank, more than 400 years before they were first built by the British army. Historians think he probably devised the hydrometer, a machine for measuring the density of a liquid. He also did drawings for an underwater diving suit and an ornithopter, an early flying machine. Somehow he also managed to be one of the greatest artists of all time!


If we go back in time even before Leonardo, we find some of the first inventions made by human beings, though we have no records to tell us who the inventors were.

The inventions of fire and the wheel are two of the earliest and most important inventions. The names of the great ages of archaeology—the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age—are derived from the inventive use of stone and metal implements. Farming, creating watertight pots and domesticating animals were all early inventions. Speech, language, and writing were also important as they allowed people to record history and tell of the inventions they had devised.


The machine age started with the Industrial Revolution and continues to this day. Inventions have been made possible through the use of fossil fuels such as coal as sources of energy as well as through the improvement of metal-working processes (especially of steel and aluminium). Other important factors have been the development of electricity and electronics, the invention of the internal-combustion engine and the use of metal and cement in construction work.


Today, most modern inventions and discoveries take place in large research organizations supported by universities, governments or businesses. The atomic bomb, for example, was developed during World War II under the guidance of a small group of leading scientists of many nationalities. They directed a much larger group of scientists and technicians, most of whom had no idea of the purpose of the project.

Most of the time the credit goes to the team leader. Wallace Carothers invented nylon in the 1930s but he was only the leader of a team of scientists working on the project for the American company DuPont. We will never really know exactly who came up the idea. Most likely, it came to everyone on the team at the same time.


We all know that computers are a recent invention but they were predicted many years ago. Charles Babbage was a British mathematician and inventor who built mechanical computing machines in the 1820s and 1830s. This was before electricity could be used in a practical way. More than 100 years later the first practical computer was built, but it was so large it filled a room. Ever since computers have become smaller and smaller as they have become more powerful. The first PC (personal computer) is only just over 20 years old and the PDA or Personal Digital Assistant, is just over ten, but soon they will become out of date and we will all move on to the next new thing.

Did you know?
• The brothers Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier were the inventors of the first practical hot air balloon. They tested it for the first time in 1783 when they sent aloft a sheep, a duck, and a cock.
• The Russians used their Sputnik programme to put artificial satellites into space. In 1957 they sent the first living thing into space. It was a dog called Laika.
• French tailor Barthélemy Thimonnier invented the first practical sewing machine in 1829. When he installed 80 of his machines in a clothing factory the tailors of Paris wrecked them. Thimonnier eventually died bankrupt in England.
• The American Thomas Alva Edison patented over 1,000 inventions, including the light bulb, a film projector, and a gramophone.