We have so many modern conveniences, and we rarely stop to think about what life might have been like before they were invented, or give a thought to their inventor. Today, we are looking at three French inventions that make our lives easer.
You probably don’t give much thought to your lowly little hair dryer. You just take it for granted that you can wash your hair, and have it completely dry in a matter of minutes. But that wasn’t always the case. Before the late 1800s you would have had to wait for nature to do the job – and when fashion dictated that ladies wore long thick tresses, that could have taken several hours.
However, all that changed when the hair dryer was invented. Alexandre Ferdinand Godefroy, was a French man who called himself a hairstylist/inventor. This inventive hairstylist was living, and running a salon, in St. Louis, Missouri when he patented his newfangled invention in 1888.
Even though this contraption was a great leap forward in women’s hair care, it was a far cry from the nifty little handheld electric blow dryers of today. It consisted of a large hood hooked up to a gas heater. Small pipes coming off the main flue directed hot air to various parts of the head, and a little chimney on top let the steam escape so it wouldn’t scald the lady’s head.
It must have been the talk of the town when Monsieur Godefroy installed his new “hair dressing device,” as he called it, in his St. Louis salon. But those who didn’t want to go to the salon to dry their hair didn’t have long to wait for a do-it-yourself solution. When the electric vacuum cleaner was introduced, it was also marketed as a home hair dryer. This image shows a quite complicated version: the vacuum exhaust pipe is connected to a box with a toaster inside. The toaster warms the air in the box and another hose directs the warm air current to the hair, and voila! A home hairdryer – how clever is that?
Now, when you pick up your little blow dryer in the morning, maybe you’ll have more appreciation for it – and its French inventor.
In the early 1800s, if you went to the doctor and he needed to listen to your heartbeat or your lungs he would simply lay his head on your chest and listen. That worked well most of the time, but it seems that Dr. René Laënnec was a religious and modest man. Pressing his ear to the chest of his young female patients just didn’t seem quite proper.
One day he walked past a group of children playing near a construction site. He stopped to watch as a boy at one end of a wooden beam ran a pin across it. Children at the other end had their ears on the beam and were giggling in delight that the wood carried the sound of the pin all the way down to them.
This gave the shy doctor an idea, and next time a young woman came into his office with a heart complaint, he had the opportunity to test it. Normally, he would have gone ear to heart, even through his embarrassment – but not this time. Remembering the children he had seen, he rolled a sheet of paper into a tube and placed one end over the lady’s chest and the other end in his ear. To his happy surprise, he heard her heart beat loud and clear. This lead him to design a wooden version of what has now become a staple in every doctor’s kit.
So, depending on your relationship with your doctor, you may or may not think the stethoscope is an improvement.
Some people, like me, just aren’t cut out for cooking. If you’re one of them, you’ll appreciate that some things can be bought in jars and cans. Indirectly, we have Napoleon Bonaparte to thank for that.
Napoleon liked to go to war. He thought he might even be able to take over the whole world if he could only figure out how to feed all those soldiers. So he offered a cash prize to anyone who could come up with a method of conserving food that could be transported along with his army.
Nicolas Appert, a Parisian chef, won the money by boiling food inside sealed glass jars. No one understood why this kept the food from spoiling, because Louis Pasteur, another French man, hadn’t yet discovered the role of microbes in food spoilage. But Nicolas’ method worked and that was all that mattered.
He collected his 12,000 Francs prize money in 1810 and used it to set up a canning factory. Unfortunately for Nicolas, it was destroyed four years later, in 1814, when the other European countries had had enough of Napoleon’s invasions. They all ganged up on him, marched into France, and drove him into exile – tearing down Nicolas’ factory along the way.
While glass bottles did a good job of preserving food, they did have drawbacks; the main one being that they were breakable. Soon a method for preserving food in cans was invented, by another French man, Philippe de Girard. The cans were much more portable and useful for soldiers and sailors, and eventually, these canned foods found their way into modern kitchens everywhere.
So, the next time you open a can of tuna, go to the doctor, or dry your hair, remember these French inventors and what they did to make your life easier.
*Of course, there are many other French inventions, such as the metric system, pasteurization, photography, the home refrigerator, braille, mayonnaise, the hot air balloon, and the pencil sharpener, just to name a few.
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