3 Useful French Inventions

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.

First Hair Dryer, Alexandre Godefroy
First salon model hair dryer

Hair Dryer

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.

Hair dryer made with vacuum and toaster
An early home hair dryer made with a vacuum and a toaster

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.

Dr. René Laënnec - A shy French doctor, stethoscope
Dr. René Laënnec – A shy French doctor

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.

Food Preservation

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.

Napoleon Bonaparte and canned food
Thanks to Napoleon, we can buy our baked beans in a can

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.

Berets-Baguettes-and-Beyond-400wide* More about France – You can read more stories like this in my book Berets, Baguettes, and Beyond. Or see all my books HERE

*Don’t Miss Anything – If you would like to receive an email every time I post an article (2-3 times per month), sign up to follow my blog. You’ll find the button just above my photo. And, of course, you can always leave a comment below. Thank you for reading.

Margo Lestz
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  1. Of course there’s always some negative things invented by the French such as the inability to pick up their dogs poop and … well I’ll leave those for a blog post of my own;) Another witty and interesting post Margo – I’d still be okay with a French man using his ear on my chest though!

    1. Haha Sandra, I’ll be looking forward to the “crotte de chien” post.
      And you could always ask your doctor to use the old fashioned method of listening to the heart. I find the doctors here very friendly. 😉

  2. Enjoy your informative anecdotes very much. Already looking forward to the next one. Margo can you recommend any french families who take guests. My husband and I are thinking of a short break later this year and it would be fun to brush up on my french. Which part of Nice would be an interesting, safe base?

    1. Hi Susan, Thank you. I’m glad you enjoy my posts.

      I’m afraid I don’t know any French families that take guests, but here are a few ideas:

      I have a friend who has a self-catering apartment outside of Nice. I think you would probably need a car to stay there, but have a look:http://www.loumessugo.com/en/

      If you are thinking about staying in the city, anywhere in the centre is safe. The Old Town is lively in the evenings and can be noisy – but really anywhere in Nice can be noisy. Anywhere in the centre should be safe as well.

      If you want to brush up on your French, I can recommend Ida, a French teacher here who does a Meetup group each week. The sessions are relaxed and she normally does several each week: http://www.meetup.com/Je-parle-Francais-Et-voila/

      Here is another friend who has some apartments to rent in Nice: https://adrianleeds.com/parler-nice-apartments

      If I think of anything else, I’ll let you know.

      I’m also wanting to do a little guide to Nice, that would go along with my book. I will put that on my site when I get it finished.

      All the best and have a great time in Nice!

  3. Well! That was very interesting. Necessity is certainly the mother of invention. I particularly like the photo of Napoleon with the baked beans.

  4. Well I never realized that. I can now impress people with my new knowledge! I think I might rather have had a bad hair day than use the original hairdryer contraption though.

  5. Margo, I enjoyed reading this — we share some of the same sensibilities about the interaction of history and life in France! Well done.

    1. We have so many conveniences in our life, sometimes we don’t stop to think what people might have done in “the olden days.” I think I’m a thoroughly modern woman – I like my conveniences.

  6. As always Margo, I love reading your posts. So fun– and useful at cocktail parties!

    And since you love those French inventions, and knowing that you love Italian as well, here is a cute thought.

    If it had not been for this Italian, you would be referring to “Braille mayonnaise” in your closing…

    [The *comma’s* ancestors have been used since Ancient Greece, but the modern comma descended directly from Italian printer Aldus Manutius. (He’s also responsible for italics and the semicolon!) ]

    So your readers give back some trivia to you today! 😉

    1. Thank you, Signor Manutius! Those little punctuation marks really come in handy. And thank you, Jonelle for bringing Signor Manutius to my attention. It seems he’s also responsible for printing the first paperback books – another great invention.
      Hope all is well with you.

      1. So without Signor Manutius, I could neither have bought your book (being that it would not have been available), nor been able to read it so easily if I had bought it- no commas! The French (comma) and readers the world over (comma) owe much to the Italians it seems! (Who developed our exclamation point, I wonder comma question mark) Oh that is painful to try to read (and write) without the actual punctuation shortcuts… Lol! Glad you’re a modern writer, Margo! Always a joy to read!

  7. Life today has its problems and technology isn’t always a positive thing, but I have to say I don’t think I would have enjoyed living back in the 1800’s much. I guess I wouldn’t know any better since the future would have been so far off, but still. Oh man that hair dryer hahaha

    1. I wouldn’t have wanted to live in the 1800s either. Life was hard – especially for the ladies. We have so many things today that make our lives easier and free up so much time. Of course, we fill up that extra time with other things, so it seems we never have enough.

  8. What fun, so glad I found your interesting site. I have shared your great post on my fb page for my wonderful readers who love all things French. Thanks so much for a great share #AllAboutFrance

  9. My trusty hair-drier is currently by my computer as I had a mug of tea to keyboard moment yesterday and needed to get it dry quickly. I bet Alexandre Ferdinand Godefroy never realised that his invention would be used for THAT purpose! I am also busy bottling tomato sauce now so thank you, Nicolas Appert, for that nugget of knowledge. Oh and when I take the boys to the doctor for their sports medicals I will thank Dr. René Laënnec for the stethoscope the doctor will use. You have inspired me to go and look up more about other French inventions too! #AllAboutFrance

    1. Ha Ha! Hope your keyboard is OK. Our little portable hair dryers are handy for many uses. Just be happy that you didn’t have to hook up the vacuum and the toaster to dry up the spilled tea.
      I agree that it is fun to look into the origins of the everyday items in our life. Have fun on your investigations.

  10. Thank goodness we don’t still have to use vacuums as hair dryers- not the best smell emanating from them I imagine!

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