Many of the everyday things that we use today have been wrongly credited. And while the world has construed its own theories regarding this, we should give credit where it’s due, because the original inventors are lost to history. So, with this post I’ll tell you the ‘real’ inventors behind some famous inventions.
The Assembly Line
Usually credited to Henry Ford, the assembly line was actually invented by the Chinese. Henry Ford is also credited for the invention of the moving assembly line, but this section will be focusing just on the assembly line.
The basic process can be traced back to the reign of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. That means that the assembly line seen in many factories and plant around the globe can actually be traced back to 3rd Century BC, because his reign was from 259 BC to 210 BC. It was used to build the famous Terracotta Army (pictured below). The Terracotta Army is a collection of sculptures depicting the armies of the first Emperor and various parts which make up the statues were built in different areas of China. They were even stamped with their specific factory and then each piece was brought together to be assembled at a different place and time.
George Washington Carver is normally credited with inventing peanut butter, when it was actually The Incas. Whilst Carver was a hugely prominent peanut farmer in the early 20th century and did come up with over 300 uses for peanuts and other crops that he grew; he is not who we can trace this tasty treat back to.
The first mention of peanuts was in 950 BC in South America with the Incan Empire, who were known to have manufactured peanut butter in their native Peru. Peanuts have even been found in various tombs throughout Peru.
Technically the invention of the iPod does belong to the engineering team at Apple because without them it wouldn’t have been called that. But the invention of the first portable digital music player was actually invented by a British man named Kane Kramer.
In 1979, a full 22 years before the release of the first iPod, Kramer developed a device which stored 3.5 minutes of music on a chip and then actually filed a worldwide patent for it which were issued between 1985 and 1987. Once developed, he was said to have an enormous amount of orders from the music business and his investors included Sir Paul McCartney. However due to office politics, he was unable to raise the $90,000 needed to renew it and the patent lapsed.
The Steam Engine
James Watt is often miscredited as the inventor of the steam engine, which isn’t accurate. He just invented the first commercially viable one. The first use of a steam engine was described as a machine in Alexandria which only had one use: to turn a globe on its axis, through a sealed cauldron and a series of pipes. It can be credited to Hero, an Ancient Greek who was a mathematician and engineer in Roman Egypt in the first century AD.
The design and concept were forgotten about for thousands of years until 1698, when Thomas Savery, an English inventor, built a machine which used steam to pump water out of coal mines. It had no moving parts and wasted so much coal it was impractical. Another English inventor, Thomas Newcomen, improved on the concept, introducing a moving piston, before James Watt did his work.
The Automobile (The Car)
The first working steam-powered vehicle was designed and potentially built by Ferdinand Verbiest, a Flemish member of a Jesuit mission in China around 1672. Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot is the first to build the first full-scale, self-propelled mechanical vehicle around 1769. In 1801, Richard Trevithick built and demonstrated his Puffing Devil road locomotive, which many believed to be the first demonstration of a steam-powered road vehicle. It was, however, unable to maintain sufficient steam pressure for long periods and was of little practical use. In November 1881, French inventor Gustave Trouvé demonstrated the first working (three-wheeled) car powered by electricity at the International Exposition of Electricity, Paris.
However, the person that is credited with the invention of the modern car is the German engineer Karl Benz, the founder of Mercedes-Benz, rather than Henry Ford who is generally credited for it.
In 1879, Karl Benz demonstrated the first gasoline-powered automobile, 17 years before Henry Ford first drove his Ford Quadricycle. The first “real” automobile was developed and designed by Wilhelm Maybach in 1900 calling it Daimler-Mercedes.
Compared to the cars of today, Benz’s design was incredibly primitive, as his engine produced a total of .75 horsepower, 186 times less than that of a 2013 Honda Civic.
The “father of modern physics,” Galileo Galilei, is often credited with the invention of the telescope. However, it was actually developed by a Dutch spectacle-maker named Hans Lippershey in 1608, a year before Galileo improved upon his design. The first telescope only magnified objects three times, magnitudes lower than the one developed by Galileo.
Incorrectly identified as the inventor of the radio, Guglielmo Marconi was a rather gifted inventor, improving on previous radio designs, especially with regards to range. However, the real first creator of the radio was David Edward Hughes, the first person to demonstrate how radio waves can transmit sound, which was first proposed by the theoretical physicist James Clark Maxwell.
In 1879, a full 15 years before Guglielmo Marconi first received his patent for the radio, Hughes demonstrated the ability to send Morse code signals over the air, but it was incorrectly identified by the Royal Society of London as induction. Nikola Tesla invented the idea of the radio that we know today in 1892 — not too long after Heinrich Hertz demonstrated UHF spark wireless transmissions in Germany in 1885.
Alexander Graham Bell is usually credited with the invention of the telephone, since it was his name on the patent and all. However, his invention was incomplete and actually changed after filing his patent, utilizing some of Elisha Gray’s design. But neither one of these people is recognized as the actual inventor of the telephone: that honour belongs to Antonio Meucci.
Unfortunately, Meucci couldn’t afford the money necessary to file a patent and his prototype was “lost” by Western Union, which signed a lucrative deal with Bell when he received his patent for the telephone. Later, Antonio Meucci took Bell to court, even getting the Supreme Court to agree to hear the case, but he died before his suit could be finished.
The Light Bulb
Probably thanks to his unabashed self-promotion, Thomas Edison is usually credited with the invention of the first light bulb. He was not in fact, though like some of the other history-remembered people on this list, he did invent the first commercially viable one. The real inventor was Humphry Davy in the early 1800’s. There is also debate that has recently been expanded to include Nikola Tesla as the original inventor of the lightbulb, but Davy’s work took place before Tesla or Edison were even born. In 1809, he publicly demonstrated how to cause a current of electricity to pass between two strips of charcoal, creating the first arc lamp in the process. The first creator of an incandescent light bulb meanwhile, was Warren De la Rue. Though his had an efficient design, it was commercially impractical because he used platinum strips, which were prohibitively expensive.
The Flush Toilet
Although sanitation has been an issue throughout history and various civilizations, including Rome and Egypt, had plumbing systems to help with sanitation and, whilst they were rinseable, they were not flush toilets as we know them. The mistaken inventor of the flush toilet is Thomas Crapper, a name that provides laughs to many schoolchildren when discussing this. While Crapper did invent various important components for the modern flush toilet, the toilet itself was actually invented over 2,000 years ago in Ancient China.
One of the world’s oldest known water closets was discovered in 2000 by archaeologists in the 2,000-year-old tomb of a king in central China. The stone toilet was provided with a seat and armrest and could be flushed with piped water. However, some claim that the oldest example of flushing technology dates back to between 3,000 and 1,500 BC, where a series of stone closets at the Palace of Knossoss in Crete were discovered.
I hope this post was successful in giving credit where it is due. In a few cases, the person that history remembers created the first commercially viable version of that product, so that is the person who designed the item as we know it, but the original idea didn’t originate with them. So this is an opportunity to learn about the future by looking back at the past.
by Fran Allen, SGO Projects Officer #learningforthefuture