Exploring the most innovative minds and greatest inventors, with their inventions.
France has always loved to innovate, create and invent in every field, from arts and culture to the sciences. So it is perhaps not surprising that so many vital objects, machines and solutions which we take for granted were first dreamed up in the minds of an ingenious, daring, or indeed maverick French man or woman.
Take those early pioneers of flight, the Montgolfier brothers Joseph-michel (1740-1810) and Jacques-étienne (1745-1799). They helped to run the family paper factory business near Annonay in Ardèche, where they noticed that heated air beneath a lightweight paper or fabric bag allowed the bag to float. A series of hot-air balloon experiments culminated in the first manned untethered flight on 21 November 1783, when Jean-françois Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d’arlandes flew for around 20 minutes over Paris and made the dream of human flight a reality.
The Montgolfiers were preoccupied with conquering the air, but for Louis Braille, making the written word accessible to the blind was the primary aim. Braille was born in Coupvray, Île-de-france, on 4 January 1809 and was blinded at the age of three while playing with tools in his father’s workshop. The boy grew into a bright scholar, and a gifted musician, and when he was just ten, Braille went to study at the Royal Institute for the Blind in Paris, where he would later teach.
As a schoolboy, Braille became interested in a system developed by Captain Charles Barbier de la Serre to enable the military to communicate in the dark without the use of light. He was inspired to develop his own system of writing for the blind, based on a series of raised dots in a six-point grid. Braille presented his system in 1832, but the institute did not adopt it until two years after his death in 1852. Other systems were being developed, and it took Great Britain and the USA until 1932 to adopt Braille as the uniform method of reproducing printed material.
While Braille was working to convince his peers in 1832, there were developments at large in a different branch of science. This was the year in which Jeanne VillepreuxPower invented a way to witness the mysteries of the deep on dry land. VillepreuxPower was born in Juillac, Corrèze, in 1794, the daughter of a shoemaker, and went to Paris where she became a dressmaker of some renown. After marrying an English merchant, she moved to Sicily, where she became fascinated by the natural environment, particularly marine life. Needing an effective way to continue her work, she invented the first recognisable glass aquarium.
Villepreux-power effectively brought the underwater world on to dry land, and more than a century later her compatriots, naval officer Jacques-yves Cousteau and engineer Émile Gagnan, developed a way of allowing humans to spend more time in the deep blue sea, with the invention of the aqualung.
Thanks to his many marine documentaries, Cousteau was equally well known as a film-maker, an occupation that arguably exists largely thanks to the work of Auguste and Louis Lumière from Lyon. They designed the cinématographe, a camera, printer and projector that was used to present the first cinema screening, in Paris in 1895. Like so many of the inventions of their countrymen, their ingenious idea changed the world forever.
THINGS TO DO 1 France Montgolfières Balloon Company
Take off from locations across France to experience the Montgolfier brothers’ incredible invention firsthand. France Montgolfières Balloon Company is one of several firms to offer hot-air balloon flights: rise above the rugged landscape of Provence, float over the vineyards of Burgundy or gaze down upon the grandeur of the châteaux of the Loire such as Chenonceau ( pictured above) and see the stunning French countryside from a new perspective. 4 bis Rue du Saussis 21140 Semur-en-auxois Tel: 0203 287 1775; (Fr) 3 80 97 38 61 france-balloons.com
2 Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris
Designed by its founder, Henri Grégoire, in 1794 to celebrate “new and useful inventions,” the museum – housed in a deserted priory – has built up a fascinating collection demonstrating technological innovation in all its glory. More than 2,400 inventions are divided into seven categories: scientific instruments, materials, energy, mechanics, construction, communication and transport. 292 Rue Saint-martin 75141 Paris Tel: (Fr) 1 53 01 82 75 arts-et-metiers.net
3 Musée Louis Braille, Seine-et-marne
Not far from the buzz of Disneyland Paris and the bustle of the French capital lies the quiet village of Coupvray, the birthplace of Louis Braille. His modest family home, where he lived as a child and convalesced as an adult suffering from tuberculosis, is now a museum dedicated to his life and work. Visitors can follow a guided tour and try reading and writing in Braille. Visit the village church, too, where Braille was initially buried before being moved to the Panthéon in Paris, final resting place of France’s greatest figures. 13 Rue Louis Braille 77700 Coupvray Tel: (Fr) 1 60 04 82 80 coupvray.fr
4 Musée Lumière, Lyon
This museum, part of the Institut Lumière, takes cinema-lovers back to the place where film as we know it was born. The cinématographe was designed here, and the displays pay homage to Louis and Auguste Lumière’s pioneering contribution to the septième art. Find out, too, about the brothers’ other innovations, including the panoramic picture and early use of 3D. The institute is based at the brothers’ family home and is a work of art in its own right – an art-nouveau château with crafted ceilings and a grandiose staircase. The adjoining cinema is housed in a striking modern building ( pictured above) on the site of the Lumières’ orginal factory and shows a range of films as well as hosting festivals. 25 Rue du Premier-film 69352 Lyon Tel: (Fr) 4 78 78 18 95 institut-lumiere.org
The cinema pioneers Louis and Auguste Lumière in later life