A Brief History
On November 16, 1938, the psychedelic drug Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) that has since become known as “acid” was first synthesized by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofman (not to be confused with Abbie Hoffman, the social radical). You probably did not have any idea when, where and by whom LSD was invented, and to be honest, neither did the author.
In fact, sometimes who exactly invented something is a matter of dispute. Here 9 more such inventors whose names are generally not common knowledge to the masses are listed.
9. C.R. Alder Wright, Heroin, 1874.
Englishman Wright (no known relation to the Wright Brothers) was the first person to synthesize Heroin from morphine, thereby creating a much stronger drug. The drug and its manufacture were perfected by none other than the great German chemical and pharmaceutical company Bayer, with chemist Felix Hoffman leading the way. Originally invented with the intention of being an incredibly effective pain killer, the addictive properties of the drug and fatal overdoses led to Bayer ceasing production in 1913. The United States followed suit in 1924 by banning its manufacture, importation or sale. History and Headlines Fact: Felix HoFFman and Albert HoFman are not related.
8. Manfred von Ardenne/ Philo Farnsworth, Television, 1931, 1927.
Ardenne was Germany’s answer to Thomas Edison, with both geniuses not even being college graduates. Ardenne invented about 600 items, including the first television whose use was demonstrated publicly. Fans of Philo Farnsworth will dispute this though, as this American was the first person to send an image (black line) via television in 1927 and is therefore considered the father of electronic television. Farnsworth’s first public display was the image of the dollar sign in 1928. Earlier versions of “television” were of the electro-mechanical variety and date back to 1884 with Phillip Nipkow’s invention in Germany. With so many scientists who worked on perfecting television worldwide, the title of “inventor” is hotly debated, although Farnsworth seems to be the best candidate.
7. Charles Babbage, Mechanical Computer, 1832.
Inspired by the laborious job initiated by Napoleon Bonaparte in France to standardize weights and measures, Babbage invented what he called the Difference Engine, the first mechanical computer, to help with the ensuing mass amount of computations necessary. His design would have used punched cards similar to those used by early IBM computers and programmable weaving machines that were invented in 1804. His invention was not produced and remained on paper until 1991 when the Science Museum of London built a working model. The inventor of the electronic computer is somewhat debatable, with Konrad Zuse of Germany having invented the first programmable electric-powered computer in 1941.
6. Christiaan Huygens, Internal Combustion Engine, 1680.
Do not feel bad if you have not heard of Christian Huygens, as perhaps not many know of this Dutch mathematician and scientist. He invented a gunpowder engine, also known as an explosion engine or Huygen’s engine, an early type of internal combustion engine that used gunpowder as its fuel. Of course, although his prototype might be the earliest example of an internal combustion engine, the internal combustion engine would experience many improvements and advancements, in the next 200 years, with many candidates claiming the title of its inventor. By the late 1800s, enough working models were available and crude oil was being refined into kerosene (diesel fuel) and gasoline (petrol), making the combination of engines and carriages into automobiles, and soon afterwards motorboats and airplanes, possible.
5. Erik Rotheim, Aerosol Spray Can, 1926.
Although the original idea may have originated 130 years earlier, Erik Rotheim was the first inventor to patent a practical version of the pressurized aerosol spray. Norway honored Rotheim and his invention with a postage stamp in 1998. It was an American though, Julian Kahn, who patented the first disposable aerosol spray can in 1939, while fellow Americans Lyle Goodhue and William Sullivan perfected it with a 1941 patent. Their product was bug spray.
4. James T. Russell, Compact Disc, 1966.
Although not perfected for commercial application by James T. Russell, it was his invention that allowed for the development of laser discs, DVDs and Compact Discs (CDs). Though many people know that Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, hardly anyone knows Russell’s name!
3. Harmon Northrop Morse, Acetaminophen, 1877.
Familiar to Americans by the brand name Tylenol, the pain and fever reducing drug acetaminophen is also known as paracetamol which was first synthesized by the American chemist Harmon Northrop Morse. Originally believed to be toxic to humans, this pain medication was not mass marketed in the United States until 1950 when it was sold as Triagesic, a compound containing aspirin, acetaminophen and caffeine. Acetaminophen, by itself, was marketed outside of the United States as Panadol in 1953 and inside the United States as the children’s medication Tylenol in 1955. Widespread use of acetaminophen, however, did not occur until the early 1970s.
2. Charles Gerhardt, Aspirin, 1853.
Although it was the Frenchman Charles Gerhardt who was the first to prepare acetylsalicyclic acid, the active ingredient of aspirin, it was not until the late 1800s when Felix Hoffman of Bayer perfected the process and was able to mass produce it. Arthur Eichengruen later claimed, however, that it was he and not Hoffman who was most responsible for the synthesis of aspirin at Bayer and that his contributions had been erased from history by the Nazi Regime because he was Jewish.
1. Charles Kettering, Automobile Self Starter, 1911.
This Ohioan is second only to Thomas Edison (another Ohioan) when it comes to Americans who hold the most patents. Most of Kettering’s inventions were auto-industry related. If Henry Leland had not assisted with the development of the self starter, however, we might still be cranking engines by hand.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who would you add to the list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
National Geographic. National Geographic Concise History of Science and Invention: An Illustrated Time Line. National Geographic, 2009.