Ten Countries that Think They Invented Things They Didn’t

Header Image source: Wikicommons

History is a spider web that reaches into quite literally every facet of humanity, so it’s not surprising that people like to hold on to the threads. A nation can take great pride in the fact that they gave the world paper, or the first human rights, trigonometry or parliament. Sometimes however the threads of history can get a little tangled and no-one is left quite sure exactly what happened.


The countries that follow on this list are either mistaken in believing strongly that their nation invented something it didn’t, or correct in their belief while the rest of the world stands unaware.


Spain and Coca-Cola


Image source: US Library of Congress

The official line on Coca-Cola is that it is a most American invention. The world renowned super sweet beverage was invented in Altanta in 1886 by ‘Doc’ John Pemberson, wasn’t it? Well not according to the Spanish. And they have fair reason to believe why not.


A year earlier, in 1885, a Spanish traveling salesman named Bautista Aparici had arrived in the United States, bringing with him various liquors for sale and show. One of these liquors was named Kola-Coca, a combination of the African kola nut and the Peruvian coca plant. He sold a few bottles, left a few samples and left the country.


Just a year later came Pemberson’s invention. Coincidence? Or did old ‘Doc’ steal his invention straight from the Spanish?


Funnily enough it seems the answer is yes, he did. Kola-Coca had already won many awards in Europe and later the Coca-Cola company had to take steps to avoid being sued for a lot of money. You can read more about it here if you’re interested.


The USA and the Light Bulb


Image source: Thomas Edison (reprinted by the Norris Peters Co.)

Another American misconception is the inventor of the light bulb. Basically anybody anywhere in the USA will tell you it was Thomas Edison. If you were on the street in Berlin however, you would hear the answer that Heinrich Göbel had been the inventor. In England you would be pointed to Joseph Swan as the true genius behind it all. So, which nation is right?


Well the USA aren’t even betting on the right horse, since Edison did not invent anything at all. He simply bought a Canadian patent belonging to two men named Woodward and Evans in 1879. He did then improve on their concept, but only with ideas stolen from men like Göbel or Swan. Ideas like changing the filament, or using a vacuum pump to extend the bulb’s lifespan.


But it goes further. Edison was not even the first man to manufacture and sell light bulbs commercially. You’ll notice that Edison’s patent above is dated 1880.  Swan had been manufacturing and selling his light bulbs in England a full decade earlier. The full story is too long for this blog, but a much fuller version of it can be found here.


Anyway, it really isn’t a mystery why Americans still believe the bulb was invented by Edison. It’s down to marketing, something Edison did extremely well.


Europe and the Printing Press


Image source: Colophon

When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in Europe in the 1400s the world changed. Before Gutenberg there had been just a few thousand manuscripts in all of Europe. Within half a century there were millions.


Thought exploded, and the renaissance arrived. However, if it sounds like a fairy-tale, it probably is. What the Europeans hailed as a new development, was already a millennium old in the East.


The Chinese weren’t just printing either, they were printing a lot, and cheaply. The fact that the oldest dated Chinese printed page (from the year 868AD, called the Diamond Sutra and pictured above) was printed “for universal free distribution” should demonstrate just how cheaply they could do it.


600 years later when Gutenberg invented his press, the Chinese had already had moveable type for four centuries, and two colour printing for a hundred years. Nevertheless the Europeans remember differently, they remember Gutenberg.


Germany and the Computer


Image source: Konrad Zuse

The computer is one of the greatest feats of human engineering accomplishment, and couldn’t possibly have been invented by the work of just one man. It took the work of a lot of different men in a lot of different places at the same time. As such a few different countries all claim to have invented the computer. The first of these is Germany.


In 1941 a man named Konrad Zuse, working in his spare time from his parent’s house, invented and sold the first ever computer. Called the Z1, the buyer was the German aircraft bureau, for which he would also construct the Z2 and Z3. All of these were destroyed during the allied bombing of Berlin unfortunately, but the Germans have not forgotten.


To qualify Zuse’s being named as the inventor of the computer however you need a lot of adjectives. Precisely you need to say “fully operational stored-program electromechanical computer” which certainly isn’t the concise flash point of true invention.


Bulgaria and the Computer


Image source: Atanasoff Monument in Bulgaria, By Nickolay Angelow

If you’ve ever visited Bulgaria you’ll know their fierce claim to have invented the computer, it’s on the lips of every local eager to tell you about their country. The name John Atanasoff is taught to all of the children in school.


Working at precisely the same time as Zuse in Germany, Atanasoff was based and actually born in the USA. He was half-Bulgarian on his father’s side and a quarter French and a quarter Irish on his mother’s, so a real American mix. Nevertheless he was staunchly proud of his Bulgarian heritage, and the Bulgarians remember.


Atanasoff was certainly a pioneer in the field of computing, and with his student Clifford Berry he created the ABC computer in the 1940s. However there is a reason that the French, Irish, or American do not remember Atanasoff as the inventor of computing, because he wasn’t. Pioneer yes, inventor no. But try telling a Bulgarian that.


England and the Computer


Image source: Alan Levine

You may be noticing now that what you read earlier was true, and a lot of countries all lay claim to inventing the computer. Don’t worry though this is the last one in that little mini-category.


So why have I brought the mini-list to a mini-end with the English? It’s because they take their claim very seriously and way back, to the century before all those other would-be inventors sprung up all over the world.


Not content with simply citing Alan Turing as the father of the modern computer (and having built his Bombe computer in 1939 he could be) the English like to cite an eccentric nobleman working in the 1830s. The gap of a century would truly remove all doubt as to who did it first. Turing’s Bombe was based on a Polish Bomba after all.


The eccentric’s name was Babbage, and he designed but never built the famous ‘Difference Engine’ and more elaborate ‘Analytical Engine’. Although his Difference Engine has been proved to work it is simplistic, and the second is so complex as to have never been tried. But the English remain sure it was Babbage who invented the computer, long before anyone else.


Oh and yes, that picture above is him with his brain, at the Science Museum in London.


England and Football


Image source: Emperor Taizu playing Cuju, circa 1300 AD

Often in an English pub you will hear the story of the invention of football. It originated during medieval times and has since been affectionately dubbed ‘Mob Football’. Entire towns would take part, with the only rule being no murder. It was more of a mass brawl than anything else, but it slowly evolved into football. In China the story goes a little differently.


Around the birth of Christ, in the year 2 BC to be exact, the game of cuju, literally kick ball, was invented in China. The game started among the cavalry as a way to stretch their legs when they had no riding to do, but it soon became extremely popular.


By 10 AD Cuju had had its first organised championship, and the first Cuju Club had been established. Cuju’s resemblance to football is more than just a passing one. They had two teams, two goal-posts holding a net and an inflatable ball. They also could not use their hands to control the ball. Even FIFA has had to admit it. Football is Chinese, and the Chinese know it.


Brazil and the Aeroplane


Image source: Revista Moderna (1899)

Brazil don’t just think the short statured dandy Alberto Santos-Dumont invented the aeroplane, he’s also famed for inventing the wristwatch, or at least being the very first person to ever use one. The unconventional Brazilian lived in Paris, where he was very famous for owning his own balloon.


In fact he owned a lot more than one and you can browse the full awesome list here. He would use this balloon to navigate the city, visiting friends and museums. In 1901 he even completed a lap of the Eiffel Tower.


It was five years later, in November 1906, that Santos-Dumont would first demonstrate his plane. Completed on the outskirts of Paris the demonstration drew the attention of the continent, and he was hailed as the inventor of the aeroplane. Unfortunately for Santos-Dumont the Wright brothers had done this already, although not in public, three years earlier.


However Brazilians will say the brothers were just frauds who used a catapult and a cliff. They maintain that Santos-Dumont has been robbed of his rightful place in history.


Serbia and the Radio


Image source: CCFHP

Serbia claims invention of the radio in the same way that a Serbia will claim their country invented just about anything from the early twentieth century, because of Nikola Tesla. It’s impossible to know exactly how much this enigmatic genius actually did invent, but Serbians don’t need convincing of any of it.


The average Serbian will sooner believe that Tesla invented free wireless electricity for the whole planet than that he wasn’t the first to invent something as simple as the radio. But the fact remains that technically, he wasn’t.


The radio is actually a result of the work of an Italian man named Guglielmo Marconi. He did make use of Tesla’s coils in doing so, but one part certainly doesn’t make the whole.


It was a hard fought race but Marconi sent and received the first broadcast and then applied for the first patent, while Tesla’s experiments went up in flames. Marconi crossed the finish line first. Nevertheless Serbians, and a lot of Americans too, remember the genius Tesla instead.


The USA and the Car


Image source: Carl Benz in his Viktoria, 1894

Although the modern automobile might look a lot more like Henry Ford’s famous Model T than its earlier counterparts the fact of the matter was that it was not the first. Henry Ford did not invent anything, not even the production line. He simply sponsored and improved. The first modern automobile, after centuries of false starts and sailing chariots, was officially patented in 1886 in Germany by Karl Benz.


Not only did Benz invent the automobile, he invented spark plugs, radiators, gear shifters and other essentials to modern day motoring. In fact you’ve probably even heard of Karl Benz as one half of the company Mercedes-Benz, but I bet you didn’t know he was the inventor. If you’re American that is, if you’re German I am sure you were very aware.


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