At age 11, Valérie-Anne Giscard d’Estaing read La Guerre de Feu (later made into the film Quest for Fire), about man’s Promethean discovery. The book ignited her imagination. From then on, inventors and their inventions were a preoccupation of the eldest child of former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. A graduate of the Institute of Political Science, Valerie-Anne first expressed her own inventiveness in the kitchen: At 32, she is the author of three cookbooks and the former host of a weekly French TV cooking show. Divorced in 1981, she lives in Paris and races motorcycles. In fact, she won the Rothmans Ladies Pharaoh’s Cup at the rally in Egypt in 1983. Her Le Livre Mondial des Inventions was first published in France in 1982, and, updated annually, it has been a best-seller there each year. Now in English, The World Almanac Book of Inventions was published in paperback this fall (World Almanac Publications, $10.95). Giscard d’Estaing took time out from her U.S. book promotion tour to discuss inventors and inventions with assistant editor Dawn Clayton.
Why a book of inventions?
There aren’t any. There are big, technical encyclopedias in 10 volumes, but those are for professionals. This book is a general encyclopedia. We talk about more than 2,000 inventions, but only inventions everybody can understand and relate to their lives. We just try to say how something was invented, when it was invented and why. We don’t describe how it works.
Who assisted you on the book?
I’m the head of a team. We have about five permanent staff and some 60 specialists in different fields doing the research: curators of museums, teachers at universities, engineers, journalists. We also work with companies like IBM, Ford, Boeing and Sony that keep us updated on what they’re doing.
How does the American version differ from the French?
We have sports, like pelote, that aren’t popular here; you have sports like football that we don’t have. There’s food you eat or drink that we don’t; we wear some kinds of clothes that you don’t.
What about nationalist rivalries ?
Everybody claims the airplane. Americans think the first plane should be credited to the Wright brothers, who in 1903 had the first one capable of sustained controllable flight. The French say it was a man called Clément Ader, who is generally credited with the first takeoff in 1890. And in Brazil they claim it was Santos-Dumont, who won a prize in 1906 for the first officially observed flight in Europe.
Did the French invent the croissant?
No. It is very sad for us. Vienna was besieged by the Turks, and the Polish army came to help Austria defeat the Turks. In gratitude the Austrian emperor gave Poland’s General Kulyeziski all the coffee that was left behind by the Turks—coffee was not very popular at the time in Europe. And Kulyeziski opened a coffee shop. To accompany his coffee, he designed a kind of pastry in 1683. He gave it the form of a crescent because that was the emblem of the defeated Turkish Empire. And that’s how the crescent, or croissant, was born.
Was there a Golden Age of inventions?
There have been several: the end of the 18th century, which was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Europe; then the 1880s in the U.S., when Edison was working and, after World War II, everywhere in the world. Nowadays Americans lead the world in patents, but the Japanese file nearly as many. Inventions are being produced faster and faster. There are 1,500 inventors filing for patents each day in the world. It’s incredible.
And the most revolutionary?
To me, the most important are in the medical field. Penicillin, discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming, has saved millions of lives. But if you take the everyday life of women, the invention of the electric washing machine—which we attribute to Alva Fisher in 1901—was a revolution.
What’s the weirdest invention?
Dog glasses, invented in 1975 by a French optician, Denise Lemière, are certainly the funniest. Dogs apparently have eye problems, as we have. And, poor dogs, nobody ever thought of helping. I tried the glasses on my dog Ochon, but he didn’t like them.
Who was the greatest inventor?
For the most patents by one man, it’s probably Thomas Edison. He got 1,093 patents. He was very creative, a good marketing man and lived to be rather old , so he had time. Not only did Edison invent the phonograph and the light bulb, but also the kinetoscope, one of the ancestors of the cinema, and the talking doll—he put a very small recording machine inside.
Did Alexander Graham Bell really invent the telephone?
The telephone was invented at the same time by two Americans: Alexander Graham Bell, who was born in Edinburgh and became an American citizen, and Elisha Gray, who was from Barnesville, Ohio. Both filed for a patent on Feb. 14, 1876. Bell was the first: He filed his at noon, and Gray filed at 2 p.m. There were legal fights for years afterward, but finally Bell won. He paved the way for the Bell Telephone Company, which became AT & T. Gray helped organize the Western Electric Company, which eventually was purchased by AT & T.
Are there other uncredited inventors?
Barthélemy Thimonnier, the man we name as the inventor of the first practical sewing machine in 1830—nobody knows him. A tailor in a small French town, he came to Paris after he had invented his sewing machine to operate workshops. But workers destroyed the equipment because they were against progress. Later he built another machine to take to the 1851 London exhibition. But there was a storm on the Channel between France and Great Britain, and he got there too late—the exposition was over. He died poor and in despair. Elias Howe patented a machine with a perforated needle. Then Isaac Singer made the first machine for household use.
What about accidental inventions?
A most curious accident happened to John Pemberton, a pharmacist in Atlanta who had created a syrup for headaches and hangovers. One day a drugstore employee put soda water instead of tap water in the syrup, and that started Coca-Cola on its way.
The microwave oven was another accident, wasn’t it?
Yes. An American, Percy L. Spencer, was researching microwaves in the laboratory in 1946 and put a piece of candy beside a radar vacuum tube. The candy melted, and he realized that microwaves could heat food. The microwave oven is one of the very few items for which the everyday application was found before the serious application. They’re now using microwaves in the medical field to produce much better images than X rays, and they’re also being used to cure some kinds of tumors.
What are the exciting new inventions?
They’re occurring in the fields of biotechnology, space and transportation. Biotechnology is moving very quickly, and we can all hope to live much longer. We are certainly going to find a cure for cancer through genetic engineering. Robotics is moving very fast too. There’s now a robotized vacuum cleaner that is being developed—you just put it in the room and it cleans.
What would you invent?
A safe pill that lets you eat without getting fat. I think it’s rather difficult to invent, but whoever does will make a fortune.