Magazine article History Today

Found ... in France: Kevin Desmond Looks for Records of a Little-Known French Inventor Who Rivalled Thomas Edison

Magazine article History Today

Found ... in France: Kevin Desmond Looks for Records of a Little-Known French Inventor Who Rivalled Thomas Edison

Article excerpt

HE SINGLE-HANDEDLY INVENTED the electric vehicle, electric boat with portable engine, electric airship, portable electric safety lamp, endoscope, electric rifle, electric 'light sabres', electric jewellery, luminous fountains--among 40 patents. Only a few of his precision instruments, hand-built at his workshop in central Paris, have survived. Each one is marked: 'Trouve, 14 rue Vivienne, Paris--Eureka'.

And you would be forgiven for thinking that Trouve is merely the past participle of the verb trouver, meaning 'found' (eureka in Greek). But Gustave Pierre Trouve, albeit an extremely modest, confirmed bachelor, was a real person.

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Born in La Haye-Descartes (Indre et Loire) in 1839, Gustave, his brothers and his sister were dominated by their father Jacques, a wealthy cattle merchant. Encouraged by his mother Clarisse, aged only seven the boy built a working miniature steam engine out of a sardine tin and umbrella spokes.

By the early 1860s the young man with deft hands and a talent for drawing, had been apprenticed to a jeweller and watchmaker in Paris. He was assembling his first electrical prototypes in the attic of a boarding house in the rue Montesquieu. In 1865, he took out his first patent: for a dry-cell battery which was activated when turned horizontally. He called it his 'Lilliputian' battery the forerunner of what we know as the 'AA' type. With this he made electric costume jewellery which lit up, an electric calendar, an electric rifle and a miniature motor. The dying physicist Leon Foucault asked the young man to electrify his gyroscope for demonstrating the Earth's rotation.

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During the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, army surgeons used Trouve's electric explorer-extractor to locate and remove bullets and shrapnel from wounded soldiers. French officers were using a dial sending despatches and commands to soldiers up to 1,000 metres away wearing his back pack battery-telegraph.

War over, in 1873 he developed a rheostatically controlled 'polyscope' (today's endoscope, for imaging the inside of the body) for which he received the Progress Medal at the Vienna Universal Exhibition. He then improved the microphones for the telephone invented by one of his great admirers, A.G. Bell

Trouve next used a horseshoe magnet to improve the efficiency of Werner von Siemens' dynamo-electric motor. In 1881, coupling it with the rechargeable secondary batteries of his friend Gaston Plante, he adapted this fist-sized unit to power an English tricycle, a skiff on the Seine, a model airship, a sewing machine and a pianista music player--all world firsts.

Appointed Chevalier of the L6gion d'Honneur, Trouve continued to innovate. In 1883 a version of his motor and batteries, scaled-up by Siemens, powered the flights crewed by the Tissandier brothers. He adapted his electric jewels for ballerinas and singers at the Folies-Bergere, le Chatelet, the Opera and theatres in Berlin and London, including the Empire, Leicester Square. He created 'light sabres' for a performance of Faust. He adapted his boats to work by prop or paddle, equipping them with headlamps, a siren and rev-counters. One festive evening in February 1886, at Chatou by the Seine, he delighted a crowd of revellers including Impressionist painters like Renoir and writers like Maupassant, with his Ile Fleuri, an electric launch glittering with electric jewels. …

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