Introducing the French inventor of the electric car

Gustave Trouvé also invented a forerunner to the LED light, the endoscope, wearable technology, the modern dental drill, electric razor and light therapy for skin complaints ... and improved the telephone

A MYSTERIOUS French engineer who invented the world’s first electric car 135 years ago is – finally – getting the recognition he deserves.

Gustave Trouvé (1839-1902) patented no fewer than 300 inventions, including many objects we now use every day. He was awarded the Légion d’Honneur in 1881, but nonetheless he died relatively unknown and was buried in an unmarked grave.

“He was very modest, he would probably object to everything I am doing for him!” said biographer Kevin Desmond, who has written a book on the inventor’s life, and campaigned for his achievements to be recognised with a plaque at the building where he lived in Paris.

The plaque was installed at the house in rue Vivienne, in the 2nd arondissement, on October 15, 2016.

Mr Trouvé’s most important inventions include an electric tricycle that was the forerunner of the electric car and boat, and a forerunner to the LED bulb, currently being promoted by the French government for being more environmentally friendly than standard bulbs.

He also revolutionised medicine with his version of the endoscope, and light therapy techniques for healing skin diseases.

“He was a genius,” said Mr Desmond. “He was a free thinker, and when electricity came along he realised he could adapt it to different purposes.”

Mr Trouvé is also responsible for the electric piano, as well as carbon-zinc pocket-sized batteries, and the frontal headlamps used by campers and speleologists.

But, despite the impressive range of objects he invented, he did not become famous. This is partly due to the fact that he never tried to commercialise his inventions, Mr Desmond explained.

“He was already wealthy,” Mr Desmond said. “He could have been a millionaire, but he didn’t care about money.”

Mr Trouvé was also a bachelor, and when the obligatory ‘concession’ for his tomb in the cemetery of his native town of Descartes, in Indre-et-Loire, was not renewed, his remains were moved into a common grave. His archives were destroyed after an accidental fire in 1980.

Another factor in his lack of fame was that petrol was taking over at the time Mr Trouvé was working on his electrical inventions, and therefore he may have thought that he had ‘failed’.

“It is ironic considering that now we are going back to electricity,” said Mr Desmond.

Gustave Trouvé died after cutting his thumb and index finger while working on his light therapy device for treating skin problems. He neglected his own wound, and septicemia set in. The inventor died, aged 63, on July 27, 1902.

Mr Desmond, a historian and biographer who now lives in Bordeaux, discovered Mr Trouvé’s work by chance while researching motor boats at the Science Museum in London. A librarian asked if he was also interested in electric boats, and showed him some files on Gustave Trouvé.

Mr Desmond’s biography, Gustave Trouvé, French electrical genius 1839-1902 was published in 2015.

Trouvé’s inventions

COMMUNICATIONS

  • In 1872, Gustave Trouvé developed a portable military telegraph, which enabled rapid communication at up to a distance of one kilometre, allowing for the swift transmission of orders
  • In 1878, he improved the sound intensity of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone system by incorporating a double membrane. That same year, he invented a highly sensitive portable microphone

MEDICINE

  • The inventor had a special talent for miniaturisation, and this was how he invented the ‘polyscope’, the prototype of today’s endoscope which is used for exploring deep in the body. Mr Trouvé’s machine used a battery developed by the French physicist Gaston Planté, and a small incandescent bulb
  • He also came up with a small portable device which used ultra-violet light to treat skin diseases. This was the prototype of PUVA therapy, used today in the treatment of skin complaints including eczema and psoriasis

WEARABLE TECHNOLOGY

  • Gustave Trouvé created his ‘photophore’, or battery-powered frontal headlamp, for Dr Paul Hélot, an ear-nose-and-throat specialist in Rouen. The wearable lighting system could be oriented by head movements, thus freeing the hands of its wearer. Invented in 1883, Trouvé soon modified the frontal headlamp for use by miners, rescue workers, and speleologists (cave explorers)
  • Later, he tinted the wearable light with various colours to be used as ‘jewellery’ by theatre troupes around Europe. These ‘luminous electric jewels’ pre-dated modern Christmas lights, and were the forerunners of today’s wearable technology (clothing and accessories incorporating computer and advanced electronic technologies)

ELECTRIC CARS AND BOATS

  • In 1880, Gustave Trouvé fitted a small electric motor and the recently-developed rechargeable battery to a tricycle, this inventing the world’s first electric vehicle. However, he was unable to patent it, since a steam-powered version had already been invented. Therefore, he adapted his battery-powered motor to a boat, thereby inventing the outboard engine. On May 26, 1881, the his five-metre prototype electric boat, called Le Téléphone, reached a speed of 3,6 km/h going upstream, and 9 km/h downstream.
  • He also miniaturised his electric motor to power a model airship, a dental drill, a sewing machine and a razor
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