Talking with makers in the 21st century, you might find the conversation turning to alternative energy, electric vehicles, medical breakthroughs, and special effects. These subjects would be déjà vu to Gustave Trouvé, a French inventor born in 1839, who created the first electric vehicle and outboard boat motor, the most-used military telegraph, endoscopes that stirred controversy and revolutionized medicine, and theatrical effects that wowed international audiences.

With the magic of our MAKE Wayback Machine, we were able to interview the man whose contributions to society were rivaled only by those of Edison. You may come away thinking Trouvé deserves a brighter place in the spotlight of history.

Monsieur Trouvé, were you always a maker?

Évidemment! I could happily spend from morning to evening tinkering and constructing little carriages, telegraphs, mills, rabbits, automated birds inflated by air. Although I didn’t partake much in the children’s games of my age, I loved to amaze friends with the toys I made for them.

When I was 6, I made a wind-powered marionette mill of wood, lead, and pewter. The connecting rods and cogwheels made the little figures move like people cavorting in the woods.

At 7, I constructed a steam engine using a gunpowder box and some hairpins. Then, in a sardine tin, I made a tiny fire engine with an air and water pump that apparently was new at the time.

After studying mathematical sciences and mechanical arts, I was fortunate to work in Paris in a premier clockmaker’s shop. My patrons and colleagues seemed impressed with my manual skills, and I learned much from them.

During my leisure time, I studied architecture, mathematics, chemistry, and physics. But with electricity it was like love at first light.

In 1866 I established my workshop in Paris. My flattering biographer, Monsieur Georges Barral, claimed I possessed a gift for turning concepts into action. Perhaps that is why inventors and customers flocked to the workshop.

The electric rifle I invented employed two small batteries. Capable of firing 18 to 20 shots per minute, it eliminated deviations in accuracy caused by the shock of a hammer. It was an object of public curiosity at the international Exposition Universelle in 1867, where it was presented to Emperor Napoleon III. An expert in weapons development, l’empereur admired its simplicity.

If your early inventions attracted such attention, why do so few people in North America know about you?

Je ne sais pas! Perhaps they need to study French! Or maybe it is the nature of invention that the name of the first — or the most famous — inventor lives on, while those who contribute modifications go unheralded.

For example, I made valuable improvements to the telephone, boosting sound volume and improving the magnets. Forgotten!

However, when I led the way with inventions, the acclaim was international and gratifying. A scientific journal of London wrote, “If England has Swan, America Edison, France has Trouvé.”

Why spend so much time on batteries? That’s hardly a route to fame and fortune.

Alors, electricity was beginning to transform society, yet batteries were fraught with limitations. For me, they were fundamental building blocks that needed to be improved in order to be truly useful in multiple applications. I developed many types: wet-cell, dry-cell, moist-cell, sealed, portable, pocket, automatic, reversible, and more.

I was one of the first who combated the opinion that wet-cell potassium bichromate batteries would be very inconstant and inapplicable to experiences lasting more than a few minutes. In a note to the Academy of Sciences, I established that constancy and duration could be achieved when carbon surfaces were of sufficient size, solutions were properly prepared, and zincs perfectly amalgamated.

Some of your batteries were open-topped and others were in glass jars. How did they work?

My moist-cell battery worked in a glass vase with two flat disks: one zinc and one copper. Between these disks were blotting-paper washers. The lower washers were impregnated with a saturated solution of copper sulfate, while the upper washers contained a solution of zinc sulfate.

A copper rod insulated in ebonite plastic held everything in place. Wetting the disks put the element into action. Being very regular, this battery was especially advantageous for telegraphy and medical instruments. As you can imagine, constant and continuous current was critical during surgery, and my batteries achieved that.

One of the most practical, simple, and well known was the Trouvé-Callaud battery made of copper, zinc, and a copper sulfate solution. It was designed for medical uses. Constructed at a more reasonable cost than other batteries and generating about 1 volt, it also could be employed in alarms, telegraphs, and telephones.

Arthroscopes, laparoscopes, and ultrasound are today’s high-tech medical tools. Are such devices really new?

Mais non! I invented polyscopes (illuminated endoscopes) and photophores (medical headlamps) beginning in 1869. Polyscopes let physicians explore inaccessible parts of the human body, and photophores illuminated and reflected more easily accessible cavities. I was the first to light the cavities of the human body by means of platinum wire heated to an incandescent state by an electric current. This made diagnosis more accurate.

Although I developed both petrol- and electric- powered devices, the electric ones came into widespread use during surgery and in physiology laboratories and dentists’ and gynecologists’ offices. Societies and exhibitions around the world honored me with medals and diplomas.

I also created instruments for removing tumors and extracting projectiles, as well as for cauterizing. I do not wish to describe too graphically the instruments I customized to each organ. (For those interested, I suggest my illustrated Manuel d’Électrologie Médicale.)

For my batteries and medical instruments I made cabinets, portable cases, and even a tapestry cover that made a pedal-operated electro-cautery device look like an ottoman.

No sense in frightening the patient — or the neighbors — with the sight of a strange new medical apparatus!

Wasn’t there a dispute about who was first?

My polyscope caused a revolution in medicine when it appeared at the World Exposition of 1873 in Vienna. I was awarded the Medal of Progress.

Malheureusement, two foreigners — a physician and a manufacturer — claimed as new inventions things that were merely modifications of my ideas.

I told my wife with a smile, “My dear love, I am redeemed: my invention is good, I have a counterfeiter!’”

Luckily, I encountered eloquent defenders, and in spite of the two German counterfeiters, the use of my electric polyscopes entered medical practice definitively.

In the 21st century, we’re getting serious about electric vehicles. You pioneered two?

Using electromagnets, I made dynamo-electric motors. I patented a 5-kilogram motor and envisaged two such motors, each directly driving a paddle wheel on either side of a boat’s hull. Then I progressed to a multi-bladed propeller.

In July 1880, I submitted to the Academy of Sciences a new motor based on the eccentrization of the Siemens coil. In 1881, I reported that through numerous modifications I had reduced the weight of all the components and thus obtained remarkable output. The motor was removable and easily lifted off the boat.

On the 26th of May 1881, my outboard motor, with two potassium-bichromate batteries and a three-bladed propeller, powered an 18-foot-long boat down the Seine and back from Pont Royal.

Soon after, I repeated this experiment on the calm upper lake of the Bois de Boulogne, with a four-bladed propeller and a battery charged with one part hydrochloric acid, one part nitric acid, and two parts water so as to lessen the emission of nitrous fumes.

Without noise or smoke, my boat beat all others and reached an unofficial record speed of 10.8 kilometers per hour. Quelle acclamation!

As all inventors did, I greatly admired Mr. Alexander Graham Bell. I had named my fast, electric-powered boat Téléphone in his honor.

It seems the admiration was mutual, for when he visited me in Paris, he said, “I want to import to America a complete collection of all your inventions, because they constitute for me the highest expression of the perfection and the ingenuity of French electrical science.” He also expressed great surprise that I wasn’t a millionaire many times over like all his colleagues in the United States!

In April 1881, I mounted two battery-powered electric motors on an English-made Coventry Rotary Tricycle. Traveling on the Rue de Valois in Paris at 20 or 25 kilometers per hour (depending upon whom you ask), this vélocipède was the first lightweight electric vehicle. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

While my boats became popular among wealthy patrons for pleasurable outings, they were practical as well.

To control opium trade along China’s coast, the authorities required stealthy surveillance boats. Though electric motors were two or three times more expensive to operate than steam engines, they were silent and always ready. My small, efficient, 30-horsepower dynamo-electric motor launch provided a solution. This boat made possible the interdiction of many millions of francs worth of contraband.

While you were making waves with the outboard motor, you were also experimenting with aviation. What were you up to?

Since I drew birds and made bird toys from an early age, it is perhaps not surprising that my flying machines were based on birds. In December 1870, I presented two new models to the Academy.

In my first ornithopter, steam or compressed air activated the wings. The second derived its power from gunpowder charges fired into a tube. Finalement, even though mine flew 70 meters, mechanical birds did not figure in the future of aviation.

What prompted you to invent military devices?

The terrible days of bloodshed in the 1870 War directed my attention away from pleasant science. My first work for the military involved locating bullets in wounded soldiers. Later, the Geneva Conference recommended to all European governments that my lighting system for locating wounded soldiers on the battlefield be adopted as standard ambulance equipment.

In the portable telegraph system I devised, the sealed battery withstood all sorts of moving about. It became the most-used portable military telegraph at the time. The Scientific American Supplement in 1882 called the system “perfect.” Others called it “ingenious.” That mattered less than the fact that the combination of snap hooks and cables on spools allowed soldiers to establish lines as long as three kilometers over land and streams in just half an hour.

My shipboard light projector for detecting torpedo boats was presented to the Academy of Sciences in 1885. That same year, my underwater lamps were used in the Suez Canal — and drew international press attention — when they helped divers dynamite a sunken dredger that had interrupted navigation.

Electricity was transformative, and you lit the way in many ways. Tell us about that.

My battery designs made possible portable lamps that were small, maneuverable, and light.

For vehicles, I developed an extremely simple lantern that functioned instantly and provided illumination five to six times superior to oil or candle lanterns. Doctors and others lit their vehicles inside, to do their work, deliver mail, take notes, read, and dispel boredom! Some people, wanting to light their routes or being in need of publicity, used the lamps on the exteriors of their vehicles.

The public named them lampes d’Aladin Trouvé. They burned for about three hours and gave illumination equivalent to four or five candles.

One of my designs enclosed an electric lamp in a double envelope of thick crystal inside a metal lantern. Even if the lamp broke in a flammable atmosphere, no accident would result. It was used for firefighting in Paris and New York, in mining, and for finding gas leaks.

Did you ever invent just for fun?

Of all things, I became an international sensation as a jewelry maker and theatrical designer.

I started making electro-mobile jewelry in 1865 — rabbits drumming, birds and butterflies flapping, decapitated heads talking, a grenadier playing a drum. Everyone wanted them! Mounted on gold or on tiepins, the minuscule creatures were animated with the aid of an invisible wire attached to a cigar-sized, sealed battery hidden in a waistcoat pocket. Très amusant!

After the military events of 1870, I made electrically illuminated crystal jewelry in myriad colors and shapes. It, too, was all the rage, but nothing compared to the audience and media acclaim when I incorporated lighted crystals in dance, theater, and opera costumes and props.

Neither language nor images can sufficiently convey the effect on the major stages of Paris, London, Berlin, and beyond. For the time, it was the most considerable application of electrical illumination directly from batteries. Imagine a ballet of illuminated amazons, a bejeweled chandelier of sparkling dancers, Neptune’s chariot aglow, and the duel in Faust with lighted swords flashing on a darkened stage. Quel plaisir!

Given the many inventions I exhibited at major expositions, it seems fitting that my last spectacle on the international stage appeared in 1889 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. My enormous lighted fountain, which I would patent in 1893, was a sensation at the end of a transformational century.

With hope that in some small way I lit their paths or electrified their imaginations, I salute all inventors and makers who succeeded me.

Au revoir et bonne chance!