Throughout history, the works of inventors, engineers, polymaths, and entrepreneurs have advanced mankind in both small steps and giant leaps forward. But not all of those designs came to life while the hearts of their creators were still beating. Sometimes it was an abrupt death. Other times, it was lack of funding or public interest. Some inventions were even vague or hastily scrawled designs in the originator’s notebook. But many of them were finally built, sometimes hundreds of years after that person died.
10. Viola Organista – Leonardo da Vinci
Notorious for being cryptic and vague, the polymath Leonardo da Vinci included in his Codex Atlanticus around 1490 the designs of an organ able of producing string sounds, like a violin, but which operated with a keyboard, like a piano. Leonardo, having the attention span of a true genius – which is to say, none at all – never bothered building it. However, his designs, although not extremely detailed, gave a good idea to future craftsmen about how to go about creating one. Around 1575 an instrument called “Geigenwerk” was built by the German Hans Haiden.
It resembled Leonardo’s original idea but operated on a slightly different mechanical principle. The most faithful interpretation of da Vinci’s schematics so far is the organ finished in 2012 by Slawomir Zubrzycki, 493 years after its intellectual father passed away. A truly unique organ, it has raised no small amount of musicians’ eyebrows about how existing musical arrangements can be played with it.
9. Typewriter – Henry Mill
Henry Mill was an English New River Company engineer. In 1714 he obtained a patent for “an artificial machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another.” Although vaguely described, Mill’s conception has been regarded as a first clear proposal of creating what later came to be known as a typewriter. Mill died in 1770, but the potential existence of such a machine got the attention of, among others, people trying to facilitate communication for blind people.
In 1843, Charles Thurber constructed a machine for this purpose. Finally, in 1873, 103 years after Mill’s death, the Americans Christopher Sholes and Carlos Glidden put together what can be recognized today in form and function as a typewriter, revolutionizing the way people put their thoughts into paper.
8. Clifton Suspension Bridge – Isambard Kingdom Brunel
One of Britain’s most revered figures, Isambard Kingdom Brunel is considered the founding father of modern civil engineering. He was only 24 years old when, in 1830, he was appointed project engineer for constructing a bridge above the river Avon in Bristol, after several rejections and conflicts with the committee tasked to approve submitted designs. The Clifton suspension bridge was not an easy project; at the time of construction, it had the longest span of any bridge in the world. Further delays and setbacks left the bridge unfinished at the time of his death.
Being a heavy smoker, Brunel died of a stroke in 1859. Construction was continued based on Brunel’s designs, and the bridge was finally finished in 1864, a fitting memorial for the late engineer as well as an impressive landmark in its own right. Today, standing 214 meters long between its two 26 meter high towers, and 76 meters above the river, its core infrastructure remains unaltered. Brunel had to push the limits of civil engineering to the point that even modern calculations leave engineers in awe of how perfectly accurate and balanced his designs were.
7. Lear Fan 2100 – Bill Lear
In the late 1970’s Bill Lear, inventor and founder of the Lear Jet Corporation, had an idea for a unique aircraft type. Made almost entirely of composite materials like carbon graphite, it would have the same durability at about half the weight of typical aluminum alloys. Its twin engines and rear-mounted propeller would make it about as fast as other jets at that time. The US Federal Aviation Administration, having reservations about gearbox and aerodynamics performance, refused to give the project the green light for production.
Lear didn’t live long enough to perfect his dream, dying of leukemia in 1978. His desire to have the jet completed was so great that, as a dying wish, he told his wife Moya to finish it. With the help of British Government funding, the prototype made its maiden flight in 1981. Never having entered commercial production, three finished models are now in display at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington, at the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas, Texas, and in the back lot of FAA’s facility in Oklahoma City.
6. Demologos Steam Warship – Robert Fulton
The first warship ever to be propelled by a steam engine, the United States Navy designs for the USS Demologos began in 1814. Robert Fulton, a renowned engineer and inventor, imagined a ship unlike any other: heavily armed and armored, and its twin hulls had a paddlewheel between them. The engine was on one hull, while the boilers were on the other. A floating fortress, well-suited for local defense, it weighed 2,475 displacement tons and was 48 meters long.
In 1815, before the ship was completed, Fulton jumped in the icy waters of the Hudson River to save a friend who fell in. Struck by pneumonia which quickly developed into pulmonary tuberculosis, he died the same year. Shortly after, the Demologos was fully finished and the Navy renamed it the Fulton, to honor the inventor. The warship never saw any real action due to the end of the War of 1812 and it was destroyed in 1829 due to a gunpowder explosion.
5. Omnia Dir Airship – Enrico Forlanini
There was a time where airships were considered a good idea for passenger transport. After the Great War, Italian inventor and aeronautical pioneer Enrico Forlanini sought to put into air traffic a new airship type with unprecedented maneuverability. In 1930 he presented the design of Omnia Dir, a 56-meter long dirigible with 4.000 cubic meters capacity. What made it special, aside from Forlanini’s already established expertise, was the addition of jet propulsion to the classic engine and propeller scheme.
High-pressure air jets installed at the ship’s bow and stern offered the ship unbelievable, for the time, maneuvering speed, both on ground and in the air. Forlanini died in 1930 before the ship was completed and, aside for a test flight, it never entered mass production. Its innovative design, however, became a point of reference and helped study and develop auxiliary thrust technology in aircraft.
4. Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) – Alan Turing
By the time World War II had ended, building a computer was entirely possible – anyone with half a million dollars and a really big room could have one. What was missing from the greater picture was a general-purpose computer. Existing models were very limited in what they could do – they could very specific tasks and nothing more. It was no wonder that the mathematical genius Alan Turing was summoned to build the very first electronic stored-program general-purpose digital computer. In 1946 he presented his design to the UK National Physical Laboratory.
Work began in 1947. ACE operated nothing like modern systems do, as its logic resembled more biological neuron functions rather than the Boolean logic all modern computers are based on. Turing stayed a few months on the project, leaving NPL technicians baffled about how to carry on. The pilot model finished in 1950 was pretty fast for the time, though not exactly what Turing had envisioned. Turing died of cyanide poisoning in 1954, and the first full-scale ACE model was completed in 1957.
3. Pendulum Clock – Galileo Galilei
When he was not being bullied by the Inquisition, Galileo observed and recorded physical phenomena. One of them was the back and forth motion of a suspended weight. The physics behind pendulum motion is no small deal. Its study paved the way for an entire branch of physics, namely the harmonic oscillators, a model that has helped represent and explain problems ranging from planetary motion to quantum mechanics.
Galileo was the first to notice that, contrary to common intuition, the period of swing of a pendulum is independent of its swinging arc. In 1641, Galileo was 77 years old and blind. He had fully described the inner works of a pendulum clock and his son Vincenzo tried to make one without success. Galileo died in early 1642, leaving a lot of finely formulated physical theories to future scientists. It was in 1656, 14 years later, that the Dutch astronomer and physicist Christiaan Huygens built the world’s first pendulum clock.
2. Hi-Power Pistol – John Browning
During the 1920s the French military requested a handgun that should be compact, have an ammo capacity of at least 10 rounds, could be easily assembled and disassembled, and could be produced at a low cost. John Browning, a legend among gun designers and salesmen, filed the patent in 1923. A thumb safety and external hammer were also incorporated in the design.
Browning died in 1926 of heart failure, and the design was handed to and perfected by the Belgian Dieudonne Saive, finally introducing the gun in 1935. Although not adopted by the French Army at the time, the Hi-Power is one of the most recognizable, widely used, and most heavily sought firearms by collectors. Many conflicts in history had both sides using it due to its reliability and power for its size. It is still manufactured today in Japan.
1. The Difference Engine – Charles Babbage
During the Victorian Era, all mathematical tables were calculated manually, a tedious process with many errors slipping in. Charles Babbage, an English mathematician and philosopher, envisioned a machine able to perform all those calculations automatically, thus eliminating errors. Conceived as a digital device, it used toothed wheels to represent and carry over digits from 0-9. It was not only suited for solving complex mathematical problems, but it also had temporary data storage, as well as the ability of printing the results onto soft metal.
Funded with £1,500 by the British government, Babbage hired Joseph Clement, a skilled engineer and began working on the Engine. By 1833 Clement refused to work further due to payment disputes, and the government ceased funding the project after having spent more than £17,000. Babbage died in 1871, having lived his last years in bitterness for not seeing his work complete. In 1991, 120 years later, the London Science Museum finished constructing and put on display a fully functional Difference Engine, using technology available back in the Victorian Era. It has 4,000 parts and weighs three metric tons.