Society & History

The greatest Belgian inventions

Belgium’s small size belies the country’s huge influence on world history. See how many of these Belgian inventions you know.

Belgian inventions

By Expatica

Updated 22-1-2024

Belgian chocolates, beers, and waffles are the stereotypical icons of Belgium but besides world fame for this tasty trifecta, this small western European country has much to boast about. Belgium is accredited to several well-known innovations and discoveries that many people don’t know are Belgian, including oil painting, obstetrical forceps, and an encryption that makes wireless networks safe. Below is a list of even more Belgian inventions that have influenced the course of world history.

Here are the top 20 inventions created by Belgians.

1. Contraceptive pill

The first birth control pill produced in the United States in 1957 was riddled with side effects and it wasn’t until 1961, when Flemish obstetrician and gynecologist Ferdinand Peeters developed an improved version, that the pill could be widely used by women. The Belgian doctor’s pill was the first combined oral contraception introduced outside the US that had ‘acceptable’ side effects and used on a global scale.

Contraceptive pills

Belgium was strictly Catholic at the time of the pill’s creation, forcing Peeters, who was a conservative Catholic himself, to keep quiet about his experiment to avoid falling foul of Belgian law and religious prohibition on hormonal contraception. Peeters never patented his pill, which would likely have earned him a fortune, and instead it was sold to a German pharmaceutical company and marketed as Anovlar.

2. Body mass index (BMI)

The modern guideline to healthy weight can be attributed to the Body Mass Index (BMI) created by Belgian mathematician Lambert Adolphe Quetelet. The BMI or Quetelet Index measures body fat by dividing a person’s body mass by the square of their height. It remains the official measurement for obesity to this day, where if the result of the ratio is more than 30 a person is considered overweight.

3. Plastic

The revolutionary ‘age of plastic’ can be credited to the invention by Belgian plastics pioneer Leo Henricus Baekeland, who created the first commercial version of plastic called Bakelite, inspired by his own name. Bakelite garnered immediate public interest when it was first introduced to the public in 1909 due to its strength, malleability, heat-resistance and low production cost. The product’s versatility inspired the company’s tagline ‘the material of thousand uses’ — and rightfully so as we see today – although this version of synthetic material fell out of favour as it failed to hold colour as well as newer plastics.

4. Cricket

Cricket has long been assumed to be an English invention with references dating to the 1600s but newer academic research suggests that immigrants from northern Belgium imported the game. The discovery is based on a poem thought to have been written in 1533 by John Skelton, which refers to Flemish weavers as ‘king of crekettes’ and ‘wickettes’ are also mentioned. The weavers were thought to have played the game near the sheep they herded after settling in England, using shepherds’ crooks as bats. Perhaps this explains the Flemish saying ‘met de krik ketsen‘ meaning to ‘chase a ball with a curved stick’.

5. Inline skates

Today’s roller skates have come a long way from the first creation introduced by Belgian horologist John Joseph Merlin in 1760. His invention was essentially a pair of ice skates with wheels instead of blades, similar to today’s inline skates. But steering was difficult and the roller skates lacked brakes, and Merlin’s design did not become widely popular. It certainly did not help when a skating performance resulted in him crashing into a mirror and causing severe injuries. His design, however, led to redesigns that have morphed roller skates into the popular forms we know today.

6. Mercator projection

When you check an online map for directions or browse the location of a new restaurant, you’re likely using one of the most famous Belgian innovations ever created: the Mercator projection. Created in 1569 by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator, the Mercator projection is arguably the most popular version of the world map after it became the first map to factor in the earth’s spherical shape. It has been adapted for nautical purposes for its ability to preserve constant true directional bearing through its rhumb lines — straight segments that cut all meridians at the same angle — and allow navigators to plot a straight-line course.

Mercator projection

The Mercator projection, however, is not without faults. Increasing latitudes from the equator to the poles (where they become infinite) distort the size of objects, making landmasses like Greenland appear much larger than those near the equator such as central America when, in reality, Greenland is smaller than the Arabian Peninsula. This Belgian invention is nonetheless used by Google Maps and many more online services.

7. Saxophone

When Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax strived to fill the gaping musical hole between woodwind and brass instruments, the saxophone family was born in 1846. Armed with the vocal force of a brass instrument but with the finesse of a woodwind, Adolphe Sax created the saxophone with a single-reed mouthpiece and patented two groups of seven instruments. Saxophones are an adaptive woodwind instrument used in classical music, jazz and military and marching bands. Without Sax’s tinkering, we wouldn’t have the famous saxophone riffs in Phil Collins’ One More Night, George Michael’s Careless Whisper or one of the most recognisable saxophone solos by renown US saxophonist Clarence Clemens in Bruce Springsteen’s Jungleland.

8. Imodium

If you’ve ever experienced an upset stomach, you may be familiar with the drug Imodium. Thanks to Belgian doctor Paul Janssen, Imodium – or loperamide as it’s scientifically known – was first synthesised in his Belgian-based company Jannsen Pharmaceutica in 1969. The fast-acting medicine is used to decrease the frequency of symptoms for patients suffering gastroenteritis and bowel issues, and has been listed on the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) list of essential medicines.

9. World Wide Web

The World Wide Web (WWW) is credited to British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee but Belgian informatics engineer and computer scientist Robert Cailliau is also considered a co-inventor due to his role in creating the proposal that led to the invention of the WWW. Berners-Lee and Cailliau co-wrote the proposal in November 1990 while they were both employed at CERN in Switzerland, and Cailliau subsequently played a large part in getting funding and seeing the project to fruition. Cailliau is also credited to collaborating on the development of the first Web browser for the Apple Macintosh in 1992.

10. JPEG conversion

Thanks to Belgian physicist and mathematician Baroness Ingrid Daubechies, today we can save thousands of images without blocking tons of hard disk space. Daubechies’ ground-breaking creation of mathematical formulas, known as Daubechies Wavelets, led to the creation of the JPEG2000 standard for image compression, which efficiently strips images of unneeded data so they can be saved in smaller file sizes. Today Daubechies Wavelets are one of the most common types use in applications, and without them we might not have digital cameras or fast scanning of fingerprints. Interestingly, Daubechies never patented her invention.

11. Belgian endive

The Belgian endive (witloof in Dutch), a cultivated variety of common chicory, was the 1850s discovery of Belgian Frans Breziers, who was a horticulturist at the Botanical Garden of Brussels in Saint-Josse-ten-Noode.

Belgian endive

Breziers stumbled across a way to grow blanched endives by enclosing them in dark, hot and humid areas. Hidden from daylight, the endive was stripped of the green pigment associated with common chicory. This new white-leafed version exploded onto Europe’s culinary scene. Belgian endives can be eaten baked, steamed, boiled, grilled or raw, and feature heavily in Belgian dishes.

12. Asphalt

Belgian chemist Edward de Smedt paved the way for the creation of modern roads with his invention of asphalt concrete. De Smedt patented his ‘sheet asphalt pavement’ in 1870 while he was working on coal dust problems at Columbia University in New York. The first applications of his invention were in 1872 at Battery Park and Fifth Avenue in New York City. De Smedt continued to improve his asphalt mix with bitumen from different countries until he found a formula that carpeted roads with a smooth, clean finish.

13. Electric tram

Belgian Karel Van de Poele was a famous inventor with more than 240 patents to his name but one of his most lauded innovations was the electric tram. In 1883, Van de Poele became the first person to power a tram by electricity driven back and forth on a track in Chicago. He later also developed the trolley system, which powers trams by collecting currents from an attached overhead wire.

14. Internal combustion engine

The invention of the internal combustion engine (ICE) has had a profound impact on society, enabling the movement of automobiles, trucks, airplanes and buses. Out of all the various patents at the time, the ICE created by Belgian engineer Étienne Lenoir in 1858 was the first design to be considered a success as it could be commercialised in sufficient quantities. Lenoir’s engine was a single-cylinder, two-stroke engine and burned a mixture of coal gas and air ignited by a ‘jump sparks’ system to generate power.

15. Carillon instruments

Carillon bells in Brussels

The Lowlands continues to boast the largest concentration of carillon bell instruments and it’s no surprise since Belgium is considered the birthplace of this invention. Carillons comprise a system of at least 23 bronze bells – although there are much more elaborate carillons counting more than 50 or 60 bells – and melodies and chords are played by striking a keyboard of stick-like, wooden batons. The use of bells in a musical fashion is said to have been first discovered in 1510 in Flanders when a local fool played music on the Oudenaarde Town Hall’s bells by using a baton keyboard. You can typically find carillon bells in Belgium in belfry towers attached to churches or municipal buildings, and they were traditionally used to alert cities of the time or special events. In 2014, UNESCO added Belgium’s carillon culture to its list of intangible cultural heritage.

16. Neoprene synthetic rubber

It’s hard to imagine that the type of synthetic rubber we sometimes see in mouse pads, laptop covers, wetsuits, camera cases or Halloween masks once had religious affiliations. The creation of neoprene was influenced by Belgian chemist and priest Reverent Julius Nieuwland’s research on acetylene chemistry. In 1920, Nieuwland produced a type of jelly that firmed into an elastic compound similar to rubber. Nieuwland mentioned this revolutionary finding during a lecture in New York, attended by a scientist from American chemical conglomerate DuPont. The DuPont scientists, with the priest’s help, built upon this basic research to create modern-day neoprene, which is used in a range of applications today.

17. Stock exchange

In the 14th century, Belgium lay between two major trading empires: the Mediterranean dominated by the Italians, and the Baltic Sea with German Hanseatic merchants. Residents in Belgium acted as intermediaries between the merchants, and innkeepers often played a central role as brokers for their customers. The Ter Beurse inn, run by the Van der Beurze family, was one of the most renowned – arguably founded in Antwerp although many accounts say Bruges – and the square in front of the inn became the leading financial and commercial center. Shares of companies weren’t traded at this time, instead traded ‘stocks’ referred to affairs of government, businesses, trade, and individual debt. Brokers would also gather local and foreign economic data from traveling guests and eventually exchange rates from various cities were announced at regular times, later leading to an organized money market. The idea quickly spread around Flanders and neighboring countries and early stock markets, such as in Ghent and Rotterdam, were typically called ‘beurzen’, which is said to be the etymological origin of today’s word for exchange, ‘bourse’.

18. Gypsy swing

Virtuoso guitarist Jean Baptiste ‘Django’ Reinhardt did not let tragedy affect his creation of an entirely new jazz guitar technique, despite having to accommodate the paralysis of two fingers on his left hand following a trailer fire. After the accident, Reinhardt, a Belgian-born musician of gypsy ancestry, used only the index and middle finger of his left hand for solos. His new musical combination of a range of genres, notably gypsy and swing, consolidated him as a legendary figure in jazz history, and he is often credited as the forefather of what is called gypsy jazz or hot jazz. Reinhardt’s most popular songs have become jazz standards that continue to inspire generations of musicians.

19. Sodium carbonate

This household product is synthetically produced with salt and limestone typically using a method known as the Solvay process, named after its Belgian inventor Ernest Solvay. Although sodium carbonate was not Solvay’s invention, in 1861 he improved and simplified the laborious Leblanc process, allowing for production on an industrial scale. It has many purposes such as cooking and cleaning but the manufacture of glass is one of the most important uses. Around the year 1900 the Solvay Company produced about 95 percent of global demand for sodium carbonate, and Solvay’s legacy lives on in the forms of his many philanthropic endeavors, such as the Solvay Business School in Brussels. He is buried in Ixelles Cemetery.

20. Atlas Rocket (Atlas ICBM)

America’s first operational ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) was created by Belgian pioneer rocket designer Karl Jan Bossart, born in Antwerp. The Atlas ICBM was used as a first stage for satellite launch vehicles for half a century after it became operational in 1959. As a launch vehicle, it was one of the most reliable expendable rockets in service and several achievements are credited to Bossart’s invention: the launch of the first communications satellite, launch of the first US orbital manned missions and the launch of probes to Mars, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. However, as his work was largely classified, he remains relatively unknown.