Where are all the great Spanish inventions?

Dirty mop

The Spanish are obviously an imaginative lot, having put forth the likes of Goya, Lorca and Cervantes among many others in the areas of literature and art. More recently, we’ve seen ingenious Spanish people such as Ferran Adrià, Javier Bardem and Pedro Almodóvar at the forefront of other creative disciplines like cuisine and film. However, when it comes to invention, Spain’s visionary light goes out. The reason why screams out louder than a heretic burning at the stake in Plaza Mayor: the Spanish Inquisition.

No, it’s not that the Spanish were singularly gifted at or interested in painting and writing, they just couldn’t freely pursue scientific investigation and research under the ever watchful and never just Inquisition. Any Spanish inventors of the time dared not put forward anything that might smack of blasphemy and land them in the hot seat, or flaming pile of wood, as was the case.

During the four centuries the Inquisition existed, Spain shut itself out of a Europe in the age of the Renaissance and even the early phase of the Enlightenment. “While Isaac Newton was developing his theory of gravitation and René Descartes was inventing analytic geometry, university professors in Spain were punching and kicking each other in fights over whether or not Adam remained incomplete when God removed one of his ribs,” as the authors of The Story of Spanish put it.

The Franco fallout

Sadly, the Inquisition wouldn’t be the last time Spain put a cap on the intellectual growth of the people. The victory of Franco in Spain’s civil war meant reprisals, causing a massive brain drain of Spain’s intelligentsia, most of whom had sided with the losing team. Franco’s government censored books and films that had anti-Franco or anti-Catholic content and proceeded to install incompetent priests and nuns as educators in the primary and secondary levels of education, where children were inculcated with a deep respect for the Church and “El Caudillo” but little more. During the first half of the dictatorship, Spanish thinkers had little influence from or even contact with the outside world, resulting in quite a bit of reinventing the wheel.

Ask any local and they’d probably point to Chupa Chups as a Spanish invention, even though lollipops were already being sold in the US well before Enric Bernat started his company in the early 1950s. Or they might mention futbolín, the Spanish name for the game foosball, which was designed by the Galician Alejandro Finisterre and later patented in 1937, 14 years after a patent for the table game had already been granted to an Englishman.

Even the oft-cited fregona is hailed as a Spanish invention even though Jalón, the man credited with the invention of the mop in Spain, was inspired by the flat mop and wringer bucket he saw being used while he worked as an aeronautical engineer in the US for 12 years. He took the existing mop and improved upon the design significantly when he returned to Spain, where women were still cleaning the floors on their hands and knees with a rag. So how can the mop be a Spanish invention when it was already in existence before?

What is an invention?

To the average person, an invention might be something entirely unique and new, never before seen, in which case, no, the Spanish didn’t invent the mop per se. But really an invention “may be an improvement upon a machine or product, or a new process for creating an object or a result,” according to Wikipedia. Jalón’s mop was conical and his bucket was fitted with a slatted conical funnel, so yes, the Spanish invented the mop.

But if we go further and distinguish between invention and innovation, the needle again points back to no. What’s the difference between an invention and an innovation? Gary Alan Miller breaks it down as:

“Innovation is the creation of better or more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas. Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of better and, as a result, novel idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself.”

Right. So the answer really depends on what definition of invention you want to use. That being said, I’ll play it safe and share with you a few everyday Spanish contributions:

La cometa

La Cometa

Cigarettes
We all know that the Mayans were smoking tobacco before the conquistadores got there but it was the Spanish that started rolling tobacco in fine paper. It was called a papelate in Spanish but took the name “cigarette” when it made its way over to France in 1830. Goya even depicted the papelate in a few of his paintings: La Cometa, La Merienda en el Manzanares, and El juego de la pelota a pala. (Source: Wikipedia entry on Cigarette)

vihuela

Vihuela

Acoustic Guitar

The Spanish invented the vihuela, which is considered to be the father of the acoustic guitar as we know it today. In the 1850s, a carpenter in Sevilla by the name of Antonio Torres made some significant changes to the existing model, making it bigger and altering its proportions. The result was an improved tone and volume. (Source: Wikipedia entry on Antonio Torres Jurado)

Spanish inventions

Confusing definitions aside, there are a few things that historians agree were invented by the Spanish.

One such creation was the Molotov cocktail. This incendiary device was first used in the Spanish Civil War by Franco’s Nationalists against Soviet tanks who were supporting the other side. It wasn’t given the name “Molotov cocktail” though until the Finns used it in their war against the invading Soviets. The Soviets flew missions to drop bombs over Finland but according to the propaganda created by the Soviet foreign minister Molotov, they weren’t dropping bombs, but humanitarian food relief. The Finns nicknamed the Soviet bombs “Molotov bread baskets” and then retaliated against tanks with “Molotov cocktails” as “a drink to go with the food”.

Other Spanish inventions include a steam-powered pump to drain mines, the paddle wheel (to replicate oars), and the submarine among many engineering marvels. It might even surprise Spaniards to know that a Spanish engineer and mathematician created the first computer game and pioneered the field of remote control.

The Coca Cola conundrum

Nuez de Cola-Coca

Nuez de Cola-Coca

In 2011, news surfaced that a liquor company in a Valencian town claimed to have invented Coca Cola. According to a fourth-generation owner of Fábrica de Licores in Ayelo de Malferit, his great great uncle came up with the formula and called his concoction Nuez de Kola-Coca. He took it Stateside to a fair where it won a prize and a couple years later, Coca Cola appeared. The evidence is anecdotal at best, but if it turns out to be true, Spain just put itself on the map with one of the biggest everyday inventions ever.

Startup Spain

Today, Spain is a hotbed of invention and innovation, making amazing contributions especially in the tech and health scenes. One example is an intelligent shirt from Madrid-based company Nuubo that can monitor your heart and send the data wirelessly, allowing doctors and trainers to track their patients and athletes in real time.

Speaking of futuristic shirts, the Spanish fashion designer Manel Torres created the world’s first spray-on clothing back in 2000. Manel’s spray consists of special fibers mixed with polymers which turns into a wearable second skin almost immediately after it comes in contact with the human body. While he originally created it for fashion, his invention can be used to make things like sanitary spray-on bandages or car upholstery.

And recently, Spanish scientists in San Sebastian invented a self-healing polymer that can spontaneously rebuild itself, just like the liquid metal robot T-1000 in Terminator 2. Imagine: self-mending pipes and tires!

What are some Spanish inventions or innovations you know about? Tell us in the comments!

NOTE: This post was updated to reflect new knowledge.
Anna Bitanga

About Anna Bitanga

I've been living in Madrid since 2007, married to a madrileño since 2008, and mom to our son since 2011. Tech is my thing. I love salmorejo, matrimonios and cazón adobado. I don't watch football.

Image Credits: sergis blog, Wikipedia, wie-wolf, Història d'Aielo de Malferit

3 Comments

  1. Robert

    January 11, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    I think the mesa camilla is one of Spain´s greatest contributions to civilised living. I´ve just got one, as I live in a cold part of Spain.

    I´m working on a development of the camilla, which would be a sort of easily-erected indoor wig-wam. About 2 metres square, with an electric fire like in a corner and two small apertures for watching the TV, which can be left in its usual summer place.

    • vayamadrid

      January 13, 2013 at 2:01 pm

      Is it a Spanish contribution? Cite?

  2. Fechrvgdvyef

    September 15, 2013 at 10:15 am

    They invented chupa chup?

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