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Their unassuming character and, let’s face it, somewhat boring reputation can lead to Belgians easily being overlooked on a world scale. It’s a shame when you take into account that these 11 marvelous innovations were all brought to you by Belgian masterminds.
Flemish doctor Ferdinand Peeters gave a gift to women everywhere when he secretly sent his recipe for a new and improved contraceptive pill to a German medical company to be produced. The birth control pill may have originated in America under the name Enovid, but there were many side effects with that first version, including severe nausea, headaches, and dizziness. As a gynecologist, Peeters was often confronted with the consequences of unwanted pregnancies, and he strongly believed in a woman’s right to control her own fertility. However, as the head of the gynecology department of a big Catholic hospital, Peeters mostly kept his role in creating a better method of birth control to himself. His children only learned about their father’s key part in women’s emancipation in 1995, 35 years after his invention took over the market.
When you make your way to the Maison de Monsieur Sax in Dinant, Wallonia, you can still see him there in stone form, sitting on a bench inches from his birthplace and holding his most important invention. At the time of his death near the end of the 19th century, instrument maker Adolphe Sax feared his saxophone would never be more than a popular band instrument. Two decades later and its sounds could be heard in symphony orchestras across America, and its soulfulness would be one of the defining characteristics of the jazz age.
When talking about Belgian modesty, Robert Cailliau is a great example. As co-creator of the World Wide Web, while he worked at Geneva’s CERN facilities, Cailliau has won what’s considered the Nobel Prize for computing, along with Englishman Tim Berners-Lee. For someone who has officially been deemed a co-inventor of the internet, Cailliau has remained surprisingly grounded, emphasizing that he mostly helped to develop the project.
A bit of a kooky bird, watchmaker, and inventor, Jean-Joseph Merlin from Huy, Wallonia, was the first to zoom around on inline skates. Quite the showman, the Belgian entered a 1760 soiree in London with small metal wheels underfoot while playing the violin. The spectacle ended with him smashing into an expensive mirror and severely cutting himself. After his disastrous fall, Merlin never got around to patenting his idea.
Ask any Belgian about frites or French fries, and they’ll vigorously tell you that there has been a huge misunderstanding. French fries, you see, aren’t actually French at all. The Allied American soldiers who came to the Belgian Ardennes during the First World War only called them that because the Wallonian people handing them the delicious golden sticks also spoke French. Local lore has it that the cutting up and frying of potatoes into little strips even goes back to the 17th-century Meuse Valley, where people would substitute them for fried fish when the rivers froze. Of course, the French also maintain their separate origin story of the fry, making this a sensitive subject on both sides of the border.
For all of the scientific heavyweights, such as Alexander Friedmann and Edwin Hubble, that found themselves knee-deep in theories about the universe in the first half of the 20th century, it was a Belgian Catholic priest that came up with the Big Bang Theory. In his doctoral thesis of 1927, Georges Lemaître went head to head with his colleague Einstein, who at that time believed the universe was static, to state that it was actually expanding. Four years later, Lemaître proposed the hypothesis of the primeval atom or ‘Cosmic Egg,’ which the British Association in London initially laughed at and in the beginning was mockingly referred to as ‘the Big Bang.’
The world didn’t know it needed speculoos spread until two different Belgian chefs presented their paste made out of the local spiced biscuits on the 2007 TV show De Bedenkers. Since then, the popularity of the hearty spread has skyrocketed at home as well as abroad, inciting many lawsuits about patent rights in the process.
When apothecary Jean Neuhaus arrived in Brussels in 1857 and opened up shop in the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, he decided to top his medicines with a chocolate coating to make them easier on the taste buds. Fifty-five years later, his grandson Jean Neuhaus Jr., an avid chocolate fan, took out the medicine part and instead filled the jackets with fresh cream. He gave his creation the fancy name ‘praline,’ and the rest is delicious history.
Yes, despite their proclivity for creating indulging treats such as speculoos spread, not-so-French French fries, and pralines, Belgians are also the ones responsible for the Body Mass Index. It was mathematician Lambert Adolphe Quetelet who designed the easiest way to calculate whether your adult body weight is more or less where it should be: weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters. Any result between 18.5 and 25 should indicate a ‘healthy’ BMI.
When thinking of cricket, lush green lawns with Brits in crisp white outfits usually comes to mind; however, a recent academic study shows that the English pastime probably was invented across the pond. After discovering a 1533 poem by John Skelton in which Flemish immigrants are called ‘kings of crekettes,’ many experts now believe that weavers from Northern Europe brought the game over with them as they settled in Britain and played it in the fields next to the ones where their sheep stood grazing.
You know those roll-on sticks of white liquid you put on your body during camping so that the pesky mosquitoes will stay away? Belgians call this type of repellent mosquito milk, and it was invented by a bright young chemist from Antwerp, who, much like gynecologist Peeters, noticed that the existent product wasn’t cutting it. In the case of mosquito repellents, the offending side effect was an abominable smell. Enter Alfons Van Doninck with his special milk that was being used all over the world in less than three years.