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Inventions People Often Mistake as American

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There are certain things so deeply ingrained in day-to-day American life that it’s hard to imagine they originated anywhere but here. However, some classic American dishes (yes, even apple pie) and household items (from LEGOs to light bulbs) — even the backbone of modern telecommunications, the telephone — actually got their start abroad before being embraced and popularized in American culture. Here are 14 creations you might be surprised to learn did not come from the U.S.

14

LEGO

LEGO characters, on a green grid.
Credit: ivanastar/ iStock

LEGO toys — or LEGOs, as most people call them — are one of the most enduring toys in North American households. But LEGOs were invented in Denmark and only made their way overseas in the early 1970s. The LEGO Group was founded as a wooden toy company in 1932 by Ole Kirk Kristiansen and has remained a family business; it is now owned by Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, the original founder’s grandchild.

In the beginning, the click-and-build toys were relatively basic, consisting only of the original brightly colored square and rectangular bricks. It wasn’t until 1978 that LEGO introduced minifigures — the small plastic people with moving limbs — and the entertainment empire as we know it today was born. LEGO has since created countless original playsets, licensed products for several popular TV shows and movies, and even produced its own theatrical films including The Lego Movie series. Fun fact: The name LEGO is an abbreviation of the two Danish words “leg godt,” meaning “play well.” It’s not only the company’s name, but also its guiding principle.

13

Apple Pie

Homemade apple pie Dessert on a plate, ready to eat.
Credit: Brent Hofacker/ Shutterstock

You’ve heard the saying “as American as apple pie,” but the classic dessert can actually be traced back to 14th-century England. The 1381 recipe — the first known record of apple pie — calls for apples, figs, raisins, pears, and spices. Strangely, the ingredients did not even include sugar (which was prohibitively expensive) and were to be combined in a hard, lard-based shell. Unlike the golden, flaky crust we know today, it was intended more as a container and not meant to be eaten.

Apple pie made its way to America via British, Dutch, and Swedish settlers; its first recorded mention here was in a 1697 linguistics book. By the late 1700s, multiple recipes for apple pie were printed in America’s first-known cookbook, American Cookery, and the delicious dessert — which was later improved upon by Pennsylvania Dutch culture and cooking techniques — eventually became a patriotic staple.

12

Hot Dog

Hot dog on blue fabric with a little jar of mustard.
Credit: henrique ferrera/ Shutterstock

It’s hard to imagine a baseball game or backyard summer barbecue without hot dogs. But the cheap-and-cheerful grillable dish actually has roots in ancient Rome, where it is believed that Emperor Nero’s cook first stuffed ground meat, spices, and wheat into casings made of pig intestines — while improvising a menu based on a routine butcher job gone wrong.

The hot dog as we know it today, however, results more from German influence. The topic of who first adapted the Roman food is hotly contested, with both Frankfurt and Vienna laying claim to the humble sausage. America does, however, have bragging rights when it comes to serving a hot dog on a bun. The combination originated in 1867 with Charles Feltman, a German-American restaurateur who wanted a way to sell sausages without cutlery or plates from his beloved Coney Island food cart.

11

“The Star-Spangled Banner”

U.S. flag on a pole on the water.
Credit: Charlotte Harrison/ Unsplash

It’s safe to assume that every American is familiar with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Performers of every level belt out the national anthem at gatherings all over the country, from celebrities at professional sports events to patriotic amateurs at small-town fairs. The song’s lyrics, written as a poem by lawyer and writer Francis Scott Key, certainly tell an American tale — the story of the U.S.’s victory over Britain at the 1814 Battle of Baltimore during the ongoing War of 1812. But its distinct melody actually comes from a popular British drinking song.

The original song, called “To Anacreon in Heaven,” was penned around 1775 by English composer John Stafford Smith. The lyrics, written by Ralph Tomlinson, honored the ancient Greek poet Anacreon (along with his love of wine). By the time Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the original song was already known and loved in the U.S. — the music had even been used in a John Adams campaign song during the 1800 presidential election. “The Star-Spangled Banner” and its evocative image of the resilient American flag swelled in popularity following the Civil War, but it wasn’t until 1931 — more than 100 years after it was written — that it officially became the United States’ national anthem.

10

Television

A photo of a retro television on a pink background.
Credit: Bet_Noire/ iStock

While American scientist Philo Farnsworth is remembered as a television pioneer and often credited as its inventor, he wasn’t the sole creator. Earlier experiments by Russian scientist Boris Rosing and Scottish inventor John Logie Baird preceded Farnsworth's eventual 1927 completion of the first fully functional television system; Rosing played a particularly major, if adjacent, role in the device’s invention.

In 1907, Rosing taught at Russia’s St. Petersburg Institute of Technology, and his early example of a mechanical scanner and a cathode-ray-tube receiver made a big impression on student Vladimir Zworykin. Zworykin eventually took the research to the U.S., where he worked with RCA to patent and develop the technology that would eventually be used in the first working television sets.

9

The Automobile

Vintage red sports car.
Credit: Josh Rinard

Henry Ford’s early automobile changed car culture around the world, but its impact was most obvious in the United States. The 1908 Model T revolutionized mass production and mobility, which helped to shift the country’s population away from cities and into suburbs and led to the creation of a federal highway system. For this (and many other reasons), the car is an American icon. But Ford’s Model T wasn’t the first of its kind — the automobile actually originated in Germany.

In 1866, Karl Benz (as in Mercedes-Benz) registered the first patent for a gas-fueled motorwagen (or motorcar). In 1901, the Mercedes 35 HP model was released and became a prototype for all modern cars — previously, vehicles resembled little more than elaborate horse carriages.

8

Denim

Blue jeans in a clothing store.
Credit: gmalandra/ iStock

Although blue jeans are synonymous with American culture, denim was invented in the French city of Nimes in the late 17th century. The fabric was accidentally created when weavers tried to replicate another popular heavy-duty fabric known as serge. The fabric was called serge de Nimes, after its city of origin (which, at the time, had a booming textiles industry), and was eventually shortened to de Nimes — or, denim.

Blue jeans first appeared in the U.S. thanks to German immigrant Levi Strauss, who made workwear for miners and farmers during the 1800s California Gold Rush. Eventually, the rugged, casual style infiltrated Hollywood when cowboys started wearing blue jeans in 1930s films; by the 1950s, denim was a symbol of self-expression around the country. Today, the humble fabric enjoys official status in California — thanks to Strauss’ success, denim was named the state fabric in 2016.

7

The Light Bulb

Hanging Lights at The Corner in Midway.
Credit: Jude Beck/ Unsplash

Before Thomas Edison succeeded in creating the first practical incandescent light bulb in 1879, a British inventor named Humphry Davy invented the first electric arc lamp, consisting of elements that would be crucial to Edison’s work. In 1809, Davy experimented with connecting two wires to a battery. The wires were outfitted with charcoal strips; when the wires touched the battery, they emitted a bright glow. It was the first instance of electrical illumination.

Edison experimented in the ensuing years with a platinum filament in his prototypes. But eventually, he came back to what Davy had discovered in the early 1800s — that carbon can efficiently conduct electricity and is malleable enough for use in a bulb. Oxygen needed to be removed from the equation to prevent the carbon filament from flaming out quickly. Edison then implemented the vacuum bulb he had previously tinkered with and solved his problem.

6

Cowboys

Gauchos in the countryside around Mendoza, Argentina.
Credit: Luisa E/ Unsplash

Cowboy obsession started with the early 20th-century ranchers of present-day Texas and their eventual elevation to stars of the silver screen. But cowboys themselves originated south of the border, when Spanish settlers arrived in Mexico in 1519. The Spaniards brought horses and livestock to the region, as well as the concepts of herding, wrangling, riding, and even the use of weapons.

Mexico’s cowboys were called vaqueros, stemming from the Spanish word for cow (vaca). It was these ranch hands who, by the 1700s, had migrated cattle from Mexico to what is now Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona — becoming America’s first cowboys. From there, cowboys would play an important part in the U.S.’s westward expansion and establishing livestock industries. By the early 1900s, railroad travel was growing, and tourism advertisements depicted clean-cut caricatures of American Western cowboys. The same image dominated Western movies throughout the 1930s and '40s and established the cowboy as an American icon.

5

Doughnuts

Two doughnuts on a gingham napkin.
Credit: EasyBuy4u/ iStock

Two of the world’s leading doughnut chains, Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme, originated in the U.S. (Massachusetts and North Carolina, respectively) and remain icons of the fast-food world. But the delicious round snack cakes were invented by the Dutch, and made their way to New York (then New Amsterdam) in the early 18th century.

The earliest 1667 Dutch recipe was for what they called olykoek — or “oily cakes.” This iteration consisted of fried dough balls that were filled with a mixture of almonds, raisins, chopped apples, and cinnamon. Eventually, eggs and sugar were added to lighten the batter, and leavening techniques also improved, which gave the doughnut its current Americanized cake-like texture (that makes it irresistible to dip in your morning coffee).

4

Peanut Butter

Crunchy peanut butter in a jar.
Credit: Corleto Peanut butter/ Unsplash

Two different American men are often credited with the invention of peanut butter: scientist George Washington Carver (who did create more than 300 products with the peanut plant), and Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (the Kellogg’s cereal creator, who filed an early patent for his peanut-butter-making process). Neither, however, is solely responsible for the ubiquitous spread.

The earliest reference to peanut butter can be traced back to a ground peanut paste made by the ancient Aztecs. But in 1884, one year before Kellogg, Canadian chemist Marcellus Gilmore Edson was the first person to patent a peanut paste (called peanut candy), which he made by grinding roasted peanuts between two heated surfaces. Kellogg, however, does deserve credit for bringing the product we know today to eager consumers — he used his personal dietary philosophy and his business savvy to market peanut butter as a healthy protein alternative to meat.

3

The Telephone

Old fashion telephone.
Credit: Paweł Czerwiński/ Unsplash

Unlike many technological inventions, the telephone has a clear and agreed-upon origin story. Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell filed the patent for his electric telephone in 1876, and while the paperwork was filed in the U.S., the telephone itself came to fruition in a small Canadian town.

Most of Bell’s early work took place throughout the 1870s at his family home in Brantford, Ontario (about 65 miles southwest of Toronto). It was there that he and his assistant, Thomas Watson, first transmitted an audio tone over a wire. Bell filed his transmission patent just hours before Elisha Gray, a fellow engineer and inventor, filed one for his similar work in Illinois. One month later, in February 1876, Bell transmitted his first intelligible voice transmission; by August of that year, the first long-distance phone call was completed from Brantford to nearby Paris, Ontario, over a telegraph wire.

2

The Battery

Closeup of pile of used alkaline batteries.
Credit: mariva2017/ Shutterstock

From the Duracell chime to the Energizer Bunny, batteries and their branding are responsible for some of the most well-known and long-running advertising in America. But despite the stamp Americans have made on the product, the battery was invented by an Italian physicist named Alessandro Volta in 1800.

Volta stacked alternating discs of copper and zinc, separating them by a cloth soaked in salty water. When wires were connected to either end of the stack, a continuous, stable current — the first of its kind — occurred. While it seems quaint now, the discovery was monumental at the time. You may not realize that Volta’s legacy lives on in every single battery: The measurement for the electric current — the volt, or voltage — was named after the device’s inventor.

1

Democracy

A man drops his vote off at a ballot box.
Credit: Prostock-Studio/ iStock

America has stood as a beacon for modern democracy since the Declaration of Independence in 1776. But the U.S. was far from the first nation to be ruled “by the people” — that distinction belongs to Ancient Greece.

In 507 B.C., Athenian politician Cleisthenes reformed the country’s political system into what he called demokratia, or “rule by the people,” derived from the Greek words demos (“people”) and kratos (“rule”). It was the first known democracy in the world and included some familiar-sounding institutions: an autonomous governing body, a council representing the different Athenian tribes, and the courts, where citizens were tried before randomly selected juries. The Athenians did not operate as a democracy for long, though. By 460 B.C., Athens had turned into something more like an aristocracy, with the power residing with the ruling class. But the democratic movement could not be contained, and would go on to influence Western civilization to the present day.

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