Top ten Swedish inventions

Nina Liljeqvist looks at ten Swedish inventions that have changed the world.

Top ten Swedish inventions

1. The pacemaker

In 1958, Rune Elmqvist developed a small battery-driven pacemaker. The first operation was carried out later that year, but the device only lasted for a few hours and further adjustments were made. The patient, Arne Larsson, survived the tests and lived until 2001.

2. The three-point seat belt

Nils Bohlin’s great invention from 1959 is reputed to save one life every six minutes. It is thereby considered to be one of the most important safety innovations of all time.

3. The Global Positioning System

Håkan Lans is the great mind behind important developments to the satellite-guided GPS system, moulding it into its modern form and ensuring that motorists reach their destinations on time and without hassle.

4. Tetra-Pak

Through the ideas of Erik Wallenberg and his dedicated team, the solution to packaging, storing and distributing liquids such as juice and dairy items was developed in 1951 and has since spread to fridges all over the world.

5. The telephone handset

As early as 1885, Lars Magnus Ericsson created the telephone handset, which was just one of his many improvements to contemporary telephones.

6. The flat screen monitor

The building of the flat-screen monitor was made possible by Sven Torbjörn Lagervall’s discovery of ferroelectric liquid crystals in 1979. The technology was developed and in 1994 mass production was begun.

7. The ultra sound

In 1950, Hellmuth Hertz started his pioneering work with ultrasound for medical diagnosis. Together with cardiologist Inge Edler the technique was successfully developed for the analysis of heart diseases.

8. The safety match

In 1844, Gustaf Erik Pasch patented the safety match when he replaced the poisonous yellow phosphorus with non-poisonous red phosphorus.

9. Dynamite

Alfred Nobel invented dynamite in 1866, which earned him one of the 355 patents he had managed to assemble before his death in 1896. Through his life he founded 90 companies and made a huge fortune. In his will he set up the Nobel Prizes for physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and peace.

10. The zipper

The method still used today, based on interlocking teeth, was invented in 1913 by Gideon Sundbäck. Initially it was called the “hookless fastener” and was later redesigned to become more reliable.

Source: Sedig, Kjell (2006): Swedish Innovations. Stockholm; Swedish Institute.


Swedish inventions – from the zipper to the pacemaker

Swedish inventors were the ones who made it possible to strike a match and light a stick of dynamite. Nina Liljeqvist examines how innovators from Sweden have managed to create such a big bang.

Swedish inventions - from the zipper to the pacemaker

Although the Swedish population is not much bigger than that of the greater London area, proud Swedes are to thank for a remarkable number of inventions that make our lives easier, safer or simply more aesthetically pleasing.

Swedish ingenuity is behind the creation of the pacemaker, the zipper, the flat screen monitor and dynamite, to name but a few. Such important and even life-saving innovations assist us in our everyday life, and technical developments are continuing to emerge from inventors around the country. But is such innovative zeal common in most countries? Or is it something particular to Sweden?

“Definitely! Every year Sweden is among one of the three most innovative countries in the world when we look at number of innovations per capita,” says Herman Phalén at the national Patent and Registration Office (PRV).

“Sweden has produced a remarkable number of groundbreaking innovations throughout history, and we were very early in developing a national patent system – a grant made by a government that gives the inventor the exclusive rights to make, use and sell that invention for a certain period.”

When asked why this is the case, Phalén gives a somewhat philosophical explanation: “The Swedish infrastructure for supporting the innovation process might not always work 100 percent, but we here in the Nordic countries have always had tough conditions to survive, which I think has worked as a catalyst for our inventiveness.

“Look at our Finnish and Norwegian neighbours for other examples of this. Naturally, the absence of widespread corruption, or any greater catastrophe and such factors have played a part, but this isn’t the whole explanation.”

Last year, PRV processed 2,000 national patent applications, of which 950 were approved. To be given exclusive rights, an innovation needs to fulfil certain criteria. To begin with, it must pass an examination where it has to display novelty and inventiveness, while also providing a technical solution to a given problem.

By presenting formerly unknown techniques and developing a non-obvious solution, for example a specific “surprising” effect, an innovation can be regarded as fulfilling the criteria for inventiveness and will be granted legal protection.

However, the PRV’s annual statistics show a falling trend in the number of applications received. In the year 2000, the Office received 5,000 requests, compared to just 2,900 last year.

Is this an indication of a downfall in Swedish innovation? Phalén doesn’t think so: “These numbers might suggest the opposite, but Swedish innovation is actually on the up. Many inventors go directly to larger arenas, such as the European Patent Office and the USPTO in the US, or they don’t apply at all.

“It is a rather costly and a long process, which might hold people back. Plenty of technical solutions are produced in Swedish companies, but they are never submitted for a patent, although they most probably would be granted one.”

Wanja Bellander, head of the Swedish Inventors’ Association, gives a similar view. But when describing the current state of Swedish innovation, she stresses that inventors must always be on their guard:

“We are very good at coming up with new ideas, but we are not so good at defending our innovations. There is nothing wrong with our wealth of ideas, none at all, but the risk for patent infringement is large due to inventors not having the means to defend their creations.

“We could definitely do with some more ‘business angels’ that can help with tax reductions, introduce the innovator into a network, assist with advice and competence and so on.”

Another problem is that inventors do not get the attention and reward that they have rightfully earned. Technical solutions are easily taken for granted and inventors are often viewed as boffins.

Bellander says: “To be an inventor had a completely different status by the beginning of the 1900s. There was a different attitude towards this among big industries and it encouraged inventive people to go ahead and create.”

In relation to this, she mentions the predominating Law of Jante. Great ideas are often pulled back down to earth and a potential invention never makes it to the surface.

At the same time, Bellander agrees with Phalén’s view of the remarkable wealth of Swedish inventions throughout history:

“I think it is in our genes somehow. Sweden has always been sparsely populated. It is dark, cold, and you’re far from your nearest neighbour. When you have a problem you simply have to solve it yourself… Indeed, we are unusually creative. Perhaps we have a very open disposition, which encourages an innovative mind.”

When asked about their favourite inventions in recent years, both mention creations with an ecological aspect.

Bellander says: “I find the ones with a clear environmental link really interesting. They are very problem-orientated and aim at preserving what we have. But, it is very difficult to mention one particular invention – there are absolutely loads”.