Throughout history, Sweden has been responsible for a surprising number of inventions and innovations that have had a profound impact on the world. Not bad for a country of only 10 million people!
From the invention of the Celsius temperature scale in 1742 to the development of the world’s first airbag helmet in 2011, Swedish inventions have made a lasting impression on the way we live over the years.
Here are just a few of the most impactful Swedish inventions that have changed the world:
The First Three-point Seatbelt
The three-point seatbelt is a continuation of the two-point belt, and was developed by Swedish Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin in the 1950s.
There is no denying its impact on humanity, having so far saved at least 2 million lives, with approximately 100 000 new lives saved every year (and rising).
Add to that that it saves around $5 billion in annual expenses in the US alone. Not bad!
Bohlin’s design was inspired by the seatbelts used in race cars and influenced by his work on flight ejector seats for SAAB, and it quickly became standard equipment in not only Volvo vehicles, but eventually every single car in the world.
Because in an attempt to put human lives before corporate profits, the patent of the three-point seatbelt was released in the public domain, making it a standard in almost all passenger vehicles worldwide and saving countless lives.
The First Pacemaker
The pacemaker is a device that helps regulate the heartbeat, and is implanted in the chest where it sends electrical impulses to the heart to keep it beating at a steady pace.
The first pacemaker was invented in 1958 by Swedish engineer Rune Elmqvist in collaboration with surgeon Åke Senning, and the first successful human pacemaker patient was Swede Arne Larsson—who interestingly ended up outliving both Rune and Åke.
Here’s a useful video explaining what exactly a pacemaker is:
Today over 3 million patients have a pacemaker, without which they could not live.
One of the most famous Swedish inventions of all time is no doubt dynamite, invented in 1867 by chemist, engineer, inventor, and of course the man behind the Nobel Prize, Alfred Nobel.
Dynamite is as you probably know an explosive material that is used in a wide variety of applications, from construction and mining, to demolition and warfare.
Dynamite was not Nobel’s only invention; he also developed smokeless powder and blasting caps. Nobel’s work with explosives led him to establish the Nobel Prize, which is awarded annually to individuals who have made significant contributions to science, literature, and peace.
The Adjustable Wrench and Monkey Wrench
The adjustable wrench, and the so-called “monkey wrench” (adjustable pipe wrench) were both invented in the late 1800s by Swedish blacksmith Johan Petter Johansson.
The adjustable wrench is a socket wrench with a movable jaw, allowing it to be used with different size nuts and bolts (making it very useful in plumbing and automotive applications where various sized fasteners are used).
If you’re in the US, I’d recommend getting a Crescent Adjustable Wrench as it’s from a company founded by a Swedish immigrant and that frankly makes damn good quality wrenches.
The pipe wrench on the other hand is specifically designed to grip pipes of various sizes and can be adjusted to apply more or less pressure as needed. Here is a great example of a Swedish Pipe Wrench (though it’s made by German company Knipex).
The tools quickly became popular among plumbers and mechanics especially, who still use them to this day.
The Celsius Temperature Scale
The Celsius temperature scale is used in most parts of the world (but alas not the US…) as a way to measure temperature. It is named after the Swedish scientist Anders Celsius, who developed it in 1742.
The Celsius scale is based on the freezing and boiling points of water. These two points are given the temperatures of 0 degrees and 100 degrees respectively. All other temperatures are then measured in relation to these two points.
One advantage of the Celsius temperature scale is that it can be easily converted to and from the Kelvin temperature scale, which is used by scientists, making it a useful tool for scientific work.
If you’d like to start practicing the Celsius scale, you can get a fever thermometer that has both Fahrenheit and Celsius, or an old-school outdoor thermometer that displays both like this classic one from Taylor.
Additionally, because the freezing and boiling points of water are well-known values, people can easily use the Celsius scale to estimate temperatures without having to use a thermometer.
The Celsius scale is also sometimes referred to as the centigrade scale.
In May 2009, Markus Persson (a.k.a. Notch) released a game called Minecraft, a virtual sandbox (or as I like to call it: digital Lego) where players can build anything they can imagine.
There are no rules and no goals, but players can choose to cooperate or compete with each other.
Minecraft has been incredibly popular, selling over 238 million copies as of 2022 according to Microsoft, who bought the gaming franchise in 2014 for US$2.5 billion.
Due to its massive popularity, it has become much more than a game, but more a way to express oneself (as illustrated beautifully in the Vox video below).
As a result of its popularity, the game figures and buildings have become a prominent theme inside the Lego universe as well.
One might call it the perfect match, as both Lego and Minecraft are block-based and have the potential to provide endless hours of creative play (without any rules or limitations).
Minecraft has also been used in education, and my mother-in-law (who teaches autistic kids) can attest to how it can be used to help children develop creativity, problem-solving skills, and spatial awareness.
The First Household Refrigerator
Humans have cooled food and drinks in cellars and iceboxes for a long time, but these cooling solutions were large, bulky, and very expensive – meaning out of reach for ordinary folks.
So when Swedish engineering students Baltzar von Platen and Carl Munters invented the first household-sized and commercially viable absorption refrigerator in 1922, it became a worldwide success.
It quickly found its way into people’s homes for the first time (with Swedish company Electrolux pioneering the industry, sold in the US initially as Dometic).
If you’ve ever used a zipper, you have Sweden to thank (or at least two Swedes who migrated to America).
The first zipper was patented as far back as 1851, but the design was vastly improved by first Peter Aron Aronsson in 1906, and then Gideon Sundbäck in 1913 (who is usually credited as the inventor of the zipper due to his improvements in functionality and production).
Sundbäck was a Swedish-born engineer who moved to the United States and worked for a company that made postal bags.
He improved upon an earlier design for a “clasp locker” and created the modern zipper that was already stitched on two pieces of fabric (see the image above), which could then be fastened on the bag, jacket, jeans, or whatever it was.
Bluetooth was developed during the 1990s in Lund, Sweden, by telecom company Ericsson (who also made the first telephone handset, see further down). The team responsible for the project was headed by Ericsson engineers Nils Rydberg and Penny Link, who developed the technology along with tech giants Intel, IBM, and Nokia.
Simply put, Bluetooth is a wireless technology that allows devices (such as smartphones, laptops, AirPods, and wireless speakers) to connect with each other easily.
The name Bluetooth comes from a 10th-century Danish king, Harald Bluetooth, who unified Denmark and Norway (and was a notoriously good communicator). The real reason behind the name is supposed to be a shared interest in Vikings among the team leads, and because all the companies involved in the development of the technology had a blue brand/logo.
Bluetooth is also an important part of the “internet of things,” which refers to the growing trend of connecting everyday high-tech objects (such as robot vacuums, smart watches, etc.) to the internet.
One advantage of Bluetooth over other wireless technologies is that it uses very little power, which helps conserve battery life in devices that use it. Bluetooth is also relatively simple to set up and use.
In addition, it’s relatively inexpensive for manufacturers to add Bluetooth capabilities to their products.
The First Bolt Cutter
The first bolt cutter was designed in 1866 by Jonas Jönsson Byman in a small village in Jämtland, Sweden. It enabled anyone to cut bolts, chains, padlocks, and metal wires with ease, and would become an iconic tool still in use 150+ years later.
However, as Jonas tried to get his wooden prototype made in metal, the metalworker he contracted swooped in and submitted the design to the Swedish patent office without his knowledge.
So when Jonas got his first metal bolt cutter delivered and tried to apply for a patent, he got a rejection letter with the explanation that someone else had already submitted the exact same design.
This sadly resulted in his life taking a turn for the worse, ultimately resulting in him leaving his wife and 7 kids behind to emigrate to America (where he worked as a builder for 12 years).
He eventually returned to his family, built a new house and workshop, but died shortly after at 51 years old.
Both the wooden prototype and the first metal bolt cutter he had made still exist today as proof of his accomplishment, but the actual inventor never did get the rights to use and sell his brilliant invention during his lifetime.
(apologies for the sad story, but I had to give credit where credit is due!)
The First Propeller
The propeller was invented by John Ericsson, a Swedish inventor and engineer who also designed the first propeller-driven ship.
Ericsson grew up in Sweden and quickly became a very promising engineer working with railroads and canals. He eventually found his way to the industrial epicentre of Europe, England, where he started honing his inventor skills working on locomotives and steam engines.
He went on to become interesting in shipbuilding, which is how he invented and built the first propeller-driven ship, a design that would be used to take a ship from England to America. But his design wasn’t an instant success, and it wasn’t until he moved to America that he started to see the fruits of his labor.
In the US he continued his development of the propeller and a hot air engine he had started working on in London, and soon he was collaborating with numerous mechanical factories across the states.
His big breakthrough came when he helped to build the propeller-driven warship Princeton, that ended up winning a race against the famous British steam boat Great Western.
The propeller was a major breakthrough in maritime technology and allowed for much faster ships. Ericsson’s design was quickly adopted by navies around the world.
Today, propellers are still used on ships, although they have been replaced by more efficient designs in most applications.
Spherical Ball Bearings
After finishing his engineering studies at a technical school in Örebro, Sweden, in 1894, Sven Wingquist worked at various factories and workshops in both Sweden and the US for the next few years.
He eventually earned a job as an engineer at Gamlestadens Fabrikers AB in Gothenburg, and was tasked with figuring out a way to prevent machines from stalling and breaking all the time.
After some analysis he pinpointed the cause to bearings that were too rigid, and of generally bad quality (bearings primarily came from Germany at the time).
He started operating an experimental workshop meant to foster improve ball bearing technology, which in 1907 turned in to the what is now the world leader in the same field; SKF.
After numerous studies on what the most efficient type of bearing would be, he settled on a design with self-aligning double-sided spherical ball bearings in 1907, which would significantly stop machines from stalling.
Wingquist patented the spherical ball bearing the same year, which would allow for greater flexibility and load-bearing capacity than traditional bearings.
These bearings are now used extensively in a wide range of industries, from cars and trucks, to medical equipment and construction machinery.
In fact, Sven and two young engineers at SKF were the ones who founded Swedish carmaker Volvo, which was initially meant to be a brand for one of his bearings (as Volvo means “it rolls” in latin).
Wingquist’s other notable inventions include the roller bearing and the anti-friction ball bearing. Both of these innovations helped make SKF a world leader in bearings and other precision components.
Here’s a video from SKF explaining their bearings:
The First Color Graphics Display Card (Graphics Card)
In 1979 Håkan Lans applied for a patent for a system that could display color graphics from a computer to a monitor, and in 1981 the patent was registered in the US Patent Office.
He is thus generally credited as the inventor of the technology used to operate color displays on computers, or in simpler terms: the basis of all computer graphic cards (such as the ones modern-day giants Nvidia and AMD manufactures).
His invention has not only been hugely impactful on a global level, it has also produced plenty of intrigue and conflicts.
Many American and Japanese computer manufacturers (including Apple, IBM, Dell, Compaq, Hewlet-Packard, Hitachi, and Gateway) recognised the potential in the technology, and started using his patent in their computer systems, but without licensing the rights to do so.
Lans eventually signed licensing deals with Hitachi and IBM, which prompted most of the others to follow suit (including Apple and HP) — but Dell and Gateway would according to Lans keep using his technology without the license to do so. Lans also committed to donating any license fees he’d receive to charity.
This led to lengthy legal proceedings that hasn’t really been resolved to this day — and there are certainly questions on how unbiased the US courts actually were in their treatment of the Swedish inventor versus the US tech giants that was using his patent.
Whether or not he will get the licensing fees from Dell and Gateway is unclear, but what is clear is how impactful Lans’ invention has been on modern computer systems around the world.
The First Telephone Handset
Alexander Graham Bell might have been the first to patent the telephone technology, but the first telephone handset was invented in Sweden in 1876 by Lars Magnus Ericsson, who took advantage of the fact that Bell’s patent did not cover the Nordic countries.
But not even Bell was first, as we now know that it was Italian Antonio Meucci who invented the first telephone.
Either way, Ericsson’s telephone resulted in the first public telephone exchange in the world was opened in Stockholm in 1877.
In 1878, the first long-distance call was made between Stockholm and Gothenburg.
Today, Sweden is still one of the world’s leading countries in telecommunications with Lars’ company Ericsson till being at the forefront of mobile phone technology.
STDMA and Automated Identification System (AIS)
Here’s another invention from Håkan Lans, who also developed a system for transmitting data between multiple different transmitters and receivers in 1996 that he called Self-organized Time-Division Multiple Access (or STDMA).
This data system is still today the basis of AIS, or the Automatic Identification System.
This system uses GPS to track the positions of ships and share that information with other vessels in the area, so they can avoid running into each other, and is globally used today.
After being developed in Sweden, the Swedish Maritime Administration worked internationally to establish it as a global standard.
And it’s not just boats that utilise AIS, NASA has found a particularly interesting use-case for it as well.
In the video below, NASA and the International Space Station demonstrates how a space-based radio receiver can track a ship’s Automatic Identification System (AIS) signal:
AIS has been particularly useful in crowded areas like the Baltic Sea, where there are a lot of ships travelling in close quarters.
The Three-Phase Electric Power System
The three-phase electric system was independently invented by as many as six inventors in the late 1880s (including Nikola Tesla in 1887), but Swedish inventor Johan Wenström’s solution had several advantages over those of his competitors. It was also the only one that was initially a complete system with generator, transformer and motor.
Wenström also said the following regarding Thomas Edison’s lightbulb (surely part of the reason he’s nicknamed “the Swedish Edison”):
Edison’s new invention of electric light: a glowing carbon strip, is the same thing that I discovered a year ago … If I had his laboratory, and resources, I would have done the same and better … a graphite strip between two mica plates provide a more effective light than Edison’sJohan Wenström
Electric power today is transmitted either using a single-phase or a three-phase system. The three-phase system uses three wires, each carrying a different phase of the current. The phases are offset from each other by one-third of a cycle, so that the voltage waveforms produced by the three phases add up to produce a constant overall voltage.
The most common power supply in residential properties is a single-phase supply, while most industrial and commercial facilities procure electrical energy using a three-phase supply. One of the biggest differences between single-phase and three-phase supply is that it can accommodate higher loads.
In 2003, Skype was founded in Tallinn, Estonia by Niklas Zennström, from Sweden, and Janus Friis, from Denmark. The company was Swedish, but it’s important to note that it was also developed by four Estonian software engineers.
For the first time in history, it allowed people to communicate smoothly with each other over the Internet by voice, video, and instant messaging.
It also quickly became the choice for international calls because it was significantly cheaper than traditional long-distance phone services.
Skype became an instant worldwide success, and was quickly scooped up by American eBay for $2.6 billion USD in 2005, and later Microsoft for $8.5 billion USD.
Microsoft eventually integrated Skype in its operating system Windows, and used its technology as a basis for its Teams business communication software.
Today Skype has around 100 million monthly active users, and 1.95 billion registered users.
Skype has not only become one of the most popular communication tools in the world, it also revolutionized the way we stay connected with loved ones who are far away and paved the way for popular newcomers such as Zoom and Apple’s FaceTime.
Sweden is a country known for its innovation, and that extends to the drone revolution that has taken place in the past few years.
Swedish innovators have come up with a number of life-saving drones, including the world’s first Automated External Defibrillator (AED).
The first use of this drone took place in Trollhättan, Sweden in December of 2021, with an Everdrone autonomous drone delivering a defibrillator that saved the life of a 71-year-old Swedish man.
Everdrone AB mainly develops technology for drones and offers advanced drone services. The company is based in Gothenburg, Sweden.
When it comes to safety matches, you can thank a Swede for your ability to light a fire without fear of singeing your fingers.
In 1844, chemist Gustaf Erik Pasch patented the red phosphorus match, which was much safer than the previous white phosphorus version.
Before Pasch’s invention, the highly poisonous white phosphorus was the key ingredient in matches, and workers in match factories frequently developed “phossy jaw,” a painful and often fatal condition caused by exposure to white phosphorus.
Despite Pasch’s innovative solution, the safety match didn’t became a commercial success until Jönköping brothers John Edvard and Carl Frans Lundström improved on the Pasch design a decade later, around 1855–60.
Safety matches quickly became one of Sweden’s main exports, and became synonymous with Jönköping around the world, well into the 20th century.
Swedish engineer and inventor Waldemar Jungner developed the nickel-iron electric storage battery (NiFe) in 1899, two years before Thomas Edison tried to patent it. In the same year, he also invented the nickel-cadmium battery (NiCd) and the rechargeable alkaline silver-cadmium battery (AgCd).
Jungner’s battery was notoriously reliable and durable, and was the only battery that could be used on Umberto Nobile’s dangerous North Pole expedition in 1928.
Many of Jungner’s original battery technologies were produced and distributed around the globe up until the 1970s, and Junger’s company Saft AB is still making batteries in Sweden to this day.
The Gamma Knife
The Gamma Knife is a Swedish invention developed by Professor Lars Leksell at Karolinska Hospital, and is used to treat brain tumors. Leksell was active at Karolinska Hospital from 1960 to 1974, and the first Gamma Knife unit began treating patients in 1968.
The device is able to target high doses of radiation to small areas of the brain without harming surrounding tissue.
Gamma Knife has been used to treat over 100,000 patients worldwide and is considered one of the most effective treatments for brain tumors.
The ventilator was an evolution of the earlier iron lung, and in 1950, Carl Gunnar Engström designed a further developed electromechanical ventilator (called the Engstrom Universal Respirator) which had a great impact and was mass produced from 1954.
Engström’s ventilator was designed to treat those who suffered from respiratory paralysis due to polio, and was entirely mechanical.
By using flow control and volume measurement, several people, including Björn Jonson, Sven Ingelstedt, Georgios Psaros, and anaesthesiologist Lars Nordström, made significant contributions to the development of the so-called ServoVentilator around 1970.
This new version not only supported the patient’s breathing according to their needs, but also provided measurements that could be used to diagnose and monitor the patient’s breathing problems, thus contributing to the development of the first specialised intensive care units (ICUs).
Tetra Pak Food Packaging
The Tetra Pak company was built on Erik Wallenberg’s ingenious innovation, a tetrahedron-shaped plastic-coated paper carton (Tetra Classic) that could hold milk without leaking, and did not cost much to produce.
Tetra Pak is today the world’s largest food packing company, with over 22,000 employees and sales in more than 170 countries.
Another of the company’s signature products is the Tetra Brik, a rectangular paperboard box with a plastic liner that was introduced in 1952.
In addition to food packaging, Tetra Pak also provides food processing equipment and services. The company’s products are used in dairy, cheese, ice cream, beverage, and prepared food factories around the world.
Spotify is a music streaming service that was founded by Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon in 2006 in Stockholm, Sweden. The company’s mission is to “unlock the potential of human creativity by giving a billion creative artists the opportunity to live off their art.”
The founders’ initial idea was for Spotify to be free and funded by advertising, but after trying to tie up deals with the record companies, they were steered towards a subscription model on top of the freemium version. After 2.5 years of negotiations with record labels, Ek and Lorentzon could launch Spotify in early November 2008.
Spotify had 188 million premium subscribers worldwide as of Q2 2022.
Here’s a cool video explaining how Spotify is changing the world of music forever:
The company’s freemium service allows users to listen to music for free with advertisements, and its premium subscription removes advertisements and allows users to listen offline as well. Spotify pays royalties to artists based on the number of streams their songs receive.
The First Tape Measuring Tool
Swedish inventor Carl Edvard Johansson is credited with inventing the first modern tape measure in 1881.
Johansson’s design was based on a steel ribbon that was wound around a drum. The tape measure was originally designed for use in tailoring, but it soon became popular for other applications such as carpentry and construction.
Today, tape measures are made from a variety of materials including plastic, fiberglass, and steel. They come in many different sizes and can be found in most homes and workplaces.
Medical Ultrasound and Echocardiography
Born in Germany, Hellmuth Hertz (whose grandfather Heinrich gave name to the Hertz frequency unit) eventually ended up studying physics at Lund University, where he met Inge Elder (born in nearby Burlöv, Sweden).
They would together end up making discoveries within the use of ultrasound that would have a phenomenal impact on the world of medicine.
One of the most important is undoubtedly inventing a way to utilise ultrasound waves to look into the human body (it had previously only been used to discover damage in ships), which led them to also effectively establish the field of echocardiography (i.e. ultrasound of the heart) in 1953.
Since ultrasound was mainly used in ship repair at the time, the two inventors borrowed a device from the famous Malmö shipyard Kockums (my dad worked there for 12 years when I was younger!) to apply on the human body instead.
They would develop methods to use ultrasound to diagnose injuries inside the human brain and heart, and the method is still used to this day to measure development of foetuses among many other things.
The First Bicycle Airbag Helmet
After seven years of research, Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin of Malmö, Sweden, invented a wearable airbag for cyclists they would call the Hövding.
The airbag is worn like a collar around the cyclist’s neck and is activated automatically in the event of an accident. The Hövding has been designed to protect cyclists from head injuries, which are the leading cause of death and serious injury among cyclists.
Here’s a short slow-motion video on how the airbag helmet works:
We own a Hövding 3 ourselves, and though we luckily haven’t been in an accident it does feel a whole lot better knowing our heads would be significantly safer if one were to happen (even compared to wearing a regular helmet as you’ll see further down).
The idea for the Hövding came to them while they were studying industrial design at Lund University; they noticed that there was a lack of effective safety products on the market for cyclists, and they set out to create a better solution.
The product has made a splash around the glove, and scientists at Stanford University conducted a series of drop tests which led them to conclude wearers of a Hövding are eight times less likely to get a concussion compared to traditional helmets.
The Hövding is now sold in over 20 countries around the world and has been credited with saving lives and preventing serious head injuries. It is considered one of the most innovative cycling products on the market today.
Lidocaine (Local Anesthetic)
Lidocaine is a medication used to numb tissue in a specific area. It is a local anesthetic and works by temporarily blocking the nerves that send pain signals to the brain.
Lidocaine was first synthesized in Sweden in 1943 by Nils Löfgren and Bengt Lundqvist, and is now used worldwide for a variety of purposes, including as a numbing agent during medical procedures (it is especially popular in dentistry).
Oat-based drinks have been around in Sweden since the early 1900s, in the form of a very popular Swedish drink called Välling that pretty much makes small kids magically sleep through the night.
But it wasn’t until the 1990s a completely dairy-free oat drink started gaining popularity, as a plant-based alternative to regular milk.
The biggest producer by far is Oatly (based in Landskrona, Sweden, not too far away from where I live), who make products such as the immensely popular iKaffe.
Oat milk is a dairy-free alternative to cow’s milk and is made from oats that have been soaked and blended with water. It has a creamy texture and a slightly sweet taste, which I find perfect as a complement to coffee (instead of milk or cream).
It is a good source of vitamins and minerals (including calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium), low in fat, and cholesterol-free.
The Re-washable Dishcloth
The rewashable Wettex dishcloth was invented in 1949 by Curt Lindquist. It can absorb up to 15 times its own weight in liquids, and is made of a material consisting of regenerated cellulose reinforced with cotton fibre.
The material used allows it to be washed over and over again, without losing its shape or quality. This makes it environmentally friendly on top of being very effective.
Wettex dishcloths are nowadays available in more than 50 countries worldwide, and produces more than 220 million units a year in the original Norrköping factory form the 1940s. It now goes under the name Freundeberg Household Products.
The First Abstract Paintings
Hilma af Klint was a Swedish artist who is credited with creating the first abstract paintings around 1906.
Her work was influenced by theosophy and spiritualism, and she believed that her paintings could be used to channel higher truths.
Af Klint died in 1944, but her work gained renewed interest in the 21st century, when it was exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
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