Great Father-Son Inventor Duos

Like Father, Like Son

Edison And Son
General Photographic Agency / Getty Images

Aside from playing a large hand in the upbringing and protection of their children, fathers teach, rear and are mentors as well as disciplinarians. And in certain cases, dads can inspire and mold their kids to follow in their footsteps as great inventors.

The following are some examples of famous or well-known father and sons who both worked as inventors. Some worked together while others followed in the other’s footsteps to build upon his father’s achievements. In some cases, the son would venture on his own and make his mark in a completely different field. But the one commonality that’s seen in many of these instances is the profound influence a father has on his son.   

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A Legend and His Son: Thomas and Theodore Edison

Thomas Edison stands with big bulb.
Noted inventor Thomas Edison at the lightbulb's golden jubilee anniversary banquet in his honor, Orange, New Jersey, October 16, 1929. He is exhibiting in his hand a replica of his first successful incandescent lamp which gave 16 candlepower of illumination, in contrast to the latest lamp, a 50,000 watt, 150,000 candlepower lamp. Underwood Archives/Getty Images

The electric light bulb. The motion picture camera. The phonograph. These are the lasting world-changing contributions of a man many consider to be America’s greatest inventor – one Thomas Alva Edison.

By now, his story is familiar and is the stuff of legend. Edison, who was one of the most prolific inventors of his time, holds 1,093 US patents in his name. He was also a renowned entrepreneur as his efforts not only gave birth but also almost singlehandedly led to the widespread growth of entire industries. For instance, thanks to him, we have electric light and power utility companies, sound recording, and motion pictures.

Even some of his lesser known endeavors turned out to be huge game-changers. His experience with the telegraph led him to invent to the stock ticker. the first electricity-based broadcast system. Edison also received a patent for a two-way telegraph. A mechanical vote recorder was soon to follow. And in 1901, Edison formed his own battery company which produced batteries for the earliest electric cars.

As the fourth child of Thomas Edison, Theodore likely knew there wasn’t really possible to truly follow in his father footsteps and at the same time live up to such lofty standards set before him. But he was no slouch either and held his own when it came to being an inventor.

Theodore attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a physics degree in 1923. Upon graduating, Theodore joined his father's company, Thomas A. Edison, Inc. as a lab assistant. After gaining some experience, he ventured off on his own and formed Calibron Industries. Throughout his career, he held over 80 patents of his own. 

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Alexander Graham Bell and Alexander Melville Bell

Alexander Graham Bell
© CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Right up there with the most legendary of inventors is Alexander Graham Bell. While he is most famous for inventing and patenting the first practical telephone, he also undertook other groundbreaking work in optical telecommunications, hydrofoils, and aeronautics. Among some of his other significant inventions include the photophone, a wireless telephone which allowed for the transmission of conversations using a beam of light, and the metal detector.

It also didn’t hurt that he had an upbringing that likely in many ways helped to foster such a spirit of innovation and ingenuity. Alexander Graham Bell’s father was Alexander Melville Bell, a scientist who was a speech specialist who specialized in physiological phonetics. He is best known as the creator of Visible Speech, a system of phonetic symbols developed in 1867 to help deaf people better communicate. Each symbol was designed in so that it represented the position of the speech organs in articulating sounds.

Although Bell’s visible speech system was notably innovative for its time, after a decade or so schools for the deaf stopped teaching it due to the fact that it was cumbersome to learn and eventually gave way to other systems of language, such as sign language. Still, throughout his time, Bell dedicated himself to research on deafness and even partnered with his son to do so as well. In 1887, Alexander Graham Bell took the profits from the sale of Volta Laboratory Association to create a research center to further knowledge relating to the deaf while Melville pitched in about $15,000, the equivalent of $400,000 today. 

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Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim and Hiram Percy Maxim

Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim. Public Domain

For those who don’t know, Sir Hiram Stevens Maxim was an American-British inventor who was best known for inventing the first portable, fully automatic machine gun – otherwise known as the Maxim gun. Invented in 1883, the Maxim gun has been largely credited for helping the British conquer colonies and expand their imperial reach. In particular, the gun played a pivotal role in its conquest over present-day Uganda.

The Maxim gun, which was first used by Britain's colonial forces during the first Matabele War in Rhodesia, offered armed forces such a superior advantage at the time that it enabled 700 soldiers to fend off 5,000 warriors with just four guns during the Battle of the Shangani. Soon enough, other European countries began to adopt the weapon for their own military use. For instance, it was used by the Russians during the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1906).

A fairly prolific inventor, Maxim also held patents on a mousetrap, hair-curling irons, steam pumps and also claimed to have invented the lightbulb. He also experimented with various flying machines that were never successful. Meanwhile, his son Hiram Percy Maxim would later come to make a name for himself as a radio inventor and pioneer.

Hiram Percy Maxim attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and upon graduating got his start at American Projectile Company. In the evenings, he would tinker with his own internal combustion engine. He was later hired for the Motor Vehicle Division of the Pope Manufacturing Company to produce automobiles.

Among his most notable accomplishments are the "Maxim Silencer", a silencer for firearms, which was patented in 1908. He also developed a silencer (or muffler) for gasoline engines. In 1914, he co-founded the American Radio Relay League with another radio operator Clarence D. Tuska as a way for operators to relay radio messages via relay stations. This allowed messages to travel much further distances than a single station can send. Today, the ARRL is the nation’s largest membership association for amateur radio enthusiasts.  

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The Railway Builders: George Stephenson and Robert Stephenson

Robert Stevenson portrait. Public Domain

George Stephenson was an engineer who is considered to be the father of the railways for his major innovations that laid the groundwork for railway transportation. He’s widely known for having established the "Stephenson gauge," which is the standard railway track gauge used by most railway lines in the world. But just as importantly, he’s also the father of Robert Stephenson, who himself has been called the greatest engineer of the 19th century.

In 1825, the father and son duo, whom together founded Robert Stephenson and Company, successfully operated the Locomotion No. 1, the first steam locomotive to carry passengers on a public rail line. On a late fall day in September, the train hauled passengers on the Stockton and Darlington Railway in north-east England.

As a major railway pioneer, George Stephenson built some of the earliest and innovative railways, including the Hetton colliery railway, the first railway that didn’t use animal power, the Stockton and Darlington Railway and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

Meanwhile, Robert Stephenson would build upon his father’s achievements by designing many major railways throughout the world. In Great Britain, Robert Stephenson was involved in the construction of a third of the country's railway system. He also built railways in countries such as Belgium, Norway, Egypt and France.

During his time, he was also an elected Member of Parliament and represented Whitby. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1849 and served as President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and Institution of Civil Engineers.