8 of the Greatest Fathers in Engineering History

The apple doesn't always fall far from the tree. We're taking a look at eight renowned engineers and their children who followed in (and sometimes surpassed) their footsteps.
  • Sometimes the spirit of invention runs in the family. In celebration of Father's Day we're taking a look at a few of history's greatest engineers and inventors whose legacy and passon for invention was carried on by their children. Which father and son's work led to a major auto company? Who was the “Father of Railways?” And what's the story behind the helicopter?

    Click through the slideshow to find out!

  • John and Val Browning

    John Browning (shown) built his first gun at the age of 13 in his father's gun shop. He would go on to hold 128 firearms-related patents over the course of his lifetime – including work on automatic, and semi-automatic guns, cartridges, and improvements to pumps and levels on shotguns and rifles. He's considered one of the most successful firearms designers of all time and many of his patents are still used in some capacity today. He invented the telescoping bolt which is found in most modern semi-automatic pistols.

    After his death in 1926, Browning left a number of unfinished designs and projects. His son, Val Browning, took up the cause of completing his father's unfinished work, including the Browning Hi-Power, a single-action, semi-automatic handgun that is still used around the world. Though he never reached his father's 128, the younger Browning still accumulated 48 gun-related patents in his lifetime.

    (Image source: Public Domain)

  • Miles O'Brien and Marion Donovan

    The automobile industry owes a debt to Miles O'Brien who, along with his brother Richard, invented the South Bend Lathe, a tooling device for grinding automobile gears. The lathe made the O'Brien's a fortune, but Miles' daughter Marion (later Marion Donovan, shown) had an arguably even more significant impact as the inventor of what was the forerunner to the disposable diaper.

    Marion spent her youth in her father's factory, where she caught the invention bug. Because of this Miles is often credited with inadvertently creating the “Take Your Daughter to Work” movement.

    Later, circa 1946, as a busy mother of two, Mario was fed up with dealing with soaked-through wet diapers and diaper rash. Inspired by the water-resistance of shower curtains, Marion sewed shower curtain material into diapers to create prototypes for water-proof diapers. Her invention was an instant success and was sold in Saks Firth Avenue in New York City. Though she's best known for her work with diapers, Marion is also held patents for various other household items including a compact garment hanger, a soap dish that drained into the sink, and Dentaloop dental floss.

    (Image source: National Inventors Hall of Fame)

  • Wilbert and Robert Gore

    Wilbert (Bill) Gore was a researcher at DuPont, who spent his free time experimenting with new uses for polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), aka Telfon. Among his innovations was a means of using PTFE to insulate cabling. In 1969 Bill's son Robert Gore (shown) created a breathable, and waterproof, fabric by coating Teflon with urethane and bonding it to nylon fabric. Bill got wind of his son's creation and worked alongside him to improve it. Under their family-owned company, W.L Gore & Associates, the Gores branded the new material as Gore-Tex and sold it to various industries. Gore-Tex has found varied uses including in sporting and outdoor clothing, space suits, as a membrane in sealed battery products, and in various medical applications such as sutures, heart patches, and synthetic knee ligaments.

    (Image source: Public Domain)

  • Stanley Hiller Sr. and Stanley Hiller Jr.

    Despite holding 40 patents and being an avid pilot and engineer, Stanley Hiller did not leave much of a mark on history. His son, Stanley Hiller Jr. however clearly shared his father's passion for aeronautics and invention, and is created as a pioneering developer of the modern helicopter. At the ripe old age of 15 Hiller Jr. designed and built a working model of what is credited as the world's first coaxial helicopter to function successfully – the XH-44 “Hiller-copter”(shown). After winning approval for his design from the US Army at the age of 17, he opened a helicopter factory in California. In 1966 Hiller Jr. left his company after a merger with what is now the Fairchild Corporation.

    (Image source: Wikimedia Commons / Daderot [CC0])

  • Sir Hiram Maxim and Hiram Percy Maxim

    Sir Hiram Maxim (shown) was an American-born British inventor with several patents to his name for inventions like a mousetrap, curling irons, and steam pumps. He's best known however for his contributions to the firearm industry. Maxim was the inventor of the Maxim Gun, the first portable, fully-automatic machine gun. He credited his idea to an 1882 trip to Vienna, where he met an American who advised him the best way to really get rich was to “invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each others' throats with greater facility.”

    Inspired by a childhood injury caused by gun recoil, Maxim fell on the idea of harnessing recoil energy to prepare a gun for its next shot. Versions of the Maxim Gun were a staple of British firearms and were used extensively in World War I. Ironically, Maxim's work with guns rendered him completely deaf in his later years.

    Maxim's son, Hiram Percy Maxim, would follow in his father's footsteps and is credited with inventing and selling the first commercially-successful firearms silencer, the Maxim Silencer, in 1902. The younger Maxim was also an avid automobile enthusiast, reportedly having attempted to build his own internal combustion engine at one time. While he was never able to build a completely successful engine, Hiram Percy Maxim was able to leverage the techniques used to create his silencer to develop automobile mufflers.

    (Image source: Public Domain)

  • John and Washington Reobling

    The credit for one of the worlds most marvelous feats of engineering, and one of New York City's most iconic landmarks, goes to the Reoblings. John Roebling (shown) was a German-born American civil engineer who specialized in wire rope suspension bridges. In 1867 he embarked on work on what is now the Brooklyn Bridge. Unfortunately, he was never able to finish the project. One day, while surveying the area where the bridge was to be built, he was standing on a dock and his foot was crushed by an arriving ferry. He died of tetanus as a result of his injury.

    After his father's death, John's son, Washington Roebling, who'd been working as an assistant engineer on the bridge, took up the challenge and became the chief engineer on the project. Not only did Washington see his father's vision to fruition, he made several improvements to the design, including the addition of the pneumatic caissons that form the foundations for the Brooklyn Bridge's two towers.

    (Image source: Public Domain)

  • George and Robert Stephenson

    When you think of all of Elon Musk's various endeavors, just know he's trying to have the same level of impact on transportation as the Stephensons.

    George Stephenson, “The Father of Railways,” (shown) was an English civil and mechanical engineer who pioneered rail transport by building the first public inter-city railway line in 1830 (the Liverpool and Manchester railway). He also designed and built his own steam locomotives.

    George's only son Robert took his father's work even further, designing and building a number of steam locomotives alongside his father. Together the Stephenson's developed some of the world's earliest passenger steam locomotives – significantly contributing to the Industrial Revolution and laying the groundwork for modern rail travel all over the world. Robert Stephenson is often refereed to as the greatest engineer of the 19th century.

    (Image source: Public Domain)

  • Sakichi and Kiichiro Toyoda

    Sakichi Toyoda (shown) opened his own loom company, Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, in 1926, built off his own automatic fabric weaving devices that he invented some time in the late 1800s. His most famous invention is arguably the automatic power loom, the first machine of its type capable of stopping itself in the event of an issue. Engineers will also appreciate Toyoda as the developer of the “5 Whys” concept – the idea of asking “why” five times to figure out the source of a problem and prevent it from recurring. The concept is still used today in lean methodologies.

    Toyoda's son, Kiichiro, got his start working in his father's factory. But following Sakichi's death in 1930, Kiirchiro followed his passion for automobiles (an interest his father encouraged him to pursue) and convinced his family, at great risk, to invest in expanding the family business into auto manufacturing. After reverse-engineering a Chevrolet to learn how it worked, Kiichiro Toyoda built his first cars in 1935.

    If you haven't figured it out already, that company was later renamed Toyota (Kiirchiro thought the new name would bring good luck and be easier to pronounce). Sadly, Kiirchiro wouldn't live to see his company reach its full potential. He resigned in 1950 after a worker's strike in the wake of layoffs and declining profits and died two years later. Today however, Toyota is one of the world's largest auto manufacturers and Kiichiro is often referred to as “Japan's Thomas Edison.”

    (Image source: Public Domain)

Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at   Design News  covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, blockchain, and robotics.

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