This article previously ran on LDS Living in June 2016.
Have you ever heard of Philo T. Farnsworth? What about Lester Wire or Thomas Stockham?
Each of these Latter-day Saints have shaped history by inventing devices we now take for granted, including television, the traffic light, and digital sound. And while Latter-day Saints by no means have a corner on the invention market, you probably still use many of their inventions today.
Editor's Note: This is not a comprehensive list. There have been dozens of important inventions by Latter-day Saints throughout the years, but this is merely a sampling of some of the most significant ones.
The concept of an odometer was not new when the Latter-day Saint pioneers began heading west. In fact, different people, including Benjamin Franklin, had been developing their own versions of the odometer for centuries. However, the one invented by Latter-day Saint pioneers William Clayton and Appleton Milo Harmon was the first designed for use with wagon trains and is often referred to as the predecessor of the modern odometer.
Clayton, who had been charged with recording data about the journey west, wanted more specific measurements of the distance the wagon trains were going each day, instead of the estimates that had been more commonly used. He started by measuring a wagon wheel and discovered that 360 revolutions were the equivalent of one mile. After counting 4,070 rotations in one day, he consulted with Brother Harmon, who was a carpenter, to develop a machine to do the counting instead. It was more complex than most existing designs, with a series of moving spokes and gears that attached to the wagon wheel.
Thanks to this design, Clayton was able to provide fairly accurate distance measurements of the path the pioneers took. When this data was published as The Latter-day Saints’ Emigrants’ Guide, it was widely used by future pioneers, California-bound 49ers, and others traveling the same path west.
2. Improved Firearms
Jonathan Browning, a convert from Tennessee, had a prominent gun shop in Nauvoo, where he lived for some time with the Saints. A gunsmith even before he joined the Church, he loved to invent and improve on existing designs, leading to his invention of the “sliding breech” repeating rifle, often referred to as a “harmonica gun”—a precursor to modern high-capacity firearms. After being baptized, Browning continued to make guns, but began to mark them with a plate that read “Holiness to the Lord—Our Preservation.”
But if Jonathan Browning was recognized for his advances in firearms, his son was even more well known. Often called the “Father of Modern Firearms,” Ogden-born John Moses Browning followed in his father’s footsteps and is credited with over 120 patents for firearms. His most noted achievement was the invention of the automatic gas-powered machine gun. Semiautomatic pistols and shotguns also litter his list of inventions, and his guns were manufactured by the well-known Winchester and Colt companies. His contribution to military weapons was vastly important during the outbreak of World War I, and his name is still familiar to firearm users today. John Browning was a devoted member of the Church and served a mission to Georgia in 1887.