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Discover Portugal's most famous inventions

The Portuguese are mostly known for being extremely friendly. However, many people are unaware of another Portuguese trait which is their creativity!

Throughout history, there are several examples of how Portuguese instruments and technologies rapidly spread all over the world, reshaping the way different cultures absorbed new ways of solving simple everyday tasks.

Discover some of Portugal's most famous inventions!

Portuguese inventions during the Age of Discoveries

Although Portugal is a small country, it has made many contributions to the world, many of which occurred during the Age of Discoveries. After all, the Portuguese were pioneers in sailing across the sea to explore foreign lands.

The Portuguese creativity and thirst for knowledge inspired sailors and explorers to create new forms of sea navigation that would later be used by other countries.

Among these, the Portuguese caravel, depicted in the famous Padrão dos Descobrimentos monument in Lisbon, is probably Portugal's most famous invention!

Created by the Portuguese between the 15th and 16th centuries, the "caravela" was a wooden boat that allowed Portuguese sailors to travel across the wildest seas, facing challenging winds and currents.

The impact of this innovation transformed Portugal into the main maritime and economic power of the 16th century.

At the time, little was known about the Atlantic and everything was new to those men who set sail.

The Portuguese caravel's design, with a slender tapered and long hull, made it easier and faster to manoeuvre. Its sails were twice the size of what was usual in similar European and Mediterranean vessels at the time, making it possible to sail in a zig-zag course against the wind. Because it was not a very large vessel, it was also possible to steer along the coast, at the mouths of rivers, and even upstream.

It is aboard a Portuguese caravel that the famous explorer Bartolomeu Dias sailed around the Cape of Good Hope (known by the Portuguese of that time as "Cabo das Tormentas", cape of storms), thus entering the Indian Ocean and paving the way for Vasco da Gama's voyage and the discovery of the sea route to India. Later, the Portuguese also created larger boats, such as the "naus" and "galeões".

These boats were key to Portugal's success during the Age of Discoveries, allowing the transport of goods from the colonies back to mainland Portugal. These were carried below deck, where there was plenty of space to transport precious stones, spices and textiles, among other high-value rarities that would transform the kingdom of Portugal into one of the richest of this era.

Nautical Astrolabe

The nautical astrolabe is another famous Portuguese invention that allowed sailors to excel in maritime discoveries and commerce.

This instrument allowed sailors to determine the latitude of a ship at sea by positioning the sun with the horizon line.

In 1481, the Portuguese sailors were the first to use an astrolabe during a voyage along the west coast of Africa.

The world's oldest astrolabe (as certified by Guinness World Records) was discovered in 2014 inside the caravel Esmeralda, sunk in the Indian Ocean during Vasco da Gama's second voyage to India (1502-1503).

World's oldest nautical astrolab used by Vasco da Gama
This astrolabe was found in a ship from Vasco da Gama's fleet, sunk during his second voyage to India (1502-1503)

This remarkable invention was an adjustment of the planispheric astrolabe, and one of the many examples of how the Portuguese developed various nautical instruments from existing tools by introducing technical innovations.

With these innovations, the Portuguese contributed to developing the process of astronomical navigation, which until then was based on calculations and navigation by land in sight. The Portuguese also contributed to improving sea cartography, creating maritime routes on more accurate maps that facilitated navigation.

The Portuguese origin of the Hawaiian ukulele

The ukulele is another famous Portuguese invention. Although many believe it was created by the Hawaiians and is often mistakenly called the "Hawaiian guitar", the ukulele has its origins in two traditional Portuguese musical instruments: the Madeira "machete" (also known as "braguinha" or "Machete de Braga", which in turn has its origins in the Portuguese "cavaquinho") and the "rajão" (Madeira five-string guitar).

The ukulele was introduced in Hawaii by a Portuguese emigrant from the island of Madeira, João Fernandes, who travelled to Honolulu on the sailing ship Ravenscrag. He was joined by a group of emigrants destined for the sugar plantations, following the route of Cape Horn.

Among them were five other Portuguese emigrants that would become responsible for the popularity of the instrument in Hawaii: two players (João Fernandes and José Luís Correia) and three instrument builders (Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias, and José do Espírito Santo).

Portuguese influence in the history of the ukelele

According to an article published by "Paradise of the Pacific" magazine, in January 1922, the Ravenscrag arrived in Honolulu on August 23, 1879, and when João Fernandes disembarked, he held the "cavaquinho" with which he entertained his travel companions during the long sea voyage.

When Hawaiians heard João Fernandes play the small instrument, they were delighted and soon gave it the name "ukulele" which means "jumping flea" in allusion to the peculiar way it was played. João Fernandes started playing in local parties and serenades, and later formed a musical group with Augusto Dias and José Luís Correia.

Along with Manuel Nunes who opened a workshop soon after his arrival , Augusto Dias and José do Espírito Santo also opened a store manufacturing and selling ukuleles.

The Via Verde System

A more recent invention is the Via Verde system, which allows motorists to pass through a highway tollgate and pay automatically, without having to stop.

Launched in 1991, the Via Verde system was created by students of the University of Aveiro to make motorists' lives easier by avoiding long queues on highway tolls.

In 1995, Portugal became the first country in the world to have a nonstop toll payment system. By simply placing an identifier on the inside of a windshield, the tollgate registered the passage and the fee was automatically debited from an associated bank account.

Via verde toll system in Portugal
Portuguese highways have specific lanes for Via Verde users

Considered one of the most popular Portuguese inventions, the Via Verde system is currently used in several countries in the world.

Currently, besides paying highway tolls, you can also use the Via Verde system in Portugal for fuel payments at petrol stations, restaurants, pharmacies, ferries and parking lots, as well as obtaining discounts and exclusive offers in highway service areas, auto services and accommodation in partner companies.

ATM Cash Machines (Multibanco)

The Multibanco or ATM cash machine is another example of Portuguese innovation.

This system allows anyone with a bank card to withdraw money, make payments, transfer money, and simply take care of many other daily tasks, such as:

  • buying public transport tickets and passes;

  • crediting cell phones;

  • paying tolls;

  • paying for utilities such as water, electricity or gas;

  • paying taxes and other public services.

Since the ATM cash machine was invented in 1985, it's one of the most used inventions by the Portuguese people. When it was first launched, there were only 12 cash machines in Porto and Lisbon. Currently, there are more than 13,000 ATM machines spread all over the country.

Despite other European countries having tried to develop their own money withdrawal machines, the reality is that the Portuguese ATM cash machine had the most sophisticated system.

And these are just a few examples of how the ingenuity of the Portuguese people has contributed to making people's lives simpler!

The next time you think of Portugal, don't forget that the Portuguese have brought happiness to the world with much more than just pastéis de nata, fado and Cristiano Ronaldo!

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Boa tarde. Your permission is requested to reprint "Discover Portugal's most famous inventions" in Portugal Living Magazine. All attributions, acknowledgments, and links to your site will be provided. Thank you for your consideration. /Bruce Joffe, Publisher & Creative Director

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