Frenchmen invent stereolithography, but nobody cares…

Alain le Méhauté worked as an electrochemist for the company CGE, formerly Alcatel. He was doing research on fractal geometries and had the problem that his colleagues did not agree with his equations. Le Méhauté was bent on proving them right.

He had to find a way to make a fractal object that, by his definition, was an “object with local properties [war] that corresponded to its global properties.” At that time, no manufacturing process was capable of producing this object. So he had to find a way to develop a machine for it himself.

Canteen talk with consequences

In the canteen, he spoke with Olivier de Witte of Cilas, a subsidiary of Alcatel, about his difficulty in building a machine that could plastically represent his equations. Since de Witte was working on lasers at the time, he told le Méhauté that certain liquids could be solidified when irradiated with a laser.

All good things come in threes(D)

The two experimented, but came to no reasonable conclusion. So they talked to Jean-Claude André, a researcher at the“Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS)” (National Center for Scientific Research). He finally gave the hint not to make the object from one cast, but in layers. That's how the idea of the 3D printer eventually became a reality. The first print object of the three men was a spiral staircase.

Patent application – The goal achieved?

The three inventors applied for their patent for a stereolithography process a whole three weeks before (!!!) the American inventor Chuck Hull. In January 1986, the French patent was granted. Stereolithography (SLA) eventually gave the name to the .STL file format still in use today.

Easy come easy go?

However, the CNRS did not give the invention the value it deserved. It did not see any marketing potential in it and no longer financed further research and optimization to market maturity. The CNRS did not see the invention as a 3D printer, but only as a device for the plastic implementation of complex geometries and equations. There was no market for it, in their opinion.

Imagined differently.

Unfortunately, she had to abandon the project for this reason. While Olivier de Witt headed a French subsidiary of 3D Systems for a while, Jean-Claude André moved to the private sector. The man who finally got the ball rolling – Alain le Méhauté – became a teacher in Kazan, Russia. These three inventors certainly imagined it differently.

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