Perhaps you think of Cuba as ground-breaking in many ways. Its 1950s-revolution marked a first of its kind in Latin America, with limited bloodshed and a one-of-a-kind charismatic and controversial leader that, despite having its fair share of detractors, pioneered in many things and broke a few records (from his famous speech lengths to his decades governing the island). Yes, Cuba is, and has been a place of rather revolutionary ideas and many world-firsts, but in many more ways than you probably imagine.
We’re talking about world-firsts that caused a major impact worldwide, far beyond the reaches of this little Caribbean island (which is a bit of an understatement actually, as Cuba is the largest of all the island in the Antilles, but I digress) and by this I mean things like the first railway not just in Latin America, but in the whole of the Ibero-American region and much of the globe, the world’s first ever telephone (yes, I kid you not), one of the planet´s first public electricity systems and even one of the first humans on space! Yes, really! Cuba played the trial testing grounds for many a world invention, and spawned inspiration for a good many others.
Without further ado, let´s get started with the list of 8 inventions that came to Cuba first, listed below in chronological order:
Cuba beat Spain (its colony at the time) in the global race to get one of the first railway systems in place, becoming the ninth country in the world to do so, only lagging behind England, France, Czech Republic, the United States, Australia, Ireland, Belgium and Canada (in that order).
The first ever railway in the Spanish-speaking world was built in Cuba and it happened in 1837, under the command of Francisco D. Vives, the island’s Spanish governor, who created the “Junta de Caminos de Hierro” to study the construction of a railway linking Havana to the rural town of Guines, now part of the Mayabeque province, located at some 50-km’s distance from the Cuban capital.
Plans got under way in December 1830 as various studies were carried out to check the viability of the project. For a little over a year the project remained on standby, until it was kick-started again by Claudio Martinez de Pinillo, Count of Villanueva, a “criollo” and “habanero” from a noble family. He was named president of the “Real Junta de Fomento” (Royal Union of Development) and under his command the building of a railway system got under way.
It was Queen Regent Maria Cristina de Borbon-Dos Sicilias (mother of Elizabeth II of Spain) who, in 1834, authorised the construction of the first line linking Havana to Guines after negotiating a 2-million-pesos loan in England to fund the ambitious project. Lending his expertise, American engineer Alfred Cruger was employed as chief engineer for the task and finally, three years later, on 19th November 1837 the first 27.5 kilometres of railway connecting the Cuban capital to the town of Bejucal were opened, just 12 years behind the British pioneered in the industry creating the first ever public railway system. Not too bad for a small Caribbean island, eh?
Cuba’s amazing public transport feat became the first ever railway system in Latin America and Spain, the third in the Americas, only preceded by Canada and the United States, and the ninth in the world. Spain would not get its first railway system until 1848, a little over a decade later.
The 44. 5 kilometres of the “Ferrocaril La Habana – Guines” were finally completed in 1839, when the line finally reached its projected destination. Guines was then at the head of Cuba’s agriculture and sugar production, with the latter being the motor driving the island’s railway development as it was deemed ideal for the movement of sugar cane to various of the country’s commercial ports. Thus, over the years, Cuba’s railway system continued to expand from east to west, virtually covering the island’s entire width and breadth, with 835 kilometres of railway directly linking Havana to Santiago de Cuba. At present, 4,226 kilometres of railway connect various points in the island, from its easternmost point in Guane (Pinar del Rio) to Manzanillo (Granma) and Boqueron (Guantanamo).
Nowadays Cuba’s railway system still stands as one of Latin America’s largest, oldest and most remarkable. The network connects six first level ports in Cuba as well as most of the island’s provinces (15 out of 16) and its capital cities. Its trains may be old and decayed but the journey is as exciting as ever!
2. The Telephone
This one invention might perhaps surprise you the most, especially given that its inventor was Italian stage technician and Garibaldi’s close friend, Antonio Santi Giuseppe Meucci. It was him who devised the first type of acoustic telephone in history back in 1834, later perfected in 1856 and subsequently in 1870, despite the credit (and the patent) eventually being given to Alexander Graham Bell in 1876.
How does this relate in Cuba in any way? I shall proceed to explain. As it happens, in October 1835, Meucci emigrated to Cuba with his wife, where he took a job at Teatro Tacon in Havana (which, it must be said, was the greatest theatre in all of the Americas at the time – you don’t have to take my word for it, feel free to double-check the facts) now still standing as part of the Gran Teatro de La Habana “Alicia Alonso”.
During his time in the Cuban capital, Mr Meucci built a water purification system and also helped expand and improve various theatres in the city with numerous other inventions and discoveries (such as devising a new way to galvanise metals and suggesting a new ingredient for making candlesticks with the use of paraffin instead of beeswax). Yet at the same time he carried on his official duties he worked on developing one of the world’s greatest inventions: the telephone. And he did so in Cuba, and he stumbled upon the invention by accident.
Meucci had already dabbled with communication devices back in his homeland, after creating an acoustic telephone used to communicate between the control room and the stage at Teatro della Pergola in Florence. But it was in 1848, when his contract with the Cuban governor expired, that he took to treating rheumatism patients with electric shocks (a method he himself developed) that led him to experiment with the creation of a new device through which one could hear inarticulate human voice. He called it “telegrafo parlante” (talking telegraph) and thus the idea of a telephone was born.
The story goes that in 1849 one of his employees sought Meucci’s help to relieve a bad case of migraines. Meucci had him held a copper barb in one hand and the cork handle of an instrument with another copper barb at the end in the other, asking him to insert the latter in his mouth when asked to do so. The idea was that the patient would receive an electric shock from the batteries Meucci had in his workshop. Meucci wanted to get an idea of the intensity of the current going through his patient so he held the same instrument the patient was to insert in his mouth, closing the circuit with the battery. As luck would have it, what happened was that when the patient put the copper barb on his mouth he shouted at the shock of receiving the electric current (around 115W) and Meucci described what he experienced:
“I thought I had heard the sound more clearly than normal. Then, I lifted the copper instrument close to my ear and heard the sound of his voice through the wire. This was my first impression and the origin of my idea of transmitting human voice via electricity.”
Meucci proceeded to add a cardboard cone surrounding the patient’s instrument, and made variations in the components of his batteries to see how far he could go in decreasing the strain and voltage. He wrote of the result:
“I asked the patient to repeat the previous procedure without fearing an electric shock and to speak freely inside the cone. He did so immediately. He lifted the cone to his mouth as I lifted mine to my ear. The moment he spoke, I received the sound of the word, not clearly but like a murmur. From that moment, I knew I had obtained the transmission of the word through a conductive wire and I immediately named it the “talking telegraph”.
We don’t know whether the patient’s headaches were cured, but from that moment on, Meucci worked at getting a patent for his invention and developing it further.
In 1850, he started working on various telephone prototypes but as (bad) luck would have it, Meucci’s friendship with General Garibaldi and his association to the Italian unfication the movement, made him a suspect citizen in Cuba and him and his wife were forced to emigrate to the U.S., where he endeavoured to make a living from his inventions. By 1856 he had installed a telephone-liked device in his New York house to communicate with his wife who was ill at the time, suffering from acute rheumatism. The device successfully transmitted human voice through wires and Meucci continued perfecting it further until 1870, going through more than 30 different telephone prototypes. By 1871, he had tried to obtain a patent for his invention and continue developing his telephone prototype but lacked financial means to do so, his candle factory had gone bankrupt and he was unsuccessful at getting anyone to invest in his invention (not least of all because of his connections to Garibaldi).
Sadly, Meucci’s “telettrofono” never took off and his efforts to create the Telettrofono Company were to no vail after his patent caveat expired in 1874. He couldn’t afford to renew it so fast-forward to two years later and Scottish Alexander Graham Bell had appealed for the patent, was granted it and walked off with all the glory of having invented the telephone, as we know it today.
But folks, the telephone was ultimately invented in Cuba, stemming from an accident that happened in Cuba, so whether you believe Meucci was savagely robbed of his invention, or he never achieved the sound clarity he claims, the telephone’s foundations happened in the prettiest of Caribbean islands (OK, that last statement is highly subjective, but I stick firmly by it).
If that weren’t enough, a few years later, in 1906, Havana became the first city in the world to have direct-dial telephone service (without the need of a tour operator). How’s that for a world first?
You already know that Cuba wasn’t the first country in the world to get electricity (we must take another bow to glorious Britain for that), but the first public electricity lighting system in all of Ibero-America was installed in Cuba in 1889, leading the way in the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking world when it came to the use of electricity to light up public spaces and private homes.
And it didn’t happen in Havana as you probably were expecting. The pioneering privilege went the city of Cardenas, province of Matanzas, where the first electricity company in Cuba was created. Founded in 1888 by local businessman Don Antonio Prieto, the "Compania Electrica de Cardenas" (Cardenas Electricy Company), started to light up the city streets on 7th September 1889, beating Havana by several weeks in the nationwide race to install a public electricity system and have it running. Matanzas won, by a landslide.
At the time of its inauguration, Cardenas’ electricity plant had capacity for 83 lightbulbs in public city spaces and 318 bulbs for private use in households.
Havana followed suit a few weeks later, and the third Cuban city to have a public electric system in place and running was Camaguey, who lighted its streets in the last days of December 1889.
So, there you, have it, Cuba had electricity first in the central and southern part of the Americas, beating every other nation in Latin America as well as Spain and Portugal. Quite a feat for such a small little island, especially in comparison to some of its giant neighbouring countries.
Little do people know that car history in Cuba goes a really long way back in time, over a century, in fact. No less than 119 years, to be precise.
Yes, Cuba also enjoyed a continental debut when it came to having the first car in the history of Latin America. The first car in Latin America arrived in Cuba towards the end of 1898, driven by Jose Munoz, the Cuban representative for French car brand “Parisienne”. It was him that on a cool December morning disrupted the sleep of late-morning risers in Havana when he started up the noisy engine of his Parisienne, an automobile he had bought for 1,000 pesos with the intention of showing it around the city to incite buyers and promote the sales of the new vehicle. Indeed, his first drive along the centric Paseo del Prado, caused a major stir among locals, with people lining up on both sides, gasping in awe and contained laughter at seeing this noisy clank along the streets. Many jokes.
The French four-wheeler was a rather basic model. Essentially, a not-too-terrible-looking machine made of iron, levers and straps with a benzine engine that could run no faster than a mere 10 kms per hour. It looked flimsy and not very safe at all. It had come to rival (and eventually replace) the horse-ridden carriages of the time, but most who witnessed Munoz’s first clumsy drive were not convinced. In fact, many jokes surrounded this new invention after its somewhat comical ride down Havana streets, all of which were echoed by the newspapers of the time. My guess is, that not too many people rushed to get in line to buy a Parisienne. The furore of the automobile invention came a few months later, when a new, more potent and better designed car brand was introduced to “habaneros”.
The second automobile to arrive in Cuba was brought over from Lyon by wealthy pharmacist, Ernesto Sarra. Only six months after the arrival of the Parisienne, the shiny new Rochet-Schneider rolling down Havana streets became the talk of the town, and with good reason. Its owner had paid no less than 4,000 pesos for it and one indeed could see the many technological advances that warranted its price. It was powered by 8 horses and could reach a maximum speed of 30 km per hour. Now this was something else, indeed something to talk about in a more awe-inspiring tone. No one laughed at this model. With his new car, Mr Sarra covered the distance between Havana and Guines (located some 50 kilometres away) in just an hour-and-a-half! There was high praise indeed for the Rochet-Schneider.
Also around the same time, Cuban writer and journalist Renee Mendez Capote became the first Ibero-American woman to drive a motorised four-wheeled vehicle. So, the island was indeed a place of revolutionary firsts, but we’re not quite done yet.
If you ever doubted Cubans’ passions for cars, you’ll now see how early they developed this undying car fever, against all manner of adversities in more recent (and far more challenging) times.
In 1903, Cuba’s first garage owner founded the island’s Automovil Club de La Habana and, subsequently, the subcontinent’s first ever local race, involving drivers with wives as co-drivers and with the race track being the road from El Puente de la Lisa to Guanajay. Only two years later, Latin America’s first international car race was organised in Cuba, gathering experiences racers from around the world, including one world record holder. Its winner was a Cuban driver who set a new world record in the process, after driving at a record average speed of 80 km per hour on a 60-horsepowered Mercedes 60. Ernesto Carricaburu made history indeed as the first Cuban racing record-holder.
In another first for Latin America, it was also a Cuban, Mr. Francisco Astudillo, who bought the first electric vehicle of the times, a light, elegant and comfortable car that caused no environmental contamination and rode at a speed of 12 miles per hour.
In 1958 Cuba had been officially declared the number one country in Ibero-America with the largest car possession figures, (160,000 cars in total, one per every 38 people)!
It’s been a while now since Cuba isn’t in the list of world firsts when it comes to cars or any other technological advances. All U.S. made (or with some U.S. involvement in its manufacturing) car imports ceased after the 1959 revolution, making of Cuba a time capsule in more than one way, and thus creating the world’s number car rolling car museum. After all, it was only last year that the first American car in over six decades made it back to the island, at the hands of a Cuban descendant.
Many of the cars you now see in Cuba might be old, cumbersome and clanking 1950s machines, but don’t let the fact that Cuba hasn’t received shiny new models for a while (we have the decades-long U.S. embargo to thank for that!) fool you into thinking this unfortunate blockade has minimised Cuban drivers’ intense love affair and enthusiasm for four-wheeled vehicles. It’s the very precise reason they’ve kept them going against all odds!
OK, so this is the first invention in our list that didn’t arrive to Cuba first before it reached the rest of Latin America. Instead, Cuba became the third Latin American country to welcome the arrival of the cinematograph in January 1897, after stopping by Mexico and Brasil first on a world tour organised by the Lumiere brothers, owners of said invention.
Yet, the expansion of cinemas in Cuba was more prolific and faster-paced than that of the rest of Latin American countries. Towards the first half of the 20th century, the Cuban capital, together with New York and Paris, were the top three cities in the world with the largest number of cinema rooms. Yes! Havana stood alongside far bigger cities like Paris and New York when it came to the number of cinemas it had built. But, actually, it didn’t just stand alongside them, it beat them both! As of December 1958 (according to data published in the 19 Edicion Annual of "Anuario Cinematografico y Radial Cubano", 1959, Havana had a total record-breaking figure of 133 cinemas, in a 20-kilometre radius approximately, and that goes, of course, without mentioning the many cinemas in other cities across the nation. There stands the first proof that habaneros are keen, sometimes over-enthusiastic film-lovers.
It was also around this time, in 1942 to be more precise, that a Cuban composer became the first Ibero-American musical director of an international film producing company, also becoming the first Ibero-American in history to receive various Oscar nominations for said work.
We’re talking about none other than Ernesto Lecuona, one of Cuba’s most international musical prodigies.
But even before the arrival of Lumiere’s cinematograph, Cubans had already been enjoying several cinematic presentations that went from the most primitive to the most advanced technologies in this nascent art. A few months before the arrival of the French brother’s machine, Cubans had been attending Kinetoscope rooms and screenings, the creation of Dickson and Edison that preceded Lumiere’s invention.
Many of Havana’s numerous cinemas still stand today, though much fewer than in the 50s. Some stand in better condition than others, after decades of disrepair and neglect, but a good number of them still function as cinemas with frequent screenings. Havana is, after all, quite famous for its "Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano", (a.k.a. Havana Film Festival) founded in 1979 and now in its 38th edition.
Latin America’s first international flights were flown by two Cubans. It was Agustin Parla and Domingo Rosillo, the men that piloted the route between Key West, Florida and Mariel, Havana in 1913, onboard two separate monoplanes in a race that would eventually crown Rosillo as winner.
Whilst Rosillo might have reached the finish line first and beaten Parla aboard his Bleriot XI aircraft, he didn’t do so alone but followed by boats. Parla, on the other hand, the more daredevil of the two, not only did the stretch alone with no safety net in which to fall into, but he also did so on a flimsier hydroplane Curtiss without a compass, making his feat perhaps all the more impressive (the jury is still out and many aviation fans in Cuba divided their loyalties in favour of Rosillo or Parla). Regardless, both were remarkable Cuban pilots who set the mark in the Latin American continent and led the way for other countries in the region to follow.
On 17th May 1913, Rosillo broke the world record after flying over the 90 miles dividing Key West and Havana in a record time two hours, thirty minutes and forty seconds. He thus stole the crown from the previous world record holder and aviation designer, Luis Bleriot, who, ironically enough, had designed the monoplane he piloted (a Bleriot XI). He won a $10,000 prize for coming in first place, while Parla was awarded $5,000 for coming in second, after experiencing technical issues with the engine that almost cost him his life.
But it was Parla who took the crown when it came to being the first pilot in the history of Cuba, after taking off on his first flight on 9th February 1912 and graduating with honours as “best in class” in April 1912. He was one of the first pilots in Latin America’s aviation history.
On 12th May 1919 the island welcomed its first commercial air carrier, property of the Cuban government and baptised “Sunshine”. It was Mr Parla himself who piloted its inaugural route on 29th May, linking Havana to Florida. A month later the first aerial photographs of Havana were taken, from the same pane.
It was also in 1919 and following Sunshine’s launch, that the first aviation company in Cuba was created as the "Compania Aerea Cubana" (C.A.C) founded by millionaire Cuban businessman and aviation enthusiast, Anibal J. Mesa, who appointed Parla as general manager.
Hence, the first commercial aviation company in Latin America was born. It had six Farman F-40 and F-60 planes, flying domestic routes between Havana, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, Camaguey and Santiago de Cuba with two weekly return flights.
But going back to Cuba’s early initiation in aviation; let’s end on the same note we started. The first airplanes arrived in Cuba in 1910, brought over by French and U.S. pilots on an exhibition hosted at the former Hipodromo de Almendares, which now stands as the Ciudad Libertad airport in Havana. Three years later, Agustin Parla and Domingo Rosillo had taken to the skies to make history, not just for Cuba but for the whole world.
Cuba might not have been the first country in the world to get widespread TV transmission across private homes, but in October 1950 it became the second country in the world to formally offer TV broadcasting services. As a matter of fact, the biggest stars of Latin American cinema came all the way down to Havana to act in front of the Cuban cameras, given that their countries didn’t yet have that technological advancement.
Union Radio TV was behind the launch of the island’s first ever TV channel - Canal 4 (Channel 4) on 24th October 1950. A few months later, in December 1950, CMQ TV launched a new channel, Canal 6, which also started offering regular broadcasting services to household viewers. Thus, Cuban TV pioneered in Latin American television broadcasting, paving the way for bigger neighbouring countries.
Cuba’s first ever broadcasted TV film consisted of an advertising clip for a cigarette brand (Competidora Gaditana) with a jingle by Nico Saquito. The launch also featured the first TV remote control form the Presidential Palace, with the words of the then president, Carlos Prio.
Brazil and Mexico followed shortly, and the first telenovelas (Latin American soap operas) started being broadcast almost simultaneously, also in the year 1950.
By 1958 Cuba had a total 25 TV transmitters with 150.5 kW power, installed in Havana, Matanzas, Santa Clara, Ciego de Avila, Camaguey, Holguin and Santiago de Cuba. It wasn’t too long before Cubans became fascination with TV took hold of many, with broadcasting companies importing large quantities materials for the expansion of their services. By 1952, a total of 100,000 were placed in Cuban homes, despite their high cost, put at around £350 a set for a 16-inch model or $2,000 for a 30-inch version.
Desi Arnaz, a Cuban producer, became the first in the world to use a third camera during the shooting of TV programmes in 1951.
In 1953, the world’s most modern TV studios (at the time) were built at Havana’s sky-scraping Focsa (the island’s tallest, 121-metre-high building, considered one of the island’s seven engineering wonders) by CMQ Television. And the world looked on as Cuba kept those world’ firsts (or second or thirds) coming.
It wasn’t too long before Cuba became the second country in the world to introduce colour television broadcasting in 1958. Yes, the second! Only preceded by, wait for it, not the U.S. (as you were probably expecting) but Canada!
Havana’s Channel 12 first gave colour to Cuban household’s TV sets after striking a deal with American electronic company RCA (Radio Corporation of America). Cubans saw in full colour before the vast majority of the rest of the world using standards set by the NTSC Committee of United States Federal Communications Commission in 1940. Sadly, only a year later, colour transmission ended when the Cuban Revolution took hold and the TV stations were nationalised…but that’s another story entirely, what matters is; that when it comes to TV Cuba did a few world firsts!
8. Humans in Space
Now, I bet you really didn’t see this one coming. Unless you’re extremely well-read, with a particularly keen interest (and extensive knowledge) in space travel and happen to remember (in case you had been born and were old enough at the time,) it wouldn’t cross your mind to think that the first Latin American in space, and the first man outside of the Soviet Union and the U.S. to fly off into space was Cuban cosmonaut, Arnaldo Tamayo Mendez. He, quite remarkably, also became the first ever person of African heritage in space. So here, Cuba made world history in quite a few accounts.
It happened in 1980, after Tamayo had been selected to join the Soviet Union’s seventh Intercosmos programme two years earlier, on 1st March, 1978. His backup in the programme was yet another Cuban, Jose Lopez Falcon. Accompanied by Soviet cosmonaut, Yuri Romanenko, Tamayo was launched into space aboard Soyuz 38 on 18th September 1980. The mission was to conduct experiments to find the cause of Space Adaptation Syndrome (SAS) with the hope of finding a cure, as well as learn more about the crystallisation of sucrose in microgravity, with the latter being for the benefit of Cuba’s then booming sugar industry.
The experimental tasks involved wearing special adjustable shows for six hours a day, placing a load on the arch of the foot. After orbiting the Earth 124 times for seven days, 20 hours and 43 minutes, the Soviet-Cuban team landed back in our planet, some 180 km from the Kazakhstan city of Dzhezkazgan. The landing of the return trip was quite risky as it was done at night.
Following his space adventure, once back in Cuban soil, Arnaldo Tamayo was welcomed with the title of Hero of the Republic of Cuba and the Order of Playa Giron. Since then he has been promoted to brigadier general and has become Director of International Affairs in the Cuban armed forces. He also has an active seat in government acting as Deputy in the Cuban National Assembly in representation of his hometown region, the province of Guantanamo.
It saddens me to no end that this enormous feat for a nation as small as Cuba isn’t more widely known or recognised. Wikipedia doesn’t include Tamayo in its list of Men in Space, although it does feature a section on him. Likewise, many online and offline articles documenting the journey of Humans in Space, don’t include him on their timeline, and again, a grave mistake. Especially, since Mr Tamayo was the very first non-U.S. person in the Western Hemisphere to go into space and the first individual of mixed African heritage to do so…not to mention the first Cuban, first Caribbean, first Latin American, first Ibero-American…and so on.
You can take a look at Tamayo’s spacesuit in Havana, it stands preserved in near immaculate condition at the Museum of the Revolution. Our Cuban space traveller has also been honoured with the Hero of the Soviet Union award and to this day is fondly remembered in the hearts of Cuban people.
…And there are many more areas where Cuba has been a world first
This article might probably change your perception of Cuba. It might not look like much of an avant-garde country now, after decades of isolation and a dire economic blockade that shut it off from the rest of the world’s developments and technological advancements, but Cuba indeed had its glory days and shone brighter than the rest of Latin America. It’s now forgotten glory still remains untarnished in the history books. It might have been frozen in time for decades after 1959, but Cuba never ceased to be a pioneering country.
Cuba has been revolutionary in multiple ways, and far long before Fidel Castro’s revolution ever took place. For example, it might surprise you to know that Cuba had the world’s first ever air-conditioned hotel, the famous mafia-built Riviera (currently being refurbished), the first black president in Ibero-America (in 1940) elected by an overwhelming majority at a time when more than half its population was white (thus beating America to it by 68 years, no less!) and had the largest number of radio stations in the world (over 60) in terms of population and geographical expanse. Not enough? Keep reading.
The world’s first ever radio presenter was Cuban (Esther Perea de la Torre) and the first Olympic champion in all of America was also Cuban fencer Ramon Fonst. In 1940 Cuba approved women’s vote faster than any other Ibero-American country (beating Spain to it by a whopping 36 years!), also recognising at the same time the equality of sexes and races and the right of women to work. Havana became the world’s second ever city to have a 3D cinema and multi-screen cinema complexes in 1957 at El Cine Radiocentro. …. should I go on? I definitely could, but then you might be tired by now of such a lengthy list of world firsts and seconds and thirds…At least, now you know that Cuba has always had a revolutionary, innovative spirit, long before the Revolution happened!