There are entries relevant to this chapter in the blog for these lecture notes
The last lecture discussed the diverging political developments in Europe during the period of the Enlightenment and the different conditions under which science developed in the European countries. We now turn to the developments in France during the 18th century, after the death of Louis XIV in 1715.
Although England had a bourgeois system of government and freedom of thought was guaranteed by the constitution, support for the Académie des Sciences in Paris under the autocratic regime of Louis XIV was far more generous than the support received by the Royal Academy in London. The construction of the observatory of Greenwich near London (which under the period of colonialism became the point of reference for longitude) was financed by king Charles II so he could match the new observatory in Paris of Louis XIV; but he paid only for the building and was not prepared to follow the example of his French counterpart and finance the instruments as well.
Favourable as the conditions enjoyed by French scientists under Louis XIV were, they cannot be discussed without reference to the general political situation of the country. The contradiction between the feudal autocratic regime and the aspirations of the bourgeoisie had not been resolved, and the time to bring the bourgeoisie to power in France had to come eventually. When the time came it allocated a new role to science as well.
When Louis XIV died in 1715 France was in rather bad shape. The king's attempts to prop up the English royal house against the new political order, his military adventures and limitless spending on Versailles and other grandiose designs had left France a deficit of 2.5 billion livres. (Anderle et al., 1966)
Louis XIV was succeeded by his five year old great-grandson Louis XV. Manipulated first by the regent and later by his ministers as well as a succession of mistresses, Louis XV continued the policy of unsuccessful wars and grandiose spending. By the end of his reign France had lost all its colonial possessions in North America and India to Britain.
In 1774 the twenty year old Louis XVI, grandson of king Louis XV, followed his grandfather on the throne. He, too, was unable to control the various court factions. Continued war with England - particularly the support of the North American war of Independence - and extravagant spending soon doubled the budget deficit to 5 billion livres. (Anderle et al., 1966)
The war with England ended in 1783, but the country was ruined and the people were starving. A peasant revolt during 1783 - 1786 was followed by the first uprising of factory workers in Lyon in 1786. (Anderle et al., 1966) Without higher taxes France faced the prospect of bankruptcy, but how should taxes be increased if the people did not even have enough to eat?
In 1787 the minister of finance proposed the abolition of tax exemption for the privileged classes (the aristocracy, the clergy and the bourgeois owners of property) and a general tax increase. The refusal of the privileged classes to come to the support of the old regime led to the French Revolution of 1789 - 1792, which ended the monarchy and established a republic.
The world "revolution" has been and continues to be used in many contexts and means different things to different people. Historians often refer to the development of science during and after the Enlightenment as the "scientific revolution" (see for example Hall, 1983), and the developments of the19th century are often called the "industrial revolution." To gain insight into the development of society and its interaction with science it is necessary to define the meaning of the word "revolution" as a historical and scientific term. In the context of the history of society the term revolution describes the overthrow of a social order and its replacement by a superior structure of society. The determinant for superiority is the ability to create wealth, which in turn is determined by the development of a society's means of production. A revolution will occur when a society has developed its means of production to a stage where its political form has become an impediment for further economic development.
We saw an example of a revolution in Lecture 8 when we discussed the new age of science in Greece during the rise of the democratic city states. The old feudal structure of Greek society had become an impediment to the development of trade, and the new merchant class had to gain control of state power. To achieve this aim it had aligned itself with the peasants and city people and introduced laws to protect private property and the right to free trade.
An essential element of any revolution is that the new order that topples the existing social structure is superior to what existed in the past and liberates society's ability of wealth creation from existing restrictions. It is this criterion that distinguishes revolutions from other violent upheavals of society. Violence is not an essential characteristic of revolutions (although most are associated with armed conflict and executions because the old ruling class usually does not relinquish its privileged position without a fight).
The failure to recognize the ability to create wealth as the main characteristic often leads historians and scientists to concentrate on the violent character of most revolutions. This results in confusion of terminology and obstructs scientific analysis.
There are, of course, many examples for the violent overthrow of governments in history. In most instances they represent nothing more than an attempt of a particular group of society to usurp power and do not contribute to social progress at all. Such events are usually called a coup d'état. A third category of violent social upheaval occurs when an oppressed and exploited class rises against the ruling class in an attempt to end its oppression. Such events are usually referred to as revolts or uprisings. They can lead to temporary reprieve from particularly severe oppression but do not constitute a revolution, because the people who revolt represent a social order of the past. Slave and peasant revolts are typical examples.
There are plenty of examples that historians of science do not understand the difference between a revolution and a coup. As a result most history of science texts do not appreciate the importance of the French Revolution for the role of science in society.
Because revolutions overcome a historical obstruction in the development of society they are generally periods of great intellectual excitement, moral development and artistic productivity. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827) was just one of many admirers of the French Revolution. The choir of his ninth symphony An die Freude ("Ode to Joy"), set to the words of his contemporary Friedrich von Schiller (1759 - 1805), expresses the fraternity of humanity felt across Europe during a revolutionary uplifting of the spirit and is still heard regularly around the world today at festive occasions. France honours the memory of its Revolution in a public holiday on Bastille Day (14 July).
The French Revolution was the revolution the bourgeoisie had to perform, but it could not defeat the feudal state without the assistance of the peasants and of the working class, which had grown in the many factories that had sprung up all across the country. The bourgeoisie thus had to watch two fronts: It wanted to defeat the aristocracy, but it also wanted to prevent the working class from gaining power itself. It was an uneasy alliance, expressed in the rallying cry of the Revolution Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité! (Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood!) Liberté - of course; who would not want freedom? Égalité - yes, within limits; for example before the law, but not necessarily when it comes to ownership of the means of production. Fraternité? Is "brotherhood" not directly opposed to competition, an essential ingredient of capitalism? By including Fraternité in the three principles of the revolution the bourgeoisie gave in to the hopes of the working class for a better future; it had no intention of turning these hopes into reality.
The fact that Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité! is engraved on the Palais de Justice in Paris, features on the official web site of the French president and can still be seen on French coins today cannot obscure the inherent contradiction in the brief coalition between the working class and the bourgeoisie during the revolution. The different interests come out clearly in the songs of the years 1798 - 1792. While popular tunes contained strong attacks against the aristocracy and clergy and left no doubt about their fate, the official Hymn of the Revolution reduced the revolutionary fervour to ordinary patriotism and can therefore still serve as the French national anthem of today.
The details of the development shall not concern us here. Faced with a coalition of Europe's feudal powers, the people of France defended the Revolution against the armies of Austria and Prussia and against the machinations of France's own reactionary generals. Attempts of the bourgeoisie to undermine the democratic and military achievements led to increasing violence and terror on both sides, and the invention of the guillotine as "a more humane way of ending life" (according to the physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin who proposed it) is a well known result of the period.
The Rights of Man and the Citizen, declared in 1789 one month after the storming of the Bastille, became a cornerstone of today's Human Rights. In 1795, barely six years old, they had already lost all value. Four years later the military dictatorship of Napoleon put an end to any remaining hope for Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood.
Napoleon was a dictator, but he did not return to feudal rule. On the contrary, he forcefully introduced many of the reforms the bourgeoisie had demanded in the interest of free trade and industrial development. He centralized the tax collection, founded the Banque de France and restructured civil law into what has become known as the Code Napoléon. The code guaranteed many achievements of the Revolution, such as individual liberty, freedom of work, freedom of conscience, equality before the law and separation of church and state. Many upright republicans were taken in by the development - Beethoven dedicated his Third Symphony to Napoleon as late as 1804, the very year when Napoleon had himself declared Emperor of France. He erased the dedication in disgust when he heard about Napoleon's new title.
The following years saw French soldiers again fighting Prussian soldiers, this time not in defence of a revolution but to support Napoleon's expansionist campaign. It came to an end in Russia in the winter of 1812. Less than 10,000 of his 453,000 soldiers returned to France alive.
The role that science took on under the revolutionary government was prepared by the Enlightenment under Louis XIV and Louis XV. Still depending on royal benevolence, scientists of the pre-revolutionary period became more independent and resolved to assert themselves as citizens responsible only to reason. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the work and words of the Marquise de Châtelet, one of the first women to put her mark on modern science. In a letter to Frederick the Great she wrote:
The Marquise de Châtelet was of course of noble birth and had received the proper education fit for the daughter of a count. She chose to leave her husband and live with Voltaire, a fearless crusader against despotism who was on the run from the authorities for most of his life. She had a physics laboratory built in her château, where she experimented with the new ideas that came from England. She learnt English and translated Newton's Principia Mathematica. In her own writings she promoted the ideas of Leibniz, and the Academy of Science printed a submission she made to one of its competitions at the Academy's expense. The public acknowledgment of the works of de Châtelet was a sign of things to come. Before the Enlightenment it would have been unthinkable that a woman in Europe could have been recognized as an outstanding scientist, let alone be supported by an Academy.
De Châtelet's partner Voltaire gave an example to the French intelligentsia in a different way. He, too, was seriously interested in science - he submitted his own contribution to the Academy's competition but was less successful than de Châtelet - but his major activities were directed towards social justice. Voltaire's steadfast support for the poor and maltreated and his intervention in cases of miscarriage of justice established his fame across Europe. The Revolution honoured him by transferring his body to the Panthéon in Paris.
We shall encounter the question of priorities in science and social engagement more and more often as we approach the 21st century. Voltaire's position, more expressed through his actions than his words, was that new achievements in science will come when the time is ripe but social justice requires immediate action.
This said, we do not want in any way to denigrate those scientists who continued to focus their lives on science. Voltaire did not live to see the victory of the Revolution; he had to struggle under the old despotism. The next generation of scientists could offer their services to a new regime, and many did not hesitate to take sides. Never again in history did so many scientists turn to politics:
and the list could be continued. (Serres, 1995)
In today's world it seems inconceivable that parliamentarians not only have some understanding of science but are actually trained scientists. The last time Europe had seen scientists engaged in politics before the French Revolution was the time of the rising new science in Greece during the period 600 - 300 BC, when Greece had undergone the social revolution that established the city democracies, a radical change that had occurred in parallel with a radical change of the human attitude to the study of nature (see Lecture 8).
Let us return to the definition of revolution and broaden it slightly to allow its use for the history of science. If we follow the Encyclopaedia Britannica's (1995) definition of revolution as "a fundamental departure from any previous historical pattern", then Greece had witnessed a true scientific revolution at the time, and its scientists had become involved in two revolutions, one that overturned science and one that overturned society. A similar development occurred in France towards the end of the 18th century. The revolution in science replaced qualitative ideas about nature by quantitative experiment. It went hand in hand with a social revolution. The process began a century earlier in Holland and England and ripened in France, where the scientists of the time took an active part in both revolutions and supported social change as much as the new science.
The revolutionary government did not only receive the support of scientists in their roles as senators and ministers, it also took steps to put science directly at the service of the bourgeoisie, not in the sense that it required scientists to apply their knowledge to the day-to-day problems of factories (although such applications did without doubt occur) but for the creation of conditions that allowed capitalism to expand and prosper.
One of the more urgent tasks for the expanding trade that resulted from the rapid development of industrial production processes was the standardization of measures. It was simply not possible to mass produce even such simple goods as shoes, notebooks or screwdrivers if every little dukedom had its own units. There had to be an end to league, Zoll, pouce, Elle and whatever other units of length were in use across Europe.
The National Assembly of France took decisive action. In 1791 it banned the use of tokens on checker boards from government offices and enforced modern arithmetic as the basis for all financial calculations (see Lecture 6). In 1790 it requested the French Academy of Sciences to "deduce an invariable standard for all the measures and all the weights." In 1794 it established the École Polytechnique, the first institution of higher learning dedicated to industrial training and research (and still one of France's elite institutions).
The Academy appointed the illustrious mathematicians Lagrange, Laplace and three other to a committee and charged them to create a system of measures that was both simple and scientific. The result was the introduction of the metre (m) as unit of length and gram (g) as unit of mass. The gram was defined as the mass of one cubic centimetre of water at its temperature of maximum density. The cubic decimetre was chosen as the unit of fluid capacity and given the name litre (l). On Earth mass and weight are related (other relationships apply on the moon or other planets or stars), and for the normal person's everyday use the kilogram also serves as a unit of weight. The new units were to be based on a strict decimal system, so that every length could be expressed in metres raised by powers of 10 (1 cm = 10-1 m, 1 mm = 10-2 m, 1 km = 103 m, etc).
The new system of units, known since 1960 as the International System of Units (Système International d'Unités or SI), was so useful for industry and commerce that it was adopted outside France as well. To assist with its rapid introduction the French government produced a metre prototype and had official standard metres affixed to buildings throughout Paris, so that the people could compare their own measurements with the new unit of length. Some of these standard metres can still be seen around Paris today. Today the SI system of units is the internationally accepted standard for science. In most countries the SI units form also the basis for the general weights and measures used in daily life. Since 1975, when Canada and Australia converted to SI units, Britain and the USA remain the only scientifically and economically important countries that do not use SI units. The loss of a $125 million space probe in September 1999 was the direct result of confusion between SI and imperial units during its construction and proof of the foresight of France's scientists some 200 years ago.
The commission of the Academy defined the metre as the ten millionth part of the distance from the pole to the equator. This was impractical from various points of view. To begin with, the metre could only be defined after the exact distance between pole and equator along a meridian was known. The Academy decided to organize the measurement of part of a meridian, from Dunkirk in northern France to Perpignan in southern Spain. It had sponsored similar expeditions to Lapland and Peru on earlier occasions for the verification of Newton's statement that the Earth would be flattened at the poles as a result of its rotation. It now entrusted the task to find the base for the definition of the new metre to the mathematician Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre. It took Delambre six years to complete the task. When set out in June 1792 to find suitable triangulation points near Paris his authorisation had been signed by the King. In September the king was arrested, and Delambre as well. Released after getting new official papers, he was arrested again shortly afterwards and accused of spying, since his instruments were thought to be suspicious. He was able to obtain official papers from the National Convention in Paris and continued his mission in the next spring, when the Committee of Public Safety decreed that "government officials [must] delegate their powers and functions solely to men known to be trustworthy for their republican virtues and their abhorrence of kings" and removed him from his task. Eighteen months later he was reinstated and carried on his work the for the next two years, completing it finally in April 1798. He published the results in three volumes between 1806 and 1810 and presented the first volume to Napoleon, who remarked: "Conquests will come and go but this work will endure." (O'Connor and Robertson, 2003)
Tying the metre to a feature of very large scale on Earth was also not very practical whenever the need arose to redefine and improve the international standard. Today's definition of the metre no longer refers to the distance between the pole and the equator but is based on a time measurement.
Valuable work of significantly larger impact was performed during these turbulent years in the fields of chemistry and mathematics. We shall study the work of Lavoisier, who is often called as the founder of modern chemistry, in Lecture 24. In the field of mathematics two names stand out among many.
Pierre-Simon Laplace concentrated on analytical methods to solve problems of astronomy. The methods he developed have found wide application in all fields of physics, and his name lives on in the Laplace transform, a standard method for the solution of boundary value problems, i.e. problems for which the solution is known on the boundary of the area of interest and has to be found in the interior of the area. An example of a boundary value problem are the tides, for which observations are usually available from ports on the shores of the ocean. Laplace showed that most tides are co-oscillation tides, which are not properly described by Bernoulli's equilibrium tide theory, and calculated their properties.
Joseph-Louis Lagrange, the other outstanding French mathematician of the time, concentrated even more on analytical methods for the solution of physical problems. In the preface to Méchanique analytique ("Analytic Mechanics") he states laconically that "one cannot find any figures in this work." Lagrange introduced what he called "generalized coordinates," a system of coordinates that describes movement through the tracking of particles. His system has become known as the Lagrangian method and is widely used in fluid dynamics and other fields.
There can be no doubt that the developments in France relegated England to second place and made Paris the centre of social and scientific development. Prussia and Russia, the two other countries with national Academies of Science, tried to recruit scientists from France and surrounding countries, and we shall come back to them in Lecture 23.
Science in Italy, the country were Galilei had produced such groundbreaking work, was in a difficult position. The works of Newton and anything written about them was on the list of books banned by the Catholic Church, and trying to contribute to scientific progress in astronomy or mechanics in general was a dangerous undertaking. It is thus not surprising that the Italian contribution to science of the time was in the area of electricity, a totally new and barely explored field. Luigi Galvani, lecturer of anatomy at the University of Bologna, professor of obstetrics at the Institute of Arts and Sciences and a good Catholic, regularly ended his lectures with an exhortation of "that eternal Providence, which develops, conserves, and circulates life among so many divers beings." But his discovery of the effect of electricity on muscle movement in frogs and his careful experiments to investigate this phenomenon provided the impetus for the study of electrical current.
Galvani's friend Alessandro Volta, professor of physics at the University of Padua in the kingdom of Lombardy, disputed Galvani's belief that the cause of the observed muscle movement had to be in some sort of "animal electicity" that is produced in the brain and spreads as a fluid. Volta thought that the cause was exterior and related to the fact that in many of Galvani's experiments the muscle was connected two different metals. The resulting debate spread through all of Europe and lasted for a decade. In 1800 Volta invented the "Voltaic pile", the first electrical battery. The fact that his battery did not require animal tissue settled the argument.
England, meanwhile, was well on its way to industrialization, and its science had already moved closer to technology than anywhere else. It had been known for a long time that water expands rapidly when it is turned into steam by heating and contracts to its previous volume on cooling. Around 1710 Thomas Newcomen developed a steam engine that could raise water from mine shafts. Newcomen's engine drove a piston back and forth in a cylinder by filling the cylinder alternately with steam and cold water. This was extremely wasteful on energy; it converted only about 1% of the thermal energy contained in the steam into mechanical energy. But for the next 60 years it was widely used in the mining industry, because it allowed mining in shafts that would otherwise have been flooded.
Shortly after 1760 Joseph Black introduced quantitative measurement into thermodynamics. He established that definite quantities of heat disappear during changes in the physical states of matter, such as melting and evaporation, and that the same quantities are recovered when the changes are reversed. He called the amount that disappeared and could be recovered "latent heat."
James Watt, an instrument maker from Scotland, had been in contact with university research during the course of his work and quickly understood the consequences of Black's discovery. He realized that by continuously heating and cooling the cylinder Newcomen's engine wasted the latent heat stored in the cylinder during the heating cycle. A better engine could be built by keeping the cylinder always hot. The result was Watt's single acting steam engine of 1765. Although it only doubled the energy efficiency of the Newcomen engine from 1% to 2%, the fact that the cylinder remained always hot resulted in fuel savings of 75%.
During the years 1780 - 1790 Watt added so many improvements to his engines that he is often erroneously quoted as the inventor of the steam engine itself. His double acting steam engine increased the efficiency by using both piston strokes for power. His invention of the sun-and-planet gear, which converts reciprocating piston motion into rotation, provided the basis for steam engine applications in workshops, ships and railways. The introduction of steam boats opened the rivers of all continents for trade. It led to the destruction of the traditional economic structure of the colonies; river boats would soon carry ponchos produced in England's textile mills into South America, ruin the textile production of its inhabitants and force everyone into the cash economy. The fuel requirements of its steam engines would lead to the denuding of whole forests along the rivers and result in siltation and soil loss.
Obviously these developments were neither intended by Watt's invention, nor were they its inevitable consequence. A steam boat as such can be useful as much as it can be destructive. But Watt's inventions show that science in England was already clearly driven by its technological applications, and the applications were determined by their potential to generate profit. And where profit can be made through river trade, trees will be felled to feed the steam engines until there are no trees left.
Watt's career demonstrates how science and technology grew closer towards the end of the 18th century. The Royal Society elected Watt and his business partner, the industrialist Matthew Boulton, to its ranks as fellows; the University of Glasgow gave Watt a doctorate in law. The appreciation of technological achievement was not restricted to Britain; the French Académie des Sciences made Watt a foreign associate.
Finally, a few words about science outside Europe. Countries that had already fallen under colonial rule did not have a chance to play a role in science. Of those countries still independent of Europe, India continued its feudal tradition. Its science was therefore determined by the interest of its rulers and continued the astronomical tradition determined by the needs of the calendar.
Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, ruler of the state of Jaipur in Rajasthan from 1699 to 1743, founded the capital city of Jaipur, about 200 km southwest of Delhi, in 1728. He had read the works of Ptolemy, Euclid and Persian astronomers and wanted to improve the Indian calendar, which required the ability to precisely locate the Sun. He initiated the building of five astronomical observatories in Delhi, Jaipur, Varanasi (Benares), Ujjain and Mathura. The instruments were probably copies of the large 15th century instruments at Samarkand built by Ulugh Beg. (Hartley, 2001)
Anderle et al. (1966) Weltgeschichte in Daten. VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, Berlin.
Hall, A. R. (1983) The Revolution in Science 1500 - 1750. Longman, London.
Hartley, C. (2001) 18th Century Observatories of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II. Department of Physics, Hartwick College, Oneonta, NY. http://users.hartwick.edu/hartleyc/jantar.htm (accessed 10 March 2004)
O'Connor, J. J. and E. F. Robertson (2003) Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre. University of St Andrews, Scotland, School of Mathematics and Statistics. http://www-gap.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Delambre.html (accessed 6 March 2004)
Serres, M. (1995) Paris 1800. In: M. Serres (editor): A History of Scientific Thought, Elements of a History of Science. Blackwell, Oxford, 191 - 221. (Translation of Éléments d'Histoire des Sciences, Bordas, Paris, 1989)