Articles de La Guinguette - 2002 - juin - société

Titre René-Antoine Ferchaud de Réaumur (1683-1757)
Année 2002
Mois juin
Catégorie société
Traducteur Alistair Mills
Dernière mise à jour06 January 2010

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Rene-Antoine Ferchaud de Reaumur

I like to cut across the shore at Bas Poitou [1] when I am in my home in Angles, near Lucon. I spend a long time there examining the shells and the seaweeds too...

Nature is beautiful, surprising, and generous. By improving by changing simple materials, by discovering new uses, we all compete for the general good of our society, not only for the treasury of the country by also for the progress of knowledge which does not know about borders. Those who work to perfect the sciences and the arts, are they not citizens of the whole world?

The voice comes from Manoir de Reaumur, a town in Vendee [2] home of the scholar, nobleman, bearer his name, and where they know how to recreate by ingenious modern methods of sound and visualisation, the atmosphere of his time in an exciting scientific museum dedicated to the man Rene-Antoine Ferchaud de Reaumur, and to his work in the 18th century, the time called 'The Age of Enlightenment'.

Reaumur was the director of the Academy of Science and he stayed at the head of the Academy of Science for more than forty years. Reaumur was born in 1683 in La Rochelle. He left to study in Poitiers, then in Bourges and arrived finally in Paris where he enrolled as a student in the Academy of Science. They gave him the task of writing a dictionary of Arts and Crafts.

Maryvonne Validire knows this subject very well, and introduces us for our very great pleasure to the world of Reaumur:

The Academy of Science was very influential. Even although there were several academies in Europe, French was the universal European language and each week there were meetings where they shared their work and discoveries. But there was one rule: you must not talk about politics; you must not talk about religion in the Academy of Science. So it was a place where the scientists used to meet together and where they exhibited the various discoveries and woks which they had done.

The Academy was directly linked to the Court and the requests used to come from the Court. They used to pass the Academy and then, well people used to get to work. It was very powerful.

Who was interested in this work?

Just about everyone really. In the homes of the rich as in the homes... really especially in the homes of the rich of course since they had greater means; you used to find everywhere display cabinets or collections which people made coming from abroad. There was really a great enthusiasm for science. In the streets you used to find explanations about electricity. There were demonstrations etc. There were public courses for everyone. Science in the 18th century used to attract everyone and the people were keen to know, for sure... It was in the 18th century they all took to discovering more, so it was really... it was rich. The scientists in the 18th century used to call themselves 'philosophers'. It was later that we started to differentiate all of that.

Reaumur was first and foremost a great observer, a great observer of nature, and then an experimentalist.

Observation is the source of new ideas and of fortuitous discoveries.

In autumn every year, the Academy in Paris used to close, allowing Reaumur the pleasure of going home to pursue his many and varied research projects.

No one had a specialization, so they used to work in very varied areas, but the people did not work however in areas so varied from one another as he did, as he went from entomology to biology, to metals, really it's really...

And in effect the scientific curiosity of Reaumur was limitless. His tastes, very varied, led him to think about all the scientific puzzles which he encountered:

About porcelain notably since in the 18th century porcelain used to come from China and Reaumur wanted to find the process for making porcelain in France. The French used to send designs to China and they used to send back finished goods. So Reaumur worked starting with samples which a correspondent had given to him and he never found what the material in these samples was. So he used various things. He mixed various materials and so he then found the process for synthesising glass, but never porcelain. So it was one of his students who then saw that it was kaolin.

He worked also on iron. In the 18th century, tin plate used to come from Germany so they were obliged to import it. Reaumur found how to make it in France how to make cast iron workable.

He worked on wood because as there were many blacksmiths, wood was disappearing in France and the people had cut down all the trees, even the largest.

So then there is the famous thermometer: the Reaumur thermometer.

Reaumur did not invent the thermometer, but he worked on a thermometer.

With one scale, with a single fixed point, the degree zero and eighty degrees, because his alcohol boiled at eighty degrees. He made the scale like that. What he brought to the thermometer was much greater reliability because everyone had thermometers, often using alcohol, using 'spirit of wine' as they used to say, but the amount and the alcoholic content were not always the same, which meant that the boiling point could be almost anything. So he brought reliability and he insisted too that they use a glass which is quite smooth.

The Reaumur thermometer was abandoned very quickly in France for the degree Celsius, for the Celsius thermometer. It was not used a lot... more in the countries to the east.

It was for him anyway an indispensible tool for other related research.

Reaumur did not make this thermometer in order to invent a thermometer, but because he needed them for his egg incubators and to measure the temperature in his beehives.

Since antiquity, in Egypt there were man made egg incubators in brick ovens. Reaumur had some sent by his correspondents in this work on these incubators but he could not make them work in France as the climate was not at all the same, and so he used barrels. In these barrels he put horse dung and the horse dung gave off heat and also gave off toxic vapour and that killed the chicks in the egg before birth. So he tried aerating the barrels but he had irregular births. So then he made the incubators in bakers' ovens and depending on the temperature he moved his big trays always measuring with his thermometer. He moved his trays and after 21 days he had chicks hatch. But as there weren't any hens, he had to build a hen house, so it is said that in his home in Charenton where he used to live in Paris, he had a large hen house. So the artificial incubators for chickens in France date from Reaumur.

Whilst for his studies of bees:

He soaked his beehives in cold water and so he anesthetised the bees and he counted them like that. He saw that there was one queen per hive, something that was not known. He gave the male the name "drone", this comes from Reaumur, and he also saw that there were lots of worker bees. He also observed hornets' nests and when observing the hornets' nests he saw that it resembled paper a lot. To make their nests, the hornets crushed wood and so he said to himself that it might be possible perhaps to start to make paper from wood because they made it from cloth in the 18th century and it was only in the 19th century that they started making paper from wood. But he had done these studies earlier and he observed, he explained many phenomena on the parthenogenesis of fruit-flies, so, that was a big part of his work, insects.

He also worked on spiders. He compared different silks because someone brought him at the Academy of Science some stockings and some mittens made from spider silk. He compared the work of the silk worm with that of the silk spider. The spider silk had wonderful colours which were natural. Then the spider silk was much more solid, but only when the spiders were farmed rather than wild; and the spiders ate one another after a period of time, so it was not profitable to farm spiders. To make a pound of silk, you had to have 55,000 spiders whilst you only have to have 2,500 silk worms. So, well, that was abandoned but today people are working again with spider silk because it is more solid... and it is used in aviation apparently...

So, this is how they are keeping the memory alive of one of the most illustrious men of his time, the Age of Enlightenment, but also the memory of the hidden rivalries between these dedicated researchers... really dedicated. Each had a genius and a temperament. There were jealousies, sometimes.

He was famous, but he was not friendly with the encyclopaedia editors, so, the encyclopaedia in the 18th century, it's still a sacred reference today. Reaumur was not..., in fact it is because they had stolen his plates and illustrations and distributed them in the encyclopaedia without his agreement. So he had grievances with them; he did not endear himself to Diderot [3] and then to Buffon [4], because they did not have the same approach to science. Reaumur was someone quite conservative... so the 18th century for the writers of encyclopaedia, he was something else.

Reaumur corresponded with many other scholars all over the world. His work now stands the test of time. He bequeathed to us, in addition to his discoveries and the reference of an exemplary researcher, some wonderful sketches made on the request of his collaborator, Mademoiselle de Marsilly, some outstanding works of art whose reproductions grace the walls of a room in the Manoir de Reaumur.

When Reaumur died, all his personal goods went to this collaborator and then for the rest, that went to the Natural History Museum. Well, there, there are still lots of things at the Academy of Science, there is an enormous archive on Reaumur, on his work and it is quite moving when you go there because between the pages, in the boxes, you can find maybe a flower, maybe a seed, well its... it's a dear little angel and then the insects have beautiful colours and the colours have remained.

[1] The area which today is the Department of Vendee was known as Bas Poitou in the time of Reaumur.

[2] The Department of Vendee is in the west of France to the north of La Rochelle.

[3] Denis Diderot (1713-1784) was a distinguished writer, philosopher and edited an encyclopaedia.

[4] Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon (1707-1788) was a distinguished mathematician, biologist, cosmologist and writer.

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With questions or for more information, please contact Alistair Mills (alistair.mills@btinternet.com)
Updated 06 January 2010

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