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Napoleon’s Lifelong Interest in Science

Napoleon was a Frenchman of his time, which means he was interested in how science could do good–he just took it farther than most

Napoleon Bonaparte was born on this day in 1769 in Corsica. As a young man at school, one instructor said that he "has always been distinguished for his application in mathematics." (Wikimedia Commons)

Napoleon Bonaparte: General, nerd? While the  two-time Emperor of the French is of course more remembered for his military prowess today than his scientific exploits, he, like many French Revolution figures, was fascinated by science's potential.

As author Steve Jones writes in Revolutionary Science: Transformation and Turmoil in the Age of the Guillotine, revolutionary Paris was “saturated in science.”

“Many stellar names in physics and the rest were participants in the great [revolution], while several of those remembered as statesmen and grandees spent a good part of their time at the laboratory bench,” he writes. “Together they built a new world.”

Napoleon was a huge part of that new world. Here are three things he did that contributed to post-Revolutionary France’s scientific development:

Encouraged inventors

The revolutionary government, pre-Bonaparte, had already made significant changes in France’s scientific infrastructure, such as modernizing the patent system, abolishing guild control over who could practice a profession and funding a public program to encourage and reward scientific innovation. This system led to, among other things, the creation of French ultramarine, one of the first affordable blue pigments on a painter’s palette.

After Napoleon took the reins as Emperor in 1804, writes Jones, “the system expanded and became the Société d'Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale, itself provided with a substantial subsidy and run by a consortium of scientists and bankers.” The Société encouraged French innovation both commercial and scientific–among the interesting turns this took was exploration of the first chess-playing robot.

Led a scientific mission to Egypt

A few years earlier, in 1798, Napoleon and 54,000 other men landed in Egypt and proceeded to invade the country. However, as the Linda Hall Library writes, this invasion had a distinctly scientific edge. “In addition to soldiers and sailors, Napoleon brought along 150 savants–scientists, engineers and scholars whose responsibility was to capture, not Egyptian soil, but Egyptian culture and history.”

Napoleon didn’t succeed in conquering Egypt as he had recently succeeded in Italy. However, the savants had a great time. They headed back to France in 1801 with an extensive set of notes and drawings about Egyptian culture, history, antiquities and natural history. The result of their studies was ultimately a 23-volume encyclopedia, Description de l’Égypte. Among their many finds: the Rosetta Stone.

Chemistry and Math

As his encouragement of the Société shows, the French leader wasn’t just interested in science abroad. After coming back from Egypt, he “showered titles and well-paying positions on many of the scientists who had been participants in Egypt–and on many who had not,” wrote chemist Sol W. Weller. Like many of his revolutionary fellows, Napoleon thought science and technology could “improve the quality of life and to increase the economic status of the French people.”

As the result of this general belief, a number of scientific advances happened in the Napoleonic era. Among them: Napoleon’s theorem, which he probably didn’t write. He’s also  remembered for encouraging physicist Alessandro Volta, the inventor of one of the first batteries, with one of those cushy positions. And Claude-Louis Berthollet, a scientist who he took with him to Egypt, “introduced the use of chlorine as a bleach,” writes the library, as well as determining the composition of ammonia.

Not bad for a hobby.


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