◀ ▲ ▶History / 18th-century / Person: Condamine, Charles Marie de La
Person: Condamine, Charles Marie de La
Charles-Marie La Condamine was a French mathematician and surveyor who took part in an expedition to South America to measure a degree of latitude.
Mathematical Profile (Excerpt):
- Notice that Charles was 23 years older than his wife.
- Charles-Marie was baptised in the Saint-Roch church in Paris.
- Charles-Marie de La Condamine studied at the Jesuit College of Louis-le-Grand in Paris.
- Porée was a friend of Voltaire (1694-1778) and soon La Condamine would also become a friend of Voltaire who had himself been a student at Louis-le-Grand.
- On leaving the College, La Condamine had little enthusiasm for any particular career so he decided to join the military.
- The Quadruple Alliance against Spain consisted of the Hapsburg Empire, England, France and Savoy.
- La Condamine was involved in this French attack and distinguished himself with his bravery at the siege of Rosas in early 1719.
- However, he soon decided that army life did not suit him and he left the army seeking other exciting occupations.
- Back in Paris, he lived in a house in the cul-de-sac St Thomas du Louvre near the Louvre Gallery close to the Seine.
- He began to study mathematics, in particular conic sections, mechanics, chemistry and physics, where he was particularly interested in the declination of the magnetic needle.
- Later, Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis took the reins, an astronomer with whom La Condamine would collaborate throughout his career ...
- La Condamine was adept at mathematics both through the excellent teaching at Louis-le-Grand and his own studies, and he applied his skills to make lots of money for himself and his friend Voltaire.
- The French government had set up a lottery in 1728 in an effort to raise money but they miscalculated the prizes offered.
- For anyone willing to make the massive initial investment, La Condamine had realised with devious mathematical prowess that the poorly designed lottery would pay out more money than it actually took in.
- The Deputy Finance Minister, Le Pelletier-Desforts, finally realised that Voltaire and La Condamine had set up a scheme which was making them rich at the expense of the French State.
- The lottery was shut down in 1730, Le Pelletier-Desforts was sacked, but Voltaire and La Condamine were allowed to keep their winnings.
- La Condamine used his newly acquired fortune for scientific exploration.
- At this point La Condamine, who already had many contacts with scientists in Paris, was proposed for election to the Académie Royale des Sciences as an adjoint in chemistry.
- He was elected a member of the Academy on 12 December 1730.
- Certainly his friendship with Paris scientists, particularly Maupertuis, was a factor here but some members of the Academy were wary of La Condamine given his recent exploits with the lottery.
- The quiet life in Paris did not suit him either and, using funds from his lottery wins, he sailed on the ship L'Espérance of the Levant Company commanded by Pierre Blouet de Camilly on a voyage to Algiers, Alexandria, Palestine, Cyprus and Constantinople (now Istanbul) where he spent five months.
- He was particularly interested in the pyramids and obelisks he saw in Egypt, observing hieroglyphs some of which he sketched.
- On his return to Paris he published mathematical and physical observations of his voyage in the paper Observations mathématiques et physiques faites dans un voyage de Levant en 1731 et 1732 Ⓣ(Mathematical and physical observations made travelling in the Levant in 1731 and 1732).
- The Académie Royale was impressed, promoted La Condamine to associate mathematician in 1735, and sent him on a scientific expedition to Peru.
- In April 1735 La Condamine set out on the expedition to Peru to measure the length of a degree of meridian at the equator.
- One of the big problems of science at this time was to decide between the competing views of Newton, who argued that the earth was flattened at the poles, and of Descartes who argued that the earth was flattened at the equator.
- Pierre Bouguer was a member of the same expedition and its third scientific member was the leader of the expedition Louis Godin (1704-1760).
- The three finished their journey by different routes, La Condamine going overland from Manta, the other two sailing to Quito where they joined up.
- La Condamine sailed up the Esmeraldas River and then climbed over the Andes Mountains, arriving in Quito on 4 June 1736.
- While La Condamine was on the South American journey the Academy made him a pensionary member in chemistry in 1739.
- Godin began to work on his own while La Condamine worked with Bouguer.
- In 1741 Bouguer discovered a small error in their joint measurements and the two fell out when Bouguer refused to allow La Condamine to recheck the results.
- All three made independent measurements, the work being completed in 1743.
- In 1743 La Condamine began his return journey which included a four month raft journey down the Amazon river.
- He gave the first scientific account of the Amazon which he published as Journal du voyage fait par ordre du roi a l'équateur Ⓣ(A travel journal made by Royal order at the equator) (1751).
- He had already published his map in Carte du cours du Maragnon ou de la Grande Rivière des Amazones Ⓣ(Map of the course of the Maranon or Great River of the Amazons) (1745).
- La Condamine's account, however, is a mixture of accurate precision surveys and unverified reports of locals.
- Many believe that he accepted such legends simply because they made his reports far more interesting and exciting to the French public.
- La Condamine spent five months in Cayenne on his journey home and here he repeated Richer's experiments on the variation of weights at different latitudes.
- In February 1745 La Condamine made the final leg of his journey arriving in Paris on 23rd of that month.
- However, after reaching Paris he learnt that Bouguer had presented their joint work to the Academy under his own name.
- Bouguer, however, claimed that reading his paper first put him at a disadvantage since he was required to give a copy to the Academy which could then be read by La Condamine while he had no way of knowing what La Condamine would report to the Academy.
- Consequently he broke the rules and refused to give a copy of his paper to the Academy.
- The president of the Academy, Jean-Jaques Amelot de Chaillou (1689-1749), tried to sort out the problem and La Condamine was asked to read his paper which would be printed in the same volume as that of Bouguer.
- La Condamine read the paper Relation abrégée d'un voyage fait dans l'intérieur de l'Amérique méridionale.
- Bouguer tried to disrupt the reading of La Condamine's paper with continual interruptions but both their papers did appear in the same volume of the Mémoires of the Academy.
- The argument continued, however, with Bouguer claiming that La Condamine's paper contained real changes from what had been reported to the Academy.
- If the two versions are compared today, we see that La Condamine did make some changes to the style of writing but not to the content.
- When both scientists published further papers and books relating to the expedition again arguments raged.
- We should make it clear that all these arguments were not related to the scientific content, but simply arguments over who should get the most credit.
- In 1756 La Condamine went to Italy.
- However, La Condamine could not make a trip to Italy without making scientific observations.
- He read two papers on this topic to the Academy in 1754 and 1758 but when he tied to publish a third paper in 1764 he ran into problems.
- The Committee of the Academy which decided on publications had become anti-inoculation.
- Charles-Etienne-Louis Camus and Antoine Petit (1722-1794) were asked to report on La Condamine's paper but nothing happened for over three years.
- La Condamine went over the heads of the Committee and took his fight to the full Academy where Camus and Petit's report was read on 9 January 1768.
- However, the Committee still refused to publish La Condamine's paper.
- He appealed again to the full Academy which, eventually, overruled its own publication Committee and the paper appeared in print.
- Although exceptionally talented, La Condamine's character meant that his researches were less deep than they might have been.
Born 28 January 1701, Paris, France. Died 4 February 1774, Paris, France.
View full biography at MacTutor
Thank you to the contributors under CC BY-SA 4.0!
Adapted from other CC BY-SA 4.0 Sources:
- O’Connor, John J; Robertson, Edmund F: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive