William Nuttle
Navigating a changing environment
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Louis Lebègue Duportail’s seige of Yorktown was the decisive victory in the American Revolution.

Popular histories of the American Revolution tell the story of George Washington’s ragtag Continental Army prevailing over a better trained and better equipped British foe. Washington’s advantage was the common sense and native inventiveness of men educated at the practical school of the American frontier. However, the deciding event of the war, the Battle of Yorktown, was fought as a classic siege campaign taken straight out of the playbook written by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, the French military genius. Therefore, the success of the American Revolution owed much to the engineering education provided at the French Royal Military Academy.

Soon after the American Revolution began, the Continental Congress dispatched Benjamin Franklin to Paris to obtain whatever support France would provide. …


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Polonceau’s design for the Pont du Carrousel featured hollow cast iron arches constructed around a laminated wooden core.

Antoine-Rémy Polonceau revolutionized the design and construction of bridges and roads, two activities at the historical roots of the engineering profession. After graduating from the Ecole Polytechnique in 1796, Polonceau joined the corps of Ponts et Chaussées, literally “bridges and roads.” These were engineers employed by the state to carry out essential public works in France.

Polonceau’s first major task was building roads across France’s border with Italy through the Alps, which had strategic national importance. Over his career, Polonceau’s work engaged him on a topics ranging from hailstones to factories and waterways. …


The world has changed radically over the 300-year life of the engineering profession, but the characteristics desired in an engineer have not.

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Vauban was the leading engineer in France at the beginning of the 18th century. (source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vauban.jpg)

The birth of engineering as a profession occurred at the end of the 17th century, when Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban organized French engineers into an elite corps to serve the king, Louis XIV. The term “engineer” appears, perhaps for the first time in print, in 1765 as an entry in Denis Diderot’s Encyclopedia. The word derives from the old Latin ingenium, which refers to natural capacity or talent.

Membership in the corps of engineers provided social status, financial security, and a predictable path to advancement. In the middle of the 18th century, young engineers received one or two years of classroom training at one of three specialized schools, followed by several years of practical training under the guidance of senior engineers. …


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Clément Ader’s Avion III, a steam-powered aircraft built for the French military in 1897

If you impulsively take things apart to see how they work, then the Musée des Arts et Métiers is the place for you. This museum holds a collection of mechanical models, scientific instruments, and industrial bric-a-brac used to train engineers for the industrial revolution during first half of the 19th century. Established as a strategic national resource in 1794, the collection served as a 3-dimensional encyclopedia for students of the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, a hands-on reference and source of inspiration for inventors and industrial designers.

Later, a gothic cathedral next to the school was converted into a theater for public demonstrations. Today, this houses the museum, where visitors can see all manner of devices, from Clément Ader’s pioneering bat-winged airplane, to automatons — robots — from the 1700s, to elegant laboratory instruments used to make the first laboratory measurements of the speed of light in 1850. …


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Visitors to the Parc Monceau in 1884 were witness to a curious sight. One short block off the main thoroughfare, behind a storefront at the end of rue Alfred de Vigny, a 150 foot-tall woman loomed over the Parisian skyline. Here was the workshop where the sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi put the finishing touches on the Statue of Liberty. The statue is a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States to commemorate 100 years of independence.

Five years before he astounded the world with his 1000-foot tower, the centerpiece of the 1889 Exposition in Paris, Gustave Eiffel designed the iron framework that supports the copper skin of Bartholdi’s statue. The fact that Miss Liberty has held her torch high over New York harbor for over a century, a beacon of hope to the world, is due in no small part to Eiffel’s ingenuity.


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Detail from “A Bunch of Rocks” (https://xkcd.com/505/)

Siméon Denis Poisson spent his career trying to capture the physical world in a mathematical formula. Poisson was a math prodigy whose talents were recognized as a student at the Ecole Polytechnique.


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Louis Poinsot interpreted Newton’s laws of motion to lay the foundations for modern engineering analysis. Isaac Newton revolutionized science in 1687 when he presented to the world his three laws of motion and his theory of gravitation. Newton elevated mathematics as an indispensable tool in a rational approach to describing the mechanics that underlie the physical world. Newton’s elucidation of the laws of nature sparked the period of the Enlightenment during the 18th century and its quest to reform society by the rational application of natural law.

However, Newton could only do so much. His insights were directed primarily to understanding the mechanics of celestial spheres, astronomy. Advances in the practical mechanics of buildings and machines were left for others who followed Newton’s lead. Therefore, the development of the field of mechanics, hydromechanics, thermodynamics, and electrodynamics became the focus for a generation of mathematicians in France inspired by the French Revolution. …


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Locomotive design by Petiet (source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Locomotive_engineering_-_a_practical_journal_of_railway_motive_power_and_rolling_stock_(1898)_(14780959813).jpg)

Jules Alexander Petiet drove the early evolution of railway technology. Graduating from the prestigious engineering school, the Ecole Centrale, in 1832 with a degree in metallurgy, Petiet launched his career at the beginning of the construction of railways in France. …


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Perrier’s geodetic survey linking Spain to Algeria in 1879.

François Perrier reformed mapping and geodetic science in France at the end of the 19th century. Perrier received a rigorous education in science and mathematics at the Ecole Polytechnique, and he served his entire career as an officer in the French army. At the beginning of his career, Perrier worked on a project to connect the geodetic maps of France and England across the English Channel at Calais. …


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Napoleon regards the Sphinx. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bonaparte_ante_la_Esfinge,_por_Jean-L%C3%A9on_G%C3%A9r%C3%B4me.jpg

Etienne-Louis Malus participated in one of the most bizarre undertakings in the history of science and engineering, Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt. …


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Portrait based on a sketch Legendre provided to Francois Arago in 1823, from Barral (1892).

Adrien-Marie Legendre introduced an approach for dealing with errors in measurements that remains one of the most important tools used by engineers and scientists. …


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A statue of Lavoisier in Paris (now gone) featured his laboratory balance, which he used to revolutionize the science of chemistry (source: http://paris1900.lartnouveau.com/paris08/places/place_madeleine/cpa/stat_lav1.htm)

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier brought accounting to science through the principle of conservation of mass. At the end of the 18th century, Lavoisier was a highly regarded member of the scientific community in Paris. But in his day job Lavoisier worked as a private contractor overseeing the collection of taxes for the French monarchy, and he used the tools of accounting to revolutionized the science of chemistry. …


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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gabriel-Lam%C3%A9.jpeg

Gabriel Lamé was prominent in the “lost generation” of engineers who launched the French railroad industry in the 1830s. The fall of Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire in 1814/15 stranded a generation of engineering graduates from the Ecole Polytechnique. …


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By Игорь С — Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4914692

Ernest Goüin brought to France the knowhow to build a national railroad network and established French industry on the international stage. When Goüin graduated from the Ecole Polytechnique, in 1836, France was on the verge of committing to build a national railroad network. …


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Detail from an engraving of Giffard’s 1852 prototype (source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giffard_-_Machine_%C3%A0_vapeur_de_l%27a%C3%A9rostat.png)

Henri Giffard’s dream of piloting an air ship hovered tantalizingly near, but ultimately it slipped beyond of his reach. …


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Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac took the science of chemistry to new heights. Gay-Lussac attended the new Ecole Polytechnique, in Paris, followed by studies at the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées, where he received a broad training in mathematics, physics and chemistry. …


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By arranging a series of small prisms into the shape of a beehive, Augustin Fresnel discovered he could capture and refract oblique light (source: http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20190620-the-invention-that-saved-a-million-ships)

Augustin-Jean Fresnel achieved distinction in science and in public service by remaining true to his principles during unsettled times. Napoleon Bonaparte’s empire had collapsed, and France returned to monarchy rule under the brother of Louis XVI, the French king who was executed during the French Revolution. …


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The Saint-Lazare Station by Claude Monet 1877 (wikipedia)

Eugène Flachat led the development of civil engineering that brought engineering into the mainstream in France during the 19th century. At first, the designation “civil engineering” simply referred to work performed for private industry, as distinct from the work of engineers for the government or the military. French civil engineers received the same rigorous training in science and mathematics as engineers trained to run the machinery of the state, but work in the private sector offered greater opportunity for invention and innovation. …


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The First Photograph of the Sun, was made by Léon Foucault and Hippolyte Fizeau in 2 April 1845 in Paris, France. (wikimedia.org)

Armand Hippolyte Louis Fizeau devoted his career on a quest into the realm of Apollo, the Greek god of light and truth. A number of questions about the nature of light were raised by Fresnel’s analysis of the phenomenon of diffraction, which demonstrated the wave-like nature of light. …


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Jacques Joseph Ebelmen’s research on weathering of rocks revealed the long-term effect that life has had regulating the composition of the atmosphere, before the era of climate change. During his short lifetime, Ebelmen was best known for his work in industrial chemistry: metallurgy, ceramics, and the synthesis of minerals. …


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Jean Baptiste André Dumas described the cycles of materials and energy critical to producing food and assimilating wastes. Alexander Humboldt encouraged Dumas to leave his native Switzerland for Paris, where he quickly gravitated to the center of the scientific community. He held positions of professor of chemistry at the Ecole Polytechnique, the Sorbonne, and the faculté de médecine in Paris, and he was one of the co-founders of the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures, which was dedicated to training civil engineers for industry. …


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Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry

Henri de Dion wove engineering prowess into the tapestry of French identity by propping up the iconic Bayeux Cathedral. De Dion designed a number of notable metallic structures during his career, and he was a mentor to Gustave Eiffel when he was a student at the Ecole Central des Arts et Manufactures. …


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Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 3rd arrondissement, Daguerreotype. Made in 1838 by inventor Louis Daguerre, this is believed to be the earliest photograph showing a living person.

Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre invented an early form of photography and changed the way we see the world. Before he got into photography, Daguerre was a painter and an illusionist well-known for inventing a form of virtual reality known as the Diorama. …


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Charles Pierre Mathieu Combes made his reputation through systematic analysis of increasingly complex industrial systems. Combes trained as a mining engineer, graduating from the Ecole Polytechnique in 1822 and the Ecole des Mines the following year. …

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