Engineering Victory — Lazare Nicolas Marguerite Carnot

Lazare Nicolas Marguerite Carnot was a guy who figured out how to make things work, first as and engineer and later as a politician. As an engineer, Carnot was the first to understand the workings of a machine in terms of the balance of forces and flow of energy through its component parts. In this sense, Carnot was the first modern mechanical engineer. In his second career as a politician, Carnot earned the title “Organizer of Victory” for his role as Minister of the Army during the French Revolutionary Wars.

Through the middle of the 18th century, designers and builders of machines relied on established practice and intuition. They lacked the concepts to articulate how their machines worked. The creator of the Machine de Marly, built in 1682 to provide water for the fountains at Versailles Palace, was illiterate. That is, he was uneducated in literature and the arts celebrated at the court of Louis XIV; however he was knowledgeable enough in the industrial arts to create a machine regarded as a wonder of the world. In 1783, Lazare Carnot changed this by publishing his “Essai sur les machines en general,” in which Carnot created a mathematical language of machines. Carnot was the first to describe the workings of a machine in terms of the forces at work and the transfer of energy among its components. In this sense, Carnot was the first modern mechanical engineer.

Beginning in 1793, Lazare Carnot landed in the position of Minister of the Army. In what might be called the second act of the French Revolution, Carnot was the person most responsible for defending France against the assembled monarchies of Europe, who wanted to reverse the tide of democracy. The French Revolution rendered the army leaderless, and many questioned where its loyalties lay. The titular head of the army, King Louis XVI, had been tried and executed as an enemy of the state. And, most members of the officer corps, which was drawn exclusively from the aristocracy, fled the country into exile.

Carnot reorganized the army as a meritocracy, discarding the traditional lines of authority based on unquestioned loyalty to the monarch and rank in society. This allowed the army to tap the talent and resources for leadership previously unexploited in the lower social strata. Napoleon Bonaparte, who quickly rose through the ranks under Carnot’s leadership, famously said that every private in the French army carries the baton of a Field Marshall in his knapsack. In addition, Carnot instilled an attitude of deference and respect within the army for the interests and concerns of the French people at all stations of society. When the reorganized French forces prevailed, against all the odds, Carnot attributed this success to superior discipline within the troops based on trust and love of country.

Lazare Carnot is one of the 72 engineers and scientists named on the Eiffel Tower. He is the father of Sadi Carnot, who is one of the founders, with Clapeyron of the field of Thermodynamics, and the grandfather of Marie François Sadi Carnot, President of France when the Eiffel Tower was built and the nephew of Sadi Carnot.



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William Nuttle

Navigating a changing environment — hydrologist, engineer, advocate for renewable energy, currently writing about the personal side of technological progress