Geometry of Innovation — Jean Victor Poncelet

“Newton” by William Blake

Jean Victor Poncelet combined insights gleaned from the theoretical mechanics based on Isaac Newton’s laws of motion with practical knowledge to fuel a revolution in machine design. After graduating from the new Ecole Polytechnique, Poncelet joined the corps of military engineers, and he was captured and imprisoned as a result of Napoleon’s ill-fated march on Moscow. While detained, between March 1813 and June 1814, Poncelet amused himself by reconstructing his lessons in projective geometry from memory, making several new findings in the process. On his return to France, Poncelet pursued a career of research and teaching aimed at the practical, applied aspects of mechanical engineering, machine design and performance.

At the beginning of the 19th century, knowledge of mechanics was divided between the practical, experimental knowledge, exemplified by the work of Prony, Borda and Coulomb, and the theoretical, mathematical knowledge taught by Lagrange and Laplace at the Ecole Polytechnique. It fell to the first generation of Polytechnique students, which includes other well-know names such as Poisson, Cauchy, Navier, and Coriolis, to unify the theoretical and the practical. Poncelet became famous for his redesign of the water wheel, which was then a ubiquitous source of industrial power. By incorporating an undershot geometry and curved blades, Poncelet’s design delivered twice the power of traditionally designed wheels.

Near the end of his career, Poncelet developed a course on applied mechanics that established the topics of statics, kinematics, and strength of materials. These topics, like Newton’s laws of motion, still form the foundation of an engineer’s education.

Jean Victor Poncelet is one of the 72 engineers and scientists named on the Eiffel Tower.




A dead poet, a reformed anarchist, and an earnest engineer celebrate the 19th century revolution in science and technology that transformed Paris and conquered the world — a collection of essays on the theme.

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William Nuttle

William Nuttle

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

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