Knowledge and Power — Monge

Gaspard Monge used his intelligence to overcome barriers of class and rise to a position of influence, and then he lost everything. In 1762, at the age of 16 Monge entered the Collège de la Trinité in Lyon. The next year, he was teaching physics there. After graduation, Monge obtained a position as a draftsman at the École Royale du Génie at Mézières, and he ended up teaching the design of fortifications using techniques of geometry that he developed himself. In 1783, Monge moved to Paris and joined the Academy of Sciences to take up studies in mathematics, meteorology and chemistry. The French Revolution brought Monge into government service, where he directed the modernization of France’s military and arms industries in and around Paris.

Around this same time, a young Napoleon Bonaparte sought out Monge as friend and confidant. Otherwise unremarkable, his talent for mathematics brought Napoleon to the attention of Monge and his colleague Lazare Carnot, who was in charge of organizing the army. Carnot made sure that Napoleon found a position as an artillery officer where his cool, analytical mind could be put to good use. Napoleon maintained both his interest in mathematics and his valuable ties with the mathematicians in Paris even as his success on the battlefield propelled him quickly up the ranks. In 1798, already one of the army’s most successful leaders, Napoleon joined Monge and Carnot as a member of the French Academy of Sciences.

In the years that followed, as Napoleon pursued greater successes politics, he was able to repay the kindness of his mentors, and he appointed Monge and Carnot to influential positions. Under Napoleon’s leadership the government supported scientific research and the development of new technologies, saying “The most honorable, as well as the most useful, occupation for nations is to contribute to the extension of human knowledge.” However, Monge’s close association with Napoleon earned him the enmity of the Restoration monarchy, which unseated Napoleon from power. Until the end of his life, Monge was persona non grata in France. Students of the Ecole Polytechnique, where Monge was a revered teacher, were prevented by order of the monarchy from attending his funeral. The students obeyed this directive, but marched to the cemetery en mass to pay homage the following day.

Gaspard Monge is one of the 72 engineers and scientists named on the Eiffel Tower. Monge’s remains were transferred to rest in the Pantheon in 1989.

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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