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Berthollet, Claude Louis, Comte - NAPOLEON AND SCIENCE

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(Count) [bairtolay] (1748–1822) French chemist: worked on a range of inorganic problems.

Originally a physician, Berthollet moved to chemistry and was an early staff member of the École Polytechnique, but was not an effective teacher. He was a friend of Napoleon, and joined him in the attack on Egypt in 1798. In 1814 he helped depose Napoleon ‘for the good of France’, and was made a peer by Louis XVIII. In chemistry, he was an early supporter of ideas; his research examined the nature of ammonia, the sulphides of hydrogen, hydrogen cyanide and cyanogen chloride, and the reactions of chlorine. He deduced that some acids did not contain oxygen (unlike Lavoisier’s view). He discovered KClO3 , but his use of it in gunpowder destroyed a powder mill in 1788. His work on bleaching fabrics with chlorine, and on dyes and steelmaking, was more successful.

He believed that chemical affinity resembled gravitation in being proportional to the masses of the reactants; he was wrong, but his work foreshadowed that of . Similarly, he had a courteous conflict with , attacking the latter’s law of constant composition. For long, Proust’s views seemed to have prevailed entirely, but since 1935 ‘berthollide’ compounds of slightly variable composition have been proved to exist. Berthollet’s chemical instincts were usually good and even when they were not the debate led to a valuable outcome.


Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) is unique among leading historical figures in many ways, and one of them is that he had an active interest in science. He expended time and effort in gaining personal knowledge of results and problems in the science and technology of the early 19th-c. Only after he became emperor (1804) did he become a mere patron of science, although even in this role he was vastly better informed than other national leaders who patronized science, such as Charles II in 17th-c England or Lenin in 20th-c Russia. In making scientific effort a part of national policy, he broke new ground.

Born in Corsica, in the years following the French Revolution Bonaparte was a young artillery officer; he had entered the École Militaire in 1785 and did exceptionally well in mathematics, which he was taught by brother Louis; his examiner in finals was . His speedy military successes in Europe gave him the reputation that allowed him to propose and lead a military expedition to Egypt in 1798, and his political skills secured his election as First Consul in France by 1800. He easily obtained personal rule in this capacity, became emperor in 1804 and established his three brothers as kings in Holland, Germany and Italy. By 1810 his empire was vast, but his invasion of Russia in 1812 was disastrous and defeats in Germany soon followed. His abdication in 1814 and exile in Elba were the result; his return to Europe in 1815 and the ‘Hundred Days’ only led to his final defeat by Wellington at Waterloo, renewed exile in St Helena and his death there in 1821. During the 14 years of Bonaparte’s dominance, France was nearly always at war. Despite this, it was a period of advance for some cultural and practical institutions within his sphere of influence, including most areas of science, in which France took a leading place, with a commanding position in chemistry and physics in the first decades of the 19th-c.

As a schoolboy and as a young artilleryman Bonaparte had a substantial interest in science. Then, as a very young general commanding the French army in Italy in 1796, he came to know the chemist who had been sent there by the French Government (the Directoire ) to secure spoils of war, both art treasures and scientific apparatus. The two became great friends, with a liking for one another that was to survive despite future difficulties. The next year a vacancy arose in the limited and exclusive Institut de France, in its First Class (ie the science division). Despite severe competition, the 28-year-old Napoleon was elected, and took a real part in its meetings thereafter.

His pleasure in membership was linked with his ambition that France should dominate the world not only militarily and politically but in scientific achievement also. At the same time as he joined the Institute, Bonaparte was appointed to command the army to invade England. In the event, this plan was abandoned and replaced by a scheme to invade Egypt. Its object was to extend French influence, embarrass England’s link with India, secure spoil and civilize backward Egypt. To join him in the voyage Bonaparte chose Berthollet, who was also to recruit others: the mathematicians Monge and , the zoologist Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1772–1844) and the inventor N-J Conté (1755–1805). Included also were a team of engineers, cartographers and interpreters. The invasion, in 1798, was a success and soon after the Battle of the Pyramids and the victorious entry into Cairo Bonaparte set up an Institute of Egypt, whose task was to educate and civilize north Africa and bring to it the benefits of French culture and, especially, French science. The Institute’s quarters in Cairo included laboratories for chemistry and for physics, a library and observatory. Much work of scientific value was done. However, French success in Africa was checked by the British Navy’s dominance under Nelson in the Mediterranean, and Bonaparte soon returned to France, with Berthollet and Monge. The Rosetta stone, found by the French in 1799 and surrendered to the British in 1801, was to yield the long-awaited key to the written language of ancient Egypt.

By 1800 Bonaparte was combining his rule of France as First Consul with the presidency of the First Class of the Institute. His interest in science was well demonstrated by his treatment of the Italian physicist ; in 1801 Bonaparte attended three Institute meetings led by Volta on electricity, saw the potential importance of the subject, and awarded a substantial annual prize for new work in it, performed by a scientist of any nation. An early winner was , who was later given a passport to visit and work in France in 1813 (despite the Anglo-French war) and whose treatment there again confirmed that Bonaparte saw science and its practitioners as above mere national interests. Although he had a very direct interest in applications (he sat on committees assessing the value of new work on gunpowder, and on steam traction) he had a comparable interest in mathematics and in pure physics, spending time in 1808, for example, studying Chladni’s work on acoustics and again making him a generous award. He ensured that Berthollet and some other leading scientists had such substantial and assured incomes that they could operate effective research laboratories. After 1807 Bonaparte set up the ‘Continental System’, excluding British trade from Europe, and Britain countered by imposing a blockade. This cut off the supply of cane sugar to France and Bonaparte saw to it that work on sugar from beet was encouraged to make up the loss. A prize system encouraged advances in other areas of manufacture and technology.

Something is known of Bonaparte’s reading in science. During the voyage to Egypt, he spent time in tutorials with Berthollet and others, and shared a tent with him during the campaign. Later he wrote that had he not became a general and national leader ‘I would have thrown myself into the study of the exact sciences. I would have traced a path following the route of Galileo and Newton’. Returning from Egypt, his library contained 14 scientific books, along with some poetry, novels and political works (although he held art and literature in rather low regard).

Despite his notable success in encouraging science-based industry in France, and the fundamental research which underpins it, he was not able quickly to adjust the educational system to provide the body of scientifically trained men he desired, mainly because of the shortage of teachers at school level; eventually this was largely rectified, through the work of the École Normale and the École Polytechnique.

One period when Bonaparte had full leisure for reading was during his banishment to Elba, and again on St Helena, where he was able to study some of the scientific writing which he had himself commissioned, such as books on physics, along with natural history, astronomy and chemistry.

Although by modern standards Napoleon would be rated as a scientific amateur with major talents in other directions, his support for work in science and its funding was well ahead of its time, was unique among national leaders and certainly led to outstanding results for his country.

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