Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 219:
EMILIE DE BRETEUIL

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 219.

Today, we watch a mind fighting to get free. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Much is made of the respect paid to women in 18th-century France. We're told of fine conversation among men and women in the French salons. There's no doubt that the intelligence and charm of women was valued at those wonderfully civilized gatherings. But underneath you found the same conservatism that was more obvious in other societies. Lynn Osen tells us that intelligence and charm were not equated with real accomplishment.

In 1706 Emilie de Breteuil was born into this world as the Marquise of Chatelet. She was an aristocrat and trained in the graces. She knew the moves -- flirtation -- a quick wit. She was right for the game, but for one flaw. Emilie was more than quick-witted; she was flat-out brilliant.

Her precociousness came out in many ways: a fast life-style, a string of affairs, a general recklessness, an early marriage to a man much her senior -- and an inclination to bury herself in books when no one was looking. Overtly she played the game, but under the surface she constantly overplayed it. Her marriage put little constraint upon her, and when she was 27, she took up an extended and quite open affair with Voltaire. The chemistry between Emilie and this greatest intellect of the age was immediate and powerful. Caught in public they were both light and ebullient. Out of friend's eyes they could be found talking, studying, writing, or doing experiments in Voltaire's well-equipped laboratory. They both could be found working furiously into the small hours of the morning.

During their time together, Emilie wrote a paper on the nature of heat, she created a French translation of Newton's Principia, and she strongly influenced the form and shape of Voltaire's Candide. Then at the age of almost 43 she conceived a child by yet another lover. Voltaire helped to smooth it all over with her husband. The child was born, and Emilie was doing fine. Then suddenly and inexplicably she died a few days later. Voltaire was there and he was shattered by the loss.

Emilie's translation of Newton helped shape the subsequent direction of French mathematics. Her work on heat pointed the way to understanding the role of wavelength in thermal radiation.

And her life is, for me, the bitterest condemnation of a male-dominated society I've ever read. For this woman realized that flouting the conventions of family and home was the perfectly acceptable smokescreen behind which she could hide her real crime. That crime was having an exceptional mind and absolutely having to put it to use.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Osen, L.M., Women in Mathematics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974, pp. 49-69.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.


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