Today, a French scientist tries to redirect his
country. 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.
It's 1834. A famed scholar
rises to address the French Academy of Sciences.
Arago. Arago was born on the eve of the French
Revolution. He trained at the Ecole Polytechnique
-- Napoleon's great think tank. When he was only
23, the Ecole made him a professor of
First Arago worked in astronomy -- then in optics
and electricity. He helped prove that light moves
in waves. He measured the speed of sound in ice. He
worked on the polarization of light. His electrical
work anticipated Faraday.
But Arago looked beyond science toward its use. His
work on electricity found use in telegraph systems.
He took part in the study of steam boiler
In his mid-40s, he went a step further. He took up
politics. His verve and charisma won liberal
causes, like abolishing slavery in French colonies
and improving conditions for sailors.
Now Arago rises to take on another radical cause.
The theoretical French have let their industry fall
far behind the practical English. The French look
at England the way we've started looking at
Arago's lecture is one the French Academy isn't
ready for. It's about England's James Watt. He
starts by acknowledging two French thinkers who had
the idea of a steam engine. But, he says, it took
the English to put flesh and blood on the
The English built the actual engines. The only
science that helped them was the science of their
own shrewd observations.
And, he adds, those engines have improved the life
of the poor. With that he's gone too far. French
intellectuals preferred to see English machines as
evil. Arago faces an angry outcry.
Soon after, he wrote a second paper to defend
himself. He titled it, "On Machinery Considered in
Relation to the Prosperity of the Working Classes."
It says things most of us take for granted:
Machines don't steal jobs, they create them.
Machines make goods affordable to the poor. And so
By now, of course, the new engines really had
become monsters. Four years after Arago's talk,
published Oliver Twist. Dickens woke the
English public to the horrors of industrial slums.
A new wave of social reform began.
But Arago celebrates the humanitarian impulse that
drove people like James Watt in the first place.
Watt really had created machines in the interests
of the common people -- of whom he was one. And
which of us would exchange our common lives today
for the lives we lived before Watt -- or before
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Hahn, R., Arago, Dominique François Jean.
Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Vol. 1
(C.C. Gilespie, ed.) Chas. Scribner's Sons,
Arago, M., Life of James Watt. 2nd ed.,
Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1839. (M. must
stand for Monsieur. Arago's initials were D.F.J.
This volume also includes Arago's rejoinder, "On
Machinery Considered ... ," Lord Jeffrey's Elogium
of James Watt from the Encyclopaedia
Britannica, and Lord Brougham's "Historical
Account of the Composition of Water.")
In 1905, the American visionary Andrew Carnegie also wrote a
biography of James Watt. He made several references
to Arago's important lecture.
19th century engraving, source
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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