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The French Revolution and the Crisis of Science

The French Revolution and the Crisis of Science


The eighteenth century belonged to the period known as the Enlightenment. Thinkers of the time, such as Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) in England and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) in France, were influenced by the experimental science of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and the mathematical rigor of René Descartes, among others. According to Enlightenment thinkers, reason—as opposed to spiritual revelation—enables humankind to make sense of the world around them and to better their condition. The aim of a rational society is knowledge, freedom, and happiness. These convictions led to criticism of the old order and visions of a better future. In England, these ideas stimulated reform. In America and France, they led to revolution.


Begun in 1789 with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens, the French Revolution was the polar opposite of the peaceful beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in England. Although eventually the French Revolution would signal a crisis for science, at first the relationship between government and science was cooperative. In 1790, the National Assembly established by the revolutionaries asked the venerable Académie Royale des Sciences, a product of the seventeenth century, to reform the chaotic system of weights and measures. The result was the metric system of basic units that we know today as the meter, gram, and liter.

Following the overthrow of the monarchy in August 1792, a governing assembly of businessmen, tradesmen, and professional men called the Convention was elected to replace the National Assembly and to provide a new constitution for the country. In September the Convention formally abolished the monarchy and declared France a republic. Because at the time France was at war with England, Austria, and Prussia, a Committee of Public Safety was organized to mobilize scientists to defend the new republic. The official position of relating science to politics resulted in concentrated efforts to get things done. For example, French scientists demonstrated unusual resourcefulness in finding and extracting saltpeter for use in making gunpowder. Similar energy was applied to research into steel making, munitions, copper, and sodium carbonate (a compound used in manufacturing glass and soap).

In 1793, on the premise that science was undemocratic in principle, the Convention closed the Académie, which had always been considered a seat of aristocratic privilege, as well as other learned academies of France. With the closure of the few schools that taught science and technology, the era of so-called aristocratic science was over, and for a time research in France was in a state of disarray.

In September 1793 the Convention effectively revoked the rights of individuals, and a period of extreme violence known as the Terror began. At its conclusion 10 months later, a new government reconstituted the Académie in a new guise, that of the Institut de France. Acceptance to the institute was based on merit, not inherited wealth, and because other centers in France were also doing research and acting as consultants, its members no longer formed an isolated group. The old idea that science was sufficient to itself was replaced by the expectation that science be useful. Increasingly, science became less and less like art. This differentiation was the beginning of the professionalization of science. It became possible to conceive of it as something a person could make a career of.

A national system of secondary schools was established, with an emphasis on mathematics. In 1794 the Ecole Polytechnique was formed to train engineers to defend the republic. Mathematics and chemistry were taught by renowned teachers such as Pierre Simon de Laplace (1749-1827), Joseph Louis Lagrange (1736-1813), and Claude Louis Berthollet (1748-1822). Systematic laboratory instruction, virtually unknown elsewhere in Europe, was a feature of the polytechnic. Its students were without peer, and some became first-rate scientists.

In the decade before the revolution remade French society, the chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794) took the first dramatic steps toward what would turn out to be an equally momentous development in chemistry. Up to Lavoisier's time, chemistry was an ambiguous discipline owing to its tradition of alchemy, useful art, and pharmaceuticals. The legacy of alchemy—a philosophy of the Middle Ages that asserted that base metals could be changed into gold—was a persistent belief in the transmutation of the elements. For example, whether water could be changed into earth was a topic of discussion at a public meeting of the Académie in 1767. Alchemical notions also endured in the theory of phlogiston, which dominated the science of chemistry from the mid-1600s until Lavoisier proved it wrong.

The theory of phlogiston stated that when a substance is burned, something is given off into the atmosphere. By definition, all combustible materials contained this "something," called phlogiston. What was left when a material was "dephlogisticated" was the true material. So, for example, ashes were wood minus phlogiston. Likewise, zinc, when burned, released phlogiston into the air and left a solid residue called calx. Phlogiston as a theory became a unifying principle in chemistry, and very difficult to dislodge. It seemed to provide a satisfactory explanation of the nature of burnt matter. The problems with it—why, for instance, materials gained weight on burning—were illuminated by Lavoisier's careful experimentation.

Lavoisier's pioneering work would not have been possible had the groundwork not been set by the Englishman Joseph Priestley (1733-1804). Before 1700, the idea of gases as chemical entities was hardly known. At the age of 37, Priestley undertook to make a special study of different kinds of gases, which he called airs, by heating or mixing substances, and submitting them to simple tests to better describe them. At a meeting with Lavoisier in Paris in 1774, Priestley announced that he had obtained a new kind of air in which a candle burned more brightly than in normal air. But Priestley did not try to explain his discovery in terms other than phlogiston theory.

Building on Priestley's experiments, Lavoisier was able to show that air was not itself an element but that it consisted of the element nitrogen and of Priestley's "dephlogisticated air," which Lavoisier called oxygen. His findings meant that rather than being a dumping ground for phlogiston, air combined with the substance being burned to form an oxide. For example, burning zinc causes it to combine with oxygen from the air to form zinc oxide. Understanding the role of oxygen in combustion allowed Lavoisier to determine the composition of many substances.

Because Lavoisier's "antiphlogistic" theories went against the mainstream, he needed to build support for them. One way to do that was to try to organize the disordered nomenclature of chemistry into a single system of naming things. Based on the new discoveries and theories, and published in 1787, the work listed 55 elements-that is, bodies that could not be decomposed—among them oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon, and sulfur. Because so much importance was attached to how substances are named and classified, in practical terms, adopting Lavoisier's nomenclature amounted to the same thing as adopting his theories.


Owing to the immense social and political upheaval caused by the French Revolution, it is tempting to interpret everything connected with it in terms of a break with the past. But that was not the case. For example, the Académie des Sciences had always been considered elitist, even among some of its members such as Lavoisier, and the government's antipathy toward it and other learned academies of France did not represent a complete rejection of science. The central administration of science and the use of scientists as consulting experts was kept intact, and although schools closed, the curriculum did not change. Despite its abuse by various revolutionary factions, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens guaranteed freedom of the press, which in the early days of the revolution stimulated the publication of new scientific journals to promote science. And freedom of association enabled the formation of societies to propagate scientific knowledge.

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) modified many of the scientific institutions created in the wake of the Terror and brought them under more centralized control. Although his administration emphasized military training and cut budgets for research and for laboratories, the system he inaugurated in France persists to this day. In contrast, in the United States after the War for Independence (1775-1778) the balance of powers and the rights of individual states led to decentralized universities and institutions. A National Academy of Sciences did not appear in America until the time of the Civil War (1861-1865).

In debunking the theory of phlogiston and in establishing the value of quantitative measurements, Lavoisier elevated chemistry to science. His nomenclature brought order where chaos had reigned, and a treatise he wrote on chemistry in 1789 became a model for teaching the subject for many years. His discoveries changed perceptions of chemistry as surely as the French Revolution changed perceptions of monarchy and individual rights. The creator of his own scientific revolution, the supporter of his country's, Lavoisier nonetheless was arrested toward the end of the Terror and executed on the guillotine at the age of 51. At the news of his death, Lagrange is said to have commented, "It took them only an instant to cut off that head, and a hundred years may not produce another like it."

Priestley's support of the early stages of the French Revolution and his outspoken criticism of the established Church of England earned him his own share of enemies. Following several years of harassment by a hostile mob, Priestley emigrated to the United States in 1794. His chemical apparatus resides in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.


Further Reading


Hoffmann, Roald, and Vivian Torrence. Chemistry Imagined: Reflections on Science. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.

Marks, John. Science and the Making of the Modern World. London: Heinemann, 1983.

Russell, Colin. Science and Social Change, 1700-1900. London: Macmillan, 1983.

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