Betancourt Y Mouna, Augustin De

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Betancourt Y Mouna, Augustin De

(b. Tenerife, Canary Islands, 1758; d. St. Petersburg, Russia, 14 July 1824)

physics, engineering.

Betancourt was a descendant of the Norman navigator Jean de Béthencourt, who discovered the Canary Islands in 1402. After completing his studies in Paris, he was sent by the Spanish government to France, England, Germany, and Holland to study methods of shipbuilding, navigation, mechanics, and using steam engines. He brought back a number of drawings and models which formed the nucleus of the scientific cabinet of the king of Spain. While in France he submitted two important reports to the Académie des Sciences of Paris. In the first he revealed to the Continent the double-action steam engine, which he had observed in action in England. This memoir led Jacques-Constantin Périer to construct the first double-action steam engine in France.

In the second report (1790), Betancourt gave the results of a series of measurements establishing the relation of temperature and steam pressure. This was the first work of its kind, but Betancourt underestimated the importance of the disturbances caused by the presence of even a minimum quantity of residual air.

After another trip to England to study its mining industry Betancourt returned to France. There he became interested in the optical telegraph invented by Claude Chappe, and constructed a line from Madrid to Cadiz. He was then entrusted with the organization of a school of civil engineering in Spain, and became its inspector general. Disturbances in Spain led him to settle temporarily in Paris, where he became well known, especially for a system of water-saving locks.

In 1808 Betancourt accepted an offer from the Russian government, and on 30 November was made chief of staff of the czar’s retinue. In Russia he improved the arms industry and constructed bridges using a new system of arches. In collaboration with Carbonnier, Betancourt built the riding school of Moscow, which was then the largest hall without inner supports; the span of its roof was said to be forty meters. He also constructed the aqueduct of Taïtzy and set up a state paper industry. In 1810 a school of civil engineering was founded in St. Petersburg, and Betancourt became its inspector as well as a professor; in 1819 he was made director of the Central Administration of Civil Engineering.

On 22 August 1822 Betancourt was summarily retired when an official investigation revealed numerous irregularities in the running of the Central Administration of Civil Engineering. Undoubtedly he was simply caught up in a general wave of reform, for he did not lose the czar’s favor. He was in the midst of rebuilding St. Isaac’s Cathedral when he died.


1. Original Works. Among Betancourt’s works are Mémoire sur la force expansive de la vapeur de l’eau (Paris, 1790); Mémoire sur un nouveau systéme de navigation intérieure (n.p., n.d. [Paris. ca. 1808]); and Essai sur la composition des machines (Paris, 1808, 1819), written with Lanz. See also the Procés-verbaux des séances de I’Académiedes Sciences tenues depuis la fondation de l’Institut jusqu’au mois d’août 1835, 10 vols. (Hendaye, 1910–1921); I, 306 (11 Frimaire an VI): 308, 309, 313 (16 Frimaire an VI): 353 (11 Ventose an VI): 373–375 (21 Germinal an VI); III, 504 (2 March 1807); 563 (17 August 1807); 581–585 (14 September 1807): IV. 77 (13 June 1808); 78 (20 June 1808): 88 (8 August 1808), the presentation of the memoir “Nouveau système de navigation…”; 279 (27 November 1809): 286 (5 December 1809), Betancourt’s election as corresponding member of the Premiére Classe of the Institut; 331 (12 March 1810): V1, 233 (3 November 1817); 395 (21 December 1818); 448 (10 May 1819); VII, 9 (31 January 1820); VIII, 131 (30 August 1824, 6 September 1824, the latter a replacement).

II. Secondary Literature. Works on Betancourt are Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre, “Rapport sur un nouveau télégraphe de l’invention des citoyens Breguet et Bétancourt” (read 21 Germinal an VI), in Mémoires de I’Institute, 1st ser., 3 , pt. 1 (an IX), Histoire, 22–32; Sebastián Padrón Acosta, El ingeniero Augustin de Bethencourt y Molina (Tenerife, 1958): Jacques Payen. “Bétancourt et I introduction en France de la machine à vapeur à double effet (1978),” in Revue d’histoire des sciences, 20 (1967), 187–198, an edition of “Mémoire sur une machine à vapeur à double effet” (read before the Académie Royale des Sciences on 16 December 1789); and Antonio Ruiz Álvarez. “En torno al ingeniero canario don Augustin de Bethencourt y Molina,” in El museo canario nos. 77–84 (1961–1962), 139–147.

Jacques Payen