Guyton De Morveau, Louis Bernard

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Guyton De Morveau, Louis Bernard

(b. Dijon, France, 4 January 1737; d. Paris, France, 2 January 1816)

chemistry, aeronautics.

The son of Antoine Guyton, a lawyer, and Marguerite Desaulle, Guyton was educated in Dijon at the Godran (Jesuit) College and the Faculty of Law, and from 1756 to 1762 he practiced there as an advocate. Dijon was the capital of the French province of Burgundy and the seat of one of the provincial parlements, or royal courts of law, which had both political and Judicial functions; and in 1762 Guyton entered the parlement as avocat-général du roi, one of the public prosecutors. He then added “de Morveau” to his name, the designation being that of a family property, and until 1789 he was often called Monsieur de Morveau. During the French Revolution he became Guyton-Morveau, then Guyton, and finally Guyton-Morveau again.

The suppression of the Jesuits in France in 1763 resulted in the closing of many schools run by them. Various plans for educational reform were advanced, including Guyton’s Mémoire sur l’éducation publique (1764), which contains detailed proposals for a large college in each province. He believed that a wide range of subjects should be taught, with less emphasis on classics than hitherto, and made the interesting suggestion that mathematics, physics, natural history, and chemistry should be included in the final two years. He quoted from many classical and modern authors and had obviously studied his subject with the thoroughness that was to characterize all his future work.

Guyton ably performed his heavy parliamentary duties until he retired in 1782 with a pension and the title of avocat général honoraire. Some of his speeches were published in Discours publics et éloges (3 vols., 1775–1782), one of the most important being his criticism, in 1767, of the local variations of the law in France—where there were, he said, one people, one legislator, and 285 legal codes. He was praised by Voltaire, and in 1771 he outlined a scheme for a new code applicable to the whole country; but the collapse of the old system, like that of education, was to come only with the Revolution, and its reform with Napoleon.

A long poem satirizing the Jesuits— Le rat iconoclaste ou le Jésuite croqué—was published anonymously at Dijon in 1763, It was known to be Guyton’s work; and after hearing it read, the Académie des Sciences, Arts et Belles-Lettres of Dijon elected him as an honoraire on 20 January 1764. His early contributions to its meetings were literary but he became interested in chemistry, which was often discussed at the Academy, and in 1768 he installed a laboratory in his new house. He was entirely self-taught, studying initially the books of A. Baumé and P. J. Macquer.

Another member of the Dijon Academy, J. P. Chardenon, was engaged in research on combustion and calcination; and after his death in 1769 Guyton continued the work. His results were published in “Dissertation sur le phlogistique,” the first essay in a volume entitled Digressions académiques (1772). Chardenon had speculated about the reason why metals gain weight on calcination, but Guyton pointed out that no one had, in fact, proved that every metal invariably gains weight. This he now did, in a careful and accurate piece of quantitative work that shows that he had developed into a competent chemist He also proved that decreases in weight occasionally observed by earlier chemists were due to some effect other than calcination. In order to explain why a metal containing phlogiston weighs less than its calx, he modified Chardenon’s theory, believing that phlogiston was specifically lighter than all other substances, however subtle, and therefore appeared to lighten anything containing it weighed in any medium whatsoever. Guyton was as unconvincing as Chardenon, who had considered only weighings in air, and his theory gained no support. The experimental part of Guyton’s essay, however, was influence for his proof of the gain in weight was one of the factors that led Lavoisier to investigate combustion and calcination.

Digressions académiques also contained a discussion of chemical affinity in which Guyton elaborated the theory, earlier suggested by Buffon, that ultimate particles of matter attracted each other by a force obeying Newton’s inverse-square law—the relation was complicated in that at short distances their shapes had to be considered, for they could not be regarded as point masses. He hoped that the shapes of these particles might eventually be inferred from a study of crystals, but he gave no specific examples. In 1773 Guyton measured the forces of cohesion between mercury and other metals and thought that these could be related to the affinities supposed to be responsible for the formation of amalgams. He returned several times to this problem of measuring affinities, but with no more success than his contemporaries Richard Kirwan and C. F. Wenzel.

In 1772 Guyton became vice-chancellor of the Dijon Academy and was elected a correspondent of the Paris Académie des Sciences. During a visit to Paris in 1775 he was introduced to pneumatic chemistry by Lavoisier, and he soon became convinced that a portion of the air was absorbed during combustion and calcination, causing the gain in weight. He abandoned his former theory but still believed in phlogiston and thought, like Macquer, that it was released at the same time that air was absorbed.

This theory was taught in the public course of chemistry, published as Élémens de chymie (3 vols., 1777–1778), that Guyton gave in the Dijon Academy every year from 1776, assisted by Hugues Maret and J. F. Durande. The arrangement of the lectures and book was determined by Guyton’s theory that the mutual attraction between the ultimate particles of different kinds of matter could cause one substance to dissolve in another, and that a chemical change was possible only as a result of such a solution. Every reaction therefore required a solvent, and a chapter was devoted to each of twénty solvents: fire, air, and water; nine acids; three alkalies; four oily substances; and mercury.

In order to keep his course up to date, Guyton read widely in several languages. He also translated a number of books and memoirs, his annotated edition of T. O. Bergman’s Opuscules physiques et chymiques (2 vols., 1780–1785) being especially important. He also added notes to C. W. Scheele’s Mémoires de chymie (1785), translated by his close friend Claudine Picardet, the wife of another Dijon academician.

A reformer by nature, Guyton became the leading critic of the current chemical nomenclature, in which the name of a substance was hardly ever related to its constitution but was derived from such unsystematic origins as the name of its discoverer, its place of occurrence, or its appearance. Macquer and Bergman proposed certain reforms; and Guyton had been influenced by both of them when, in 1780, he was commissioned by the publisher Panckoucke to write the chemical volumes of the Encyclopédie méthodique. All the articles had been arranged in one alphabetical sequence in the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert and also in the supplementary volumes (1776–1777) to which Guyton contributed fourteen chemical articles, but in the new work each subject was to be treated in one or more separate volumes.

Guyton was about to write a comprehensive treatise on chemistry, and he now had a chance to reform the nomenclature completely. In 1782 he published his initial proposals. They were concerned mainly with acids, bases, and salts, but the principles he laid down were universally applicable. The most important was that the simplest substances should have the simplest names, and that names of compounds should recall their components. The old, unsystematic names were excluded. Thus, oil of vitriol (named from its oily appearance) and Epsom salt (named from its place of occurrence) became vitriolic acid and vitriol of magnesia, respectively. These reforms were welcomed by Macquer and Bergman and were adopted by chemists in France, England, and other countries.

From the beginning of his scientific career, Guyton was interested in metallurgy and mineralogy. In 1769 he investigated the use of coal instead of charcoal in blast furnaces, and in 1777 he described a special flux of powdered glass, borax, and charcoal for assaying iron ores. There were several different theories of the relation between iron and steel; and research led Guyton to discover in 1786, independently of G. Monge, C. A. Vandermonde, and C. L. Berthollet (Observations sur la physique, 29 [1786], 210–221), that cast iron, wrought iron, and steel differed only in carbon content. He was often consulted by directors of mines and foundries in Burgundy, and he devised a portable set of apparatus for analyzing minerals in the field. He wanted to reform the nomenclature of minerals on the same lines as chemical nomenclature, but in this he was less successful.

Guyton always attached importance to the applications of science, and he intended the laboratory of the Dijon Academy to be used for the public benefit. In 1782, for example, he examined several white pigments, hoping to find a substitute for the poisonous white lead. Zinc calx (oxide) proved satisfactory, and it was manufactured and sold at the Academy by the laboratory steward, J. B. Courtois, the father of Bernard Courtois. Several times Guyton was personally involved in industry. From about 1780, with three partners, he manufactured saltpeter at Dijon. The enterprise, which was taken over by the elder Courtois in 1788, led to the development of a new analytical method. Saltpeter (potassium nitrate) was made by mixing decayed animal manure (containing nitrates) with wood ashes (containing potash), leaching with water, and evaporating. If too much potash was added, the saltpeter was contaminated with potassium chloride, so generally some nitrate was wasted in the mother liquor. Guyton determined the amount of chloride in a sample of mother liquor by adding lead nitrate solution of known concentration until all the chloride was precipitated; this enabled him to calculate how much potash was needed to form the maximum quantity of saltpeter free from chloride. This was one of the earliest applications of volumetric analysis.

Soda manufacture was another of Guyton’s interests. In 1783 he visited Ie Croisic, in Britanny, and set up a factory to prepare soda (sodium carbonate) by a method discovered by Scheele: the action of atmospheric carbon dioxide on a paste of slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) and concentrated brine (impure sodium chloride, prepared by solar evaporation of sea water). Some soda was made, but the enterprise lasted only a few years. Guyton’s only profitable industrial venture was a glassworks, run in conjunction with a coal mine, which he opened in 1784 at St. Bérain sur Dheune, in Burgundy.

Despite his many activities in chemistry Guyton found time to contribute to a new and exciting application of science. In November and December 1783 the balloon flights of J. F. Pilatre de Rozier and J. A. C. Charles attracted widespread attention, and the Dijon Academy decided to make its own balloon, to be filled with “inflammable gas.” Guyton tested various gases. The gas from zinc and sulfuric acid (hydrogen) was the lightest but expensive to prepare, so he rapidly developed a large-scale plant for generating a heavier but cheaper gas by the dry distillation of vegetable matter. The iron retorts leaked, however, and eventually hydrogen was used. Guyton made two flights, with Claude Bertrand, an astronomer, on 25 April 1784, and with C. A. H. Grossart de Virly, lawyer and amateur chemist, on 12 June 1784. During the second flight an attempt was made to steer the balloon with manually operated oars and a rudder, a method that was theoretically sound and seems to have been partly successful but required too much effort for sustained flight.

Full accounts of the preliminary calculations and experiments, as well as descriptions of the construction of the balloon and the large-scale production of gas, were published in Description de l’aérostate (1784), an important treatise that added to Guyton’s international reputation. In Dijon, however, all was not well. For several years the Academy had been accumulating substantial debts, and some of the literary members believed that the expenses of the laboratory and the chemical course were responsible. A bitter dispute developed in 1786 when Maret, the secretary, died and Guyton accepted the office in addition to that of chancellor, which he had held since 1781. The atmosphere became so unpleasant that for over a year he stayed away from the Academy. When he returned at the end of 1787, he resumed his activities as chancellor, but not secretary, and gave the annual course, which was now an account of antiphlogistic chemistry.

After the publication in 1786 of volume I, part 1, of Encyclopédie méthodique, chymie, Guyton began to prepare the article “Air” for part 2. This was to include an account of combustion and descriptions of the gases in the atmosphere, and they would have to be named according to the theory that he accepted. He made a journey to Paris in February 1787 and stayed there for about seven months. Discussions with Lavoisier soon led him to adopt the antiphlogistic theory without reservation; and he collaborated with Lavoisier, Berthollet, and Fourcroy in writing Méthode de nomenclature chimique (1787), in which the nomenclature, more extensively revised than in 1782, was designed so that names of substances agreed with their constitutions according to the new theory. Vitriolic acid, for example, now considered to be a compound of sulfur and oxygen, was called sulfuric acid, and was distinguished from sulfurous acid, which contained less oxygen. Guyton also joined Lavoisier and his colleagues on the editorial board of Annales de chimie, the journal that was founded in 1789; but his scientific work, including the Encyclopédie méthodique, chymie, which he handed over to Fourcroy after the publication of part 2 in 1789, was now interrupted by the French Revolution.

In August 1789 Guyton became president of the Dijon Patriotic Club; and in 1790 he was elected procureur général syndic of the Côte d’Or, one of the new “departments” into which Burgundy was divided. He held this important administrative post until elected to the National Assembly in August 1791. This took him to Paris, where he remained for the rest of his life. In 1792 he became a deputy to the National Convention, which declared France a republic, and he was among the majority who voted for the execution of Louis XVI in January 1793. Guyton became secretary of the Committee of General Defense on 3 January 1793, and from 6 April to 11 July he was president of the first Committee of Public Safety, at a time when most of its nine members were men of moderate opinions trying to secure national unity while engaged in a desperate war. But in July the moderates, including Guyton, were removed; and under Robespierre the committee took steps that redeemed the military situation but led to the Terror.

During 1794 Guyton was concerned mainly with the applications of science to the war. He helped J. A. A. Carny to devise simplified methods of making saltpeter and gunpowder, and he was a lecturer at the intensive courses on gunpowder and cannon manufacture that were given at Paris in February and March to men from all parts of France. He was one of the organizers of the first military air force—the Compagnie d’Aérostiers—and on 26 June 1794 he witnessed the French victory over the Austrians at Fleurus, Belgium, when observers in a captive balloon threw out messages with reports on the Austrian positions. As political commissioner attached to the army he accompanied it to Brussels and returned to Paris on 31 July, four days after Robespierre’s downfall. From 6 October 1794 to 3 February 1795 he again served on the Committee of Public Safety, which now had limited powers. Although elected to the Conseil des Cinq-Cents after the Convention was dissolved in 1795, he joined none of its committees and retired from politics in 1797.

One of the first members of the Institut de France when it was founded in 1795, Guyton was president of the class of mathematical and physical sciences in 1807. He was twice director of the École Polytechnique (1798–1799, 1800–1804), and as a professor from its founding in 1794 until 1811 he taught and did research there. In 1798 he liquefied ammonia by cooling the dry gas to –44°C. with a mixture of ice and calcium chloride. Under his direction C. B. Desormes and N. Clément proved in 1801 (independently of W. Cruickshank) that carbon formed two oxides, the lower one being the “heavy inflammable air” that had puzzled earlier chemists; in 1803 he devised a pyrometer consisting of a platinum rod which, as it expanded, caused a pointer to move over a circular scale. But, as in his Dijon days, Guyton’s interests were too wide for him to be able to make great contributions to experimental chemistry. It was as a reformer of nomenclature, a teacher, and a systematizer that he made his name. And he was always concerned with the applications of chemistry.

Guyton did important research on the disinfection of air, a subject that first interested him in 1773, when he was consulted about the problem of putrid emanations from corpses in the crypt of a Dijon church. Believing the disease-carrying particles accompanied the volatile alkali (ammonia) given off by decaying flesh, he filled the church with marine (hydrochloric) acid fumes, which he hoped would precipitate the emanation with the ammonia. The treatment did, in fact, remove the odor, and it was later used successfully in prisons and hospitals. In England, Sir James Carmichael Smyth independently introduced the use of nitric acid fumes, and Guyton subsequently made the investigation described in his Traité des moyens de désinfecter l’air (1801). He found that his original theory was incorrect, for ammonia was not always evolved from decaying flesh; and he now thought that the disinfectant action was due to oxygen, which the antiphlogistic chemists assumed to be in all acids. Oxymuriatic acid (chlorine) was believed to contain a high proportion of oxygen, and Guyton found it to be an effective disinfectant—an interesting example of a satisfactory procedure based on a theory that was soon shown to be false. A simple apparatus for producing chlorine from common salt, sulfuric acid, and manganese dioxide was described in his book, which was translated into five languages. For this service to humanity he was admitted to the Legion of Honor in 1805, and in 1811 he became a baron of the empire.

In 1799, Napoleon appointed Guyton administrator of the mints, an important post, for there were nine mints in France and the number later increased. He left office at the Bourbon restoration in 1814 but resumed when Napoleon returned from Elba. He finally retired on 7 July 1815, three weeks after Waterloo.

Some of the men responsible for the execution of Louis XVI were exiled by Louis XVIII, but Guyton was left in peace. He died six months later and was survived by the former Mme. Picardet, whom he had married in 1798, after the death of her first husband. They had no children.


I. Original Works. Details of the various eds. and trans. of Guyton’s books, and references to his most important contributions to periodicals, are given in W. A. Smeaton, “L. B. Guyton de Morveau; A Bibliographical Study:” in Ambix, 6 (1957), 18–34.

Il. Secondary Literaure. Georges Bouchard, Guyton-Morveau, chimiste et conventionnel (Paris, 1938) is a reliable biography but includes few details of Guyton’s scientific work. Some aspects of this have been discussed in a series of articles by W. A. Smeaton: “The Contributions of P. J. Macquer, T. O. Bergman and L. B. Guyton de Morveau: to the Reform of Chemical Nomenclature,” in Annals of Science, 10 (1954), 87–106; “The Early History of Laboratory Instruction in Chemistry at the École Polytechnique, Paris, and Elsewhere,” ibid., 224–233; “Guytol1 de Morveau’s Course of Chemistry in the Dijon Academy,” in Ambix, 9 (1961), 53–69; “Guyton de Morveau and Chemical Affinity,” ibid., 11 (1963), 55–64; “Guyton de Morveau and the Phlogiston Theory,” in I. B. Cohen and R. Taton, eds., Mélanges Alexandre Koyré, I (Paris, 1964), 522–540; “L. B. Guyton de Morveau: Early Platinum Apparatus,” in Platinum Metals Review, 10 (1966), 24–28: “The Portable Chemical Laboratories of Guyton de Morveau, Cronstedt and Göttling,” in Ambix, 13 (1966), 84–91; “Louis Bernard Guyton de Morveau and His Relations With British Scientists,” in Notes and Records. Royal Society of London, 22 (l967), 113–130; and “Is Water Converted Into Air? Guyton de Morveau Acts as Arbiter Between Priestley and Kirwan,” in Ambix, 15 (1968), 75–83.

There are numerous references to Guyton in Roger Tisserand, Au temps de l’Encyclopédie: L’Académie de Dijon de 1740 à 1793 (Paris, 1936), a book based on a study of the archives of the Dijon Academy, which are now in the Archives Départementales de la Côte d’Or, Dijon. Guyton’s early theory of calcination is discussed in J. R. Partington and D. McKie, “Historical Studies on the Phlogiston Theory. Part I,’ in Annals of Science, 2 (1937), 361–404; and, with more emphasis on the experimental work, in H. Guerlac, Lavoisier—The Crucial Year (Ithaca, N. Y., 1961), pp. 125–145. An account of Guyton’s contributions to volumetric analysis is E. Rancke Madsen, The Development of Titrimetric Analysis Till 1806 (Copenhagen, 1958), pp. 83–101. There is a discussion of his reform of chemical nomenclature in M. P. Crosland, Historical Studies in the Language of Chemistry (London, 1962), pp. 153–192. His work on disinfection is described in Lars Oberg, “De mineralsura rökningarna. En episod ur desinfektionsmedlens historia,” in Lychnos (1965–1966). pp. 159–180, with English summary. There is an evaluation of his research on white pigments in R. D. Harley, Artists’ Pigments c. 1600–1835 (London, 1970), pp. 162–168. An annotated English trans. of his article “On the Nature of Steel and Its Proximate Principles” is in C. S. Smith, ed., Sources for the History of the Science of Steel 1532–1786 (Cambridge, Mass. -London, 1968), pp. 257–274.

W. A. Smeaton

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