La Rive, Arthur-Auguste De

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La Rive, Arthur-Auguste De

(b. Geneva [then French], 9 October 1801; d. Marseilles, France, 27 November 1873),


Arthur-Auguste de La Rive was the oldest son of Charles-Gaspard de La Rive and Marguerite-Adelaïde Boissier. In 1826 he married Jeanne-Mathilde Duppa, with whom he had two sons and three daughters. In 1855, five years after his first wife had died, he married the widow of his former colleague George Maurice.

Auguste received his elemantary education at home and at the Collège, publique de Genève, passing thence to the Académie de Genève, where his father was an influential professor; from 1816 to 1823 he studied successively letters, philosophy, and law. Although his own interests were primarily scientific, he was still a student of law when, upon the retirement of P. Prevost in November 1822, the chair of physics at the Academy became vacant. Despite the fact that de La Rive had so far published only one minor paper, his father’s influence secured him the appointment of professor of general physics on 27 October 1823 at the unusually young age of twenty-two. On 11 November 1823 he was elected to the influential post of secretary of the Sénat Académique, a post he held until 2 August 1836, although as of 4 March 1834 he had technically been secretary of the newly created Corps Académique; in both case he was know informally simply as secretary of the Academy. When M. Pictet died, his chair was given to de La Rive, who on 1 June 1825 thereby became professor of experimental physics. This change gave him control, as director, of the Academy’s physics laboratory, purchased the year before for 40,000 florins.

De La Rive was long a major force, both institutionally and personally, in the affairs of both the Academy and the government, which in oligarchic Geneva were closely connected. In fact it is as a leader of the Swiss scientific community rather than for his own work, which was devoted primarily to the chemical pile, that he is important. From 1832 to 1846 he sat on the Conseil Représentatif, where, as principal author and battle leader, he was instrumental in putting through the educational reforms of 27 January 1834 and 29 May 1835, which created a Conseil d’Instruction Publique to oversee all public education (in the process effectively eliminating the Church as an educational force) and which consolidated the control of the Corps Académique over the Academy. The so-called triumvirate of Auguste de La Rive, David Munier, and Abraham Pascalis effectively ran the Academy during the 1830’s and 1840’s. When Augustin-Pyramus de Candolle retired in 1835, Auguste became the Academy’s chief spokesman. In addition, he was a leader of the antifederalist conservative faction in the Conseil Représentatif, where, especially after the Revolution of 22 November 1841, he found himself forced into an increasingly reactionary position. Similarly, since the late 1830’s the Academy had been under severe attack as a reactionary oligarchy, and de La Rive was the opposition’s prime target. He retired completely from academic and public life in December 1846, after the political changes in the wake of the Sonderbund Revolution brought into power a liberal government he had bitterly opposed.

He had been rector of the Academy twice, from 1837 to 1840 and from 1843 to 1844. A member since 1822, he was also twice president of the Société de Physique et d’Histoire Naturelle de Genève, in 1845 and 1865. The Paris Académie des Sciences named him one of its eight foreign associates on 11 July 1864; he had been a corresponding member since 6 December 1830.

For a dozen years after the start of his scientific career, de La Rive’s favored journal of publication was the Sciences et Arts series of Bibliothèque universelle des sciences, belles-letters et arts, except for his very longest papers, which appeared in Mémoires de la Société de physique et d’histoire naturelle de Genève. In 1836 he took over editorship of the former journal and abolished its separate series; the new Bibliothèque universelle de Genève was intended for a well-educated but general readership and avoided specialized or technical scientific papers. However, he soon desired a more strictly scientific journal in which to defend his chemical theory of the pile, and from 1841 to 1845 published Archives de l’électricité. Supplément à la Bibliothèque universelle de Genève, Finally, in 1846 the literary portion of the Bibliothèqueuniverselle was given over to an editorial committee, and de La Rive limited himself to coediting the scientific portion, now published as Archives des sciences physiques et naturelles. Supplément à la Bibliothèque universelle de Genè which enjoyed his collaboration until his death in 1873.

De La Rive made his scientific reputation and consolidated his power in the Academy roughly in the decade before 1835; for an equal length of time thereafter he was the most important figure in the Genevan scientific community, at least as regards local influence and contemporary fame. During this time he was the most powerful personage in the Academy, the editor of Geneva’s leading scientific and cultural journal, and a leader of the conservative party in government. He was known as the friend of Ampère, Arago, and especially Faraday, with whom he maintained an extensive correspondence, and as the most dogged defender of the purely chemical theory of the pile.

It was as a critic of Volta’s contact theory of the pile, which attributed the production of electricity in the pile to an electromotive force arising from the contact of heterogeneous substances, that de La Rive made his European reputation. He was a scientist of one tenaciously held but imprecisely conceived theory and in this long dispute made no significant original contributions. Neither his experiments, in which his lack of sense for the importance of quantitative measurements contributed to his poor control over his experimental variables, nor his arguments, which tended to be ad hoc, were cogent. He placed more weight on supposedly decisive experiments than on theoretical or philosophical considerations, and there is no evidence that, independently of Faraday, he thought to criticize the unreasonableness of the contact force from considerations of causality.

De La Rive’s work must be understood in relation to two of Ampère’s ideas that decisively shaped his thinking. The first was the absolute distinction between dynamic, or current, and static, or tension, electricity. Hence while a current flowed there could be no tension, and the contact theorists’ electromotive force was fundamentally rejected. De La Rive went further than was required by this dichotomy and asserted the nonexistence of the electromotive force in the open pile, where no current flowed but where an electrostatic tension could be measured. (Becquerel and Stefano Marianini, two of his leading critics, defended a modified chemical theory that recognized the existence of an electromotive force but emphasized the necessity of chemical action for the continued production of electricity.) Second, after Ampère, de La Rive pictured the electric current as a series of decompositions and recompositions of a neutral fluid, the same aether whose greater or lesser vibrations were light and heat and whose positive and negative components were imagined to be variously associated with different chemical elements. These views, which held out the prospect of a unified explanation of electricity, heat, light, and chemical action, determined not only his theory of the pile but also his later work on the vibrations of bodies produced during the passage of electricity and on the light produced by electric arcs, which led to his electric theory of the aurora. In the development of these interconnections his work was largely derivative from that of Félix Savary and, especially, Becquerel, themselves also protégés of Ampère.

The contact theory regarded as its strongest proof experiments which showed that a sensitive electroscope could detect an electric tension between heterogeneous metals held in contact, even when all chemical activity was excluded. De La Rive quite gratuitously explained away these experiments by asserting that carelessness in the thoroughness with which air or water had been excluded had in every case permitted a chemical reaction to take place. The contact theory also made much of the nonproportionality between the apparent chemical activity in the pile and the electricity produced—a problem that bedeviled the chemical theory until Faraday’s laws of electrochemical equivalence explained the precise relation between chemical activity and electricity. As a partial solution to this problem de La Rive argued the existence of “countercurrents” within the pile. That is, he allowed that greater chemical activity was accompanied by greater separation of the electric fluids but maintained that the increased conductivity of the more vigorously reacting liquid facilitated their immediate recombination within the pile, with the result that only a fraction of the originally produced electricity passed through the external circuit. In accordance with these views, his solution to the problem of which arrangement of plates and connecting wires produced the greatest current was to require that the resistance of the pile to the recomposition of the separated electricities be “just greater” than the resistance of the external circuit. De La Rive’s theory could not explain the increase in tension with an increasing number of couples connected in series. Despite objections to his work—especially by C. H. Pfaff, an ardent contact theorist—he introduced only one significant modification into his theory in that he conceded, following Becquerel, that electricity could be produced not only by chemical means but also by mechanical and thermal actions, although he consistently played down the importance of all but the first.


I. Original Works. The most complete bibliography is J. Soret, “Auguste de La Rive. Notice biographique,” in Archives des sciences physiques et naturelles. Supplément à la Bibliothèque universelle et revue suisse, n.s. 60 (1877), 5-253; the bibliography (pp. 203-222) lists most of his nonscientific publications as well. For his scientific papers, see Royal Society, Catalogue of Scientific Papers, II, 212-217; VI, 636; VII, 507-509; and IX, 667. Less extensive but useful is Poggendorf, II, cols. 657-659; and III, 1126. De La Rive’s major work was a series of three papers, “Recherches sur la cause de l’électricité voltaïque,” in Mémories de la Société de physique et d’histoire naturelle de Genève, 4 , pt. 3(1828), 285-334; 6 , pt. 1 (1833), 149-208; and 7 , pt. 2 (1836), 457-517; also published separately (Geneva, 1836). The first paper was originally published in slightly different form in Annales de chimie et de physique, 2nd ser., 39 (1828), 297-324. Very useful is his “Esquisse historique des principales découvertes faites dans l’électricité depuis quelques années,” in Bibliothèque universelle des sciences, belles-lettres et arts. Sciences et arts, 52 (1833), 225-264, 404-447; 53 (1833), 70-125, 170-227, 315-352; also published separately (Geneva, 1833). Apart from such separately published memoirs, de La Rive’s only book was Traité d’électricité théorique et appliquée, 3 vols. (Paris, 1854-1858), translated into English by C. V. Walker as A Treaitse on Electricity, in Theory and Practice, 3 vols. (London, 1853-1858). The Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire de Genè preserves six and a half vols. of letters addressed to Auguste, plus a few other items.

II. Secondary Works. The major biography, which also treats his scientific work, is by Soret, cited above, although it is unfortunately often vague with regard to names and dates. Also very useful is Jean-Baptisite-André Dumas, “Éloge historique d’Arthur-Auguste de La rive,” in Mémoires de l’Académie des sciences de l’Institute de France, 40 (1876), ix-lix; also published separately (Paris, 1874) and translated into English as “Eulogy on Arthur Auguste de La Rive,” in Smithsonian Annual Report for 1874, 184-205. See also H. Deonna, “De la Rive,” in Dictionnaire historique et biographique de la Suisse, II, 648. A great deal of information on his connections with the Academy can be found in Charles Borgeaud, Histoire de l’Université de Genève, II ,L’Académie et l’Université du XIX siècle, 1814-1900 (Geneva, 1934), passim. For a detailed examination and estimation of his scientific work, see W. Ostwald, Elecktrochemie. Ihre Geschichte und Lehre (Leipzig, 1896), passim, but especially ch. 12, “Der Kampf Zwischen der Theorie der Berührungselektricität und der chemischen Theorie der galvanischen Erscheinungen,” pp. 426-492.

Kenneth L. Caneva

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La Rive, Arthur-Auguste De

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