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Nollet, Jean-Antoine


(b. Pimprez, near Noyon, France, 19 November 1700; d. paris, France, 24 April 1770) Physics.

Nollet’s rise from the semiliterate peasantry to the top of the aristocratic Paris Academy of Sciences was a chef d’oeuvre of the Age of Reason. His village curé had recognized his intelligence and recommended him for the Church; his father, a stranger to learning, reluctantly consented; Jean-Antoine, having completed the humanities course in the provincial collège of Clermont, went to Paris to study theology. The capital opened his mind. The range of commodities, industries, and techniques particularly took his fancy; and soon he was devoting more time to the processes later pictured in the Encyclopédie of Diderot than to the system of St. Thomas. He supported himself by tutoring while inertia carried him to a master’s degree in theology (1724) and the diaconate (ca. 1728); but there he suspended his clerical career, withdrew with the equivocal title “abbé,” and cast about for a livelihood in the unpromising borderland between science and art.

Nollet had become acquainted with a few like-minded individuals who, with the financial backing of the Comte de Clermont, had constituted themselves a Société des Arts dedicated to bringing science to the artisan. In 1728 Nollet joined this group, which included Clairaut, La Condamine, and Grandjean de Fouchy—all of whom were to be his colleagues in the Academy—and Pierre Polinière, a public lecturer on natural philosophy, who was to leave him an example and an audience. The Société des Arts disbanded in the early 1730’s, partly because of the disparity between its purpose and its purse and partly because of the opposition of the Academy of Sciences. The short-lived association, however, probably decided Nollet’s future, for it was doubtless through contacts made there that he came to the attention of two leading academicians, C. F. Dufay and R. A. F. de Réaumur. From 1731 or 1732 to about 1735 Nollet assisted them in investigations of extraordinary range, touching the anatomy of insects, the fertilization of frogs, thermometry, pneumatics, phosphorescence, magnetism, and what was to become Nollet’s special subject, electricity. From his masters the abbé learned—besides an ocean of facts—the best contemporary laboratory technique and a useful, moderate Cartesian approach to physical theory. Moreover, through them, especially Dufay, who took him on a Gelehrtenreise to England and Holland, Nollet came to know a number of men of science, including the two most successful expositors of Newton, J. T. Desaguliers and W. J. ’sGravesande.

On returning from Holland in 1735, Nollet decided to take up the calling of Polinière, who had died the preceding year, and to follow the methods, if not the theories, of the expositors of Newton. But he found the requisite apparatus so expensive that he could finance it only by building and selling duplicates. “I wielded the file and scissors myself [he wrote of that time]; I trained and hired workmen; I aroused the curiosity of some gentlemen, who placed my products in their studies; I levied a kind of voluntary tribute; in a word (I will not hide it) I have often made two or three instruments of the same kind in order to keep one for myself.”1 By 1738 Nollet could handle an order from Voltaire for instruments costing over 10,000 livres, equivalent to about as many dollars today.2

Nollet’s cours de physique was perhaps the most popular exhibition of its kind ever given.3 With carefully orchestrated demonstrations performed on some 350 different instruments, the abbé entertained his enthusiastic auditors as, in the spirit of the Enlightenment, he undertook to dispel their “vulgar errors, extravagant fears and faith in the marvelous.”4 These were not mere shows, as one sees from their expanded syllabus, the famous Leçons de physique, which appeared in six volumes between 1743 and 1748 and was often reprinted. The presentations are lively, comprehensive, and up-to-date, with full directions for realizing the effects under study and excellent illustrations of apparatus. Nollet strove ceaselessly to perfect his technique; and his last work, L’art des expériences (1770), offers the “amateur of physics” the distillation of forty years of attention to the “choice, construction, and use of instruments.” The establishment as well as the literate and leisured public rewarded the abbé. In 1739 he entered the Academy as “adjunct mechanician” and went to Turin to instruct the heir to the kingdom of Sardinia; in 1741 the Académie Royale de Bordeaux invited him to lecture before it, and three years later he enlightened the dauphin and the queen at Versailles. Eventually Nollet collected the newly created chair of physics at the Collège de Navarre (the first such post at the University of Paris), an annual lectureship at the technical schools of La Fère and Mézières (where Coulomb attended his course), the succession to Réaumur as pensionary in the Academy’s class of “mechanics,” and appointment as preceptor to the royal family.

Nollet’s repertoire always included electricity. Until 1745 the electrical demonstrations offered nothing beyond the results of Hauksbee, Stephen Gray, and Dufay, while the accompanying patter probably referred the phenomena to the vague vortical theories of Dufay and Fontenelle. In February of that year, however, word reached Nollet of the first fundamentally new experiments since those of his master: the antics of G. M. Bose and ignition of spirits by sparks. These colorful effects interested Nollet both as showman and as physicist; he threw himself into their study, from which he emerged, three months later, with the elements of the ill-fated theory of simultaneous effluence and affluence.

The theory is a compound of Cartesian common sense, bits and pieces of earlier hypotheses, the results of the Germans, and immediate experience. From the last—the sparks, pricklings, hissings, snappings, and smells surrounding a working electric—Nollet inferred, as had most electricians before him, that electricity consists in the action of a particular matter in motion. From the German experiments he deduced that, contrary to the opinion of Dufay, the matters of electricity and light are fundamentally the same and that, consequently, one can safely infer from the appearance of the brush discharge that the electrical matter leaves a charged body in divergent conical jets. Such jets, in their entirety, make up the body’s “effluence.” In answer to it, as suggested by the earlier theories of Cabeo, Hauksbee, and Privat de Molières, environing objects and even the air return an “affluence” to the body. According to Nollet the two currents, which differ only in direction, not in kind, nearly or exactly balance, so that a body can never be emptied of its electrical matter. Finally, in accordance with the principles of Descartes, Nollet insisted that all “attractions” and “repulsions” arise from the direct impact of the electrical matter in motion: “mechanical explanations are the only ones capable of advancing experimental physics”.5 Since the effluent flow is divergent and the affluent roughly homogeneous, one understands that local imbalances always exist; and, if one can accept certain ancillary hypotheses about the distribution of the imbalances, one may perceive why Bose, Musschenbroek, and many other physicists agreed that (in the words of Réaumur) “a more probable and natural explanation (of electrical phenomena) can scarcely be expected.”6. Nollet immediately became the chief of the European electricians. In the late 1740’s he consolidated his position with several papers and two books-which, among other things, tried to apply the theory to the Leyden jar—and with a trip across the Alps, undertaken at the request of his colleagues and at the expense of his government, to examine electrical cures advertised by Italian physicians. His expert, tactful, decisive debunking of these claims won him a kind word from Benjamin Franklin.

Shortly after his return from Italy, at the height of his reputation, Nollet found himself the quarry of Buffon, who was promoting the translation of a book by an unknown printer from Philadelphia. The abbé at first believed this American to be a fabrication of his enemies, and in this he was not far wrong; for Buffon, whose raging feud with Réaumur had reached a new stage of ferocity with the publication of the first volumes of the Histoire naturelle (1749), pushed Franklin in an effort to embarrass his enemy’s favorite and most successful disciple. The plot worked far better than Buffon could have hoped. In the spring of 1752 his henchman, the naturalist Dalibard, issued the translation, prefaced by a “short history of electricity” that found space for third-rate contributors and none for Nollet; and while contemporaries puzzled over the slap, the plotters announced that Franklin’s views about lightning had been proved by experiments they had set up in Marly-la-Ville, a small town outside Paris where Dalibard had earlier botched a geologizing errand for Buffon. No one remembered that in the fourth volume of his Leçons (1748) Nollet had stressed the analogy between electricity and lightning. Franklin’s name was on everyone’s lips. “The abbé Nollet,” Buffon wrote in evident satisfaction, “is dying of chagrin from it all.” 7 Worst of all, from Nollet’s point of view, the apparent success of the lightning experiment lent support to the truly menacing aspects of Franklin’s scheme, with which in fact it had nothing to do.

The first menace was the Philadelphia theory of the Leyden jar, which unfortunately for Nollet had been discovered just after the system of effluence and affluence. The new theory required the novel assumption that glass was impermeable to the electrical matter, a proposition in manifest disagreement with the patent fact that a feather in a sealed bottle can be drawn by an external electrified object. Franklin, concerned to elucidate the Leyden jar, accepted impenetrability and with it macroscopic action at a distance; Nollet, eager to retain the standard theory of electrical motions, insisted on transparency and mechanical action. The second threat was the doctrine that electricity (but not the electrical matter) came in two qualitatively different, opposite, and mutually destructive types. In Nollet’s system only quantitative differences can obtain; it could never handle the disappearance of electricity in the discharge of the Leyden jar.

Nollet recognized these menaces and replied in an amusing set of Letters sur l’électricité (1753), containing a wealth of counterexamples which drew their strength from Franklin’ occasional obscurities, imprecisions, exaggerations, and inappropriate appeals to traditional effluvial models. Buffon’ group was unable to respond and seized with relief the reply of Franklin’ first European paladin, Giambatista Beccaria, which they issued in French before they left the field. Within the Academy, Franklin found a supporter in J.B. Le Roy, who had learned electricity from Nollet. But Le Roy was not a match for his mentor, whose tireless ingenuity, expressed in seven memoirs and two more volumes of Letters, Kept the Academy bamboozled until his death in 1770.

France had no electrician of stature again before Coulomb. One must not conclude, however, that Nollet’s attack on Franklinists had no positive results. Under prodding from Paris the Philadelphia system was progressively refined into classical electrostatics. In particular, the need to come to terms with Nollet colored the reforms of Aepinus (1759); and Nollet himself, by spreading the dualistic theory of Robert Symmer in Italy set in train developments that culminated in the invention of the electrophorus (1775), which in turn forced the excision of the last vestiges of the traditional theories (the “electrical atmospheres”) from Franklin’ system.

For the rest Nollet was by no means the ignorant and friendless recluse of Franklinist mythology. Among his important work outside electricity and pedagogy are his discovery and clear explanation of osmotic pressure (1748) and his immediate disciples were M.J. Brisson and J.A.Sigaud de la Fond, and, among his correspondents, Bergman, Bose, Musschenbroek, William Watson, and Benjamin Wilson. His friends included Réaumur the permanent secretary of the Academy, Grandjean de Fouchy, and the portralt portrait painter Quentin de La Tour. He was one of the few people acceptable at both Cirey and Versailles. Despite his success he retained close ties with his family, whom he often helped financially. “ No one [according to Grandjean] ever saw him lose his composure or his unfailing consideration; he only became excited when he talked about physics.”8


1. Programme ou idée générale d un de physiquo expérimentale (Paris, 1738), xviii-xix.

2. Estimated from letters from Voltaire to B. Moussinot, June and July 1738, in Voltaire, Correspondance, 107 vols., T.Besteman, ed. (Geneva, 1953–1965), VII, passim.

3. It attracted some 500 auditors in 1760. Bengt ferrner, Resa i Europa 1758–1762, S. G. Lindroth, ed. (Uppsala, 1956), xliii.

4.Programme, pp. xxxv-xxxvi.

5. Nollet to Bergman, 20 September 1766, in Torbern Berfman’ Foreign Correspondence, G. carlid and J. Nordstrom, eds., I (Stockholm, 1965), 285.

6. Réaumur to J. F. Séguier, 25 May 1747, in Lettres inédites de Réaumur, G. Musset, ed. (La Rochelle, 1886), 60.

7. Buffon to de Ruffey, 22 July 1752, in Correspondance de Buffon de 1729 à 1788, Buffon, ed., 2nd ed., 2 vols., I (Paris, 1885), 84.

8.Histoire de l’ Académie… des science (1770), 135. Bosković also testified to Nollet’s wisdom and kindness; see Elizabeth Hill, in L.L.Whyte, ed., Roger Joseph Boscovich (London, 1961, 61.


I. Original Works. Nollet’s chief works are Programme ou idée generale d’un cours de physique expérimentale (Paris, 1738); Leçons de physique expérimentale, 6 vols. (Paris, 1743–1748), often repr. and once trans. into Spanish (Madrid , 1757); “Conjectures sur les cause de sciences for 1745, 107–151; Essai sur l’electricite des corps(Paris, 1746; 4th ed., 1764); “ Recherches sur les causes du bouillonnement des liquides,” in Mémories de. l’ Académie des sciences for 1748, 57–109; Recherches sur les causes particulières des phénomenes électtiques Paris, 1749; 2nd ed., 17540; Lettres sur l’ electricite, 3 vols. (Paris, 1753–1767); “ Nouvelles expériences d’ electricite faites a l’ un ouvrage publicé depuis peu enAngleterre, par M.Robert Symmer,” in Mémories de l’ Académie des sciences for 1761, 244–258; Memories de l’ Academie des sciences for 1761, 244–258; L’ art de faire de faire les chapeaux (Paris, 1765); and L’ art des experiences ou avis aux amateurs de la physique, 3 vols. (Paris, 1770; 3rd., 1784). Nollet publishe a great many papers in the volumes of the Paris Academy; the content of most of them appears in his books, the chief exception being the reports of his Italian trip published in the Academy’ Memoires for 1749 and 1750.

The best bibliography of both Nollet’s works and secondary literature is in J. Torlais, Un physicien au siècle des lumières, l’ abbé Nollet1700–1770 (Paris, 1954), 251–262. Less complete is the entry in Nouvelle table des articles contenus dans les volumes de l’ Academie royale dessciences de Paris depuis 1666 jusqu’ en 1770 (Paris, 1775); Poggendorff is quite inadequate.

The most important MS remains are letters to Étienne François Dutour (1711–1789), a corresponding member of the Academy and Nollet’s staunchest supporter; the correspondence, which covers 25 years and includes drafts of Dutour’ replies, is preserved at the Burndy Library, Norwalk, Connecticut. The MS of Nollet’s Italian travel diary is the Bibliothèque Municipale, Soissons.

II. Secondary Literature. Information about Nollet’s career may be collected from his books, from his dossier at the Académie des Sciences, from the èloge by Grandjean de Fouchy in Histoire de l’Académie… des sciences for 1770 (1771), 121–137, and from the published correspondence of Bergman, Buffon, Mme du Chātelet, Franklin, Montesquieu, Réaumur, and Voltaire. The best biography is the work of Torlais cited above; see also his “Une grande controverse scientifique au xviiie siécle l’abbé Nollet et Benjamin Franklin,” in Revue d’histoire des sciences, 9 (1953), 339–349; “Une rivalité célébre, Réaumur et Buffon,” in Presse médicale, 66 , no. 2 (1958), 1057–1058; and Un esprit encyclopédique en dehors de “l’Encyclopédie.” Réaumur d’après les documents inédits, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1961). Important additional data is given by R. Hahn, The Anatomy of a Scientific Institution, The Paris Academy of Sciences, 1666–1803 (Berkeley, 1971), esp. l08–110; V. Lecot, L’abbé Nollet de Pimprez (Noyon, 1856); and G. H. Quignon, L’abbé Nollet, physicien. Son voyage en Piémont et en Italic (Amiens, 1905). For details about Nollet’s physics see the works of Torlais; J. A. Sigaud de la Fond, Précis historique et experimental des phénomènes éectriques (Paris, 1781); J. C. Poggendorff, “über die Entdeckung der Diffusion tropfbarer Flüssigkeiten,” in Annalen der Physik, 139 (1884), 350–351; and the unfriendly Franklinist histories, such as J. Priestley, The History and Present State of Electricity, 3rd ed., rev. (London, 1775); and I. B. Cohen, Franklin and Newton (philadelphia, 1956).

John L. Heilbron

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