Polinière, Pierre

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(b. Coulonces, near Vire, Normandy, France, 8 September 1671; d. Coulonces, 9 February 1734)

physics, experimental natural philosophy.

One of the first in France to present public lectures on experimental natural philosophy, Polinière enjoyed a considerable reputation as a popular demonstrator and as such was an important precursor of Nollet. He made independent, although unappreciated, discoveries in electroluminescence and was one of the earliest on the Continent to advocate Newton’s theory of color. His name appears in several eighteenthcentury variants: Polinière, Polinier, and Polynier.

Polinière studied humanities at the University of Caen and, later, philosophy at the University of Paris, where, according to Michaud (Biographie universelle, new ed., XXXIII , 637), he studied mathematics under Varignon. In 1704 Polinière published Éléments de mathématiques, a work of little significance that was drawn from his experiences as a teacher of mathematics.

In the 1690’s Polinière’s interests turned to medicine and natural philosophy. Although he apparently received a medical degree, he subsequently devoted his energies to the pursuit and popularization of experimental natural philosophy. Drawing his instruments and techniques from a variety of sources, he worked diligently to perfect his early experiments and to put them in a form suitable for public presentation. Sometime around the turn of the century he began—at the request of members of the Faculty of Philosophy—to present demonstrations before the students at the Collége d’Harcourt and at other colleges of the University of Paris. From these lecture series, some of which lasted for more than two months, Polinière drew the materials for his Expériences de physique.

Published in Paris in 1709, this duodecimo volume contained 100 carefully detailed experiments, approximately half of which dealt with the weight and elasticity of air. The remaining experiments were concerned with chemistry, hydrostatics, sound, magnetism, light and colors, and selected aspects of physiology. A second, revised and considerably enlarged, edition was published in 1718; and a fifth and final edition appeared posthumously in 1741.

Although distinguished more for clarity of presentation and popularity than for originality, these volumes contained several experiments of particular interest, notably in the section on light and colors. In each of the editions Polinière included an experiment that elaborated his discovery of the luminescence produced by rubbing partially evacuated glass containers. This discovery is usually attributed to Francis Hauksbee “the elder” but was announced simultaneously and independently by Polinière. In the second edition Polinière abandoned the modification theory of color and—specifically citing Samuel Clarke’s 1706 Latin translation—incorporated from Book I of Newton’s Opticks a series of experiments demonstrating the heterogeneity of white light.

Polinière made his most significant contribution, however, as a popularizer of experimental natural philosophy. His courses were received with such enthusiasm that he continued to offer them annually until his death; and their great success, both with students and the educated public, brought him to the attention of both the court and scientific circles. In 1722 he presented a series of experiments before the young Louis XV and, according to Michaud, Fontenelle was himself a vocal supporter of Polinière and entrusted to him the education of his nephew. Despite the public esteem he enjoyed, Polinière was apparently a retiring and rather shy man, who preferred the satisfaction of his books and instruments to the fame and honors he might have attained. He was a member of the Louis de Bourbon-Condé, count of Clermont’s Société des Arts, but he was neither a member nor a correspondent of the French Academy of Sciences.


I. Original Works. Polinière’s works include Éléments de mathématiques (Paris, 1704); and Expériences de physique (Paris, 1709; rev. and enl., Paris, 1718, 1728, 1734, and 1741; with each of the latter 2 eds. in 2 vols.). J. C. Heilbronner, in Historia matheseos universae (Leipzig, 1742), also attributed to Polinière Euclides alio ordine digestus et novis demonstrationibus munitus (Paris, 1704). Five unpublished papers on electroluminescence, which Polinière read before the French Academy of Sciences, are in Procès-Verbaux de l’Académie des Sciences (Nov.-Dec. 1706).

II. Secondary Literature. There is no general account of Polinière’s life or accomplishments. The primary biographical sources are the anonymous “Abrégé de la vie de M. Polinière,” in the 4th and 5th eds. of Expériences de physique (Paris, 1734, 1741), and Polinière’s prefaces to earlier eds. of the same work. Polinière’s discoveries in electroluminescence are discussed in David W. Corson, “Pierre Polinière, Francis Hauksbee, and Electroluminescence: A Case of Simultaneous Discovery,” in Isis, 59 (1968), 402–413.

David W. Corson