Pouillet, Claude-Servais-Mathias

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(b. Cusance, Doubs, France, 16 February 1790; d. Paris, France, 13 June 1868)

physics, technology.

After attending the lycée of Besançon. Pouillet taught for two years at the collège of Tonnerre. From 1811 to 1813 he was a student at the École Normale Supérieure, to which he returned from 1815 until 1822 as maître de conférences in physics. During this phase of his career he also taught physics at the Athénée in Paris and at the Collège Royal de Bourbon, now the lycée Condorcet (1819-1829). In 1826 he became assistant professor of physics at the Faculty of Sciences in Paris, first under Gay-Lussac and then under Dulong. Upon the latter’s death in 1838, Pouillet assumed the chair of physics, which he held until 1852, when he was removed for refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to the imperial government.

Pouillet’s lectures—which were partially collected in his Éléments de physique expérimentale et de météorotogie (1827) and in the Leçons de physique de la Faculté des sciences (1828)—were widely read. (Pouillet published a popular account of Éléments in 1850.) Although offering no spectacular novelties, they presented, in clear language, a survey of the state of the various branches of physics and of recent developments in them. Simultaneously, Pouillet held important posts at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers. Appointed assistant director and demonstrator of machines there in 1829, he became professor of “physics applied to the arts“and administrator—in effect, director—in 1831. A few years later he published the two-volume Portefeuille industriel du Conservatoire . . . (1834-1836), a collection of annotated technical drawings.

Pouillet, who had taught several sons of Louis Philippe, was a confirmed supporter of that monarch, whose programs he had faithfully supported as deputy from the Jura (1837-1848). Although he abandoned political activity during the Revolution of 1848, Pouillet suffered the repercussions of that event. On 15 June 1849 he was dismissed from his post as administrator following an attempted revolt organized by Alexandre Ledru-Rollin on the premises of the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers and on 12 November 1852 he lost his professorship for his refusal to take the oath of allegiance. Moreover, saddened by the death of his two children (a son of seventeen in 1849 and a daughter of twenty in 1850), he wished to retire. He therefore devoted his last years to the experimental research in which he had been engaged since the start of his career and to the work o( the Académie des Sciences, to which he had been elected in 1837.

A very active member of the Société d’Encouragement pour l’lndustrie Nationale, Pouillet served as rapporteur at several industrial expositions. His most important work, however, is contained in the forty memoirs he published between 1816 and 1868. After devoting his first studies, under the direction of Biot, to diffraction and interference phenomena, he turned to electrical and thermal phenomena. He experimented, before Regnault, on expansion and compressibility of gases. He also improved methods for measuring high temperatures and undertook to measure solar heat and atmospheric absorption (1837). In addition, he refined techniques for measuring weak currents through the introduction of the tangent galvanometer and sine galvanometer; hence he was able in 1839 to verify, with a very high degree of precision, Ohm’s law of resistance (1827). In fact, some authors have wrongly attributed the law itself to Pouillet. It is true, however, that he helped considerably to make it more widely known. Pouillet’s last research dealt mainly with atmospheric electricity and the construction of lightning rods, as well as with terrestrial magnetism. In sum, his works contained many individual advances but presented no major innovations.


I. Original Works. Pouillet’s principal publications are listed in Poggendorff. II, cols. 512-513, and III, 1063;in Catalogue général des ouvrages imprimés de la Bibliothèque national, CXL1 (1937), cols. 828-833; and in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, IV, 998-999; VIII, 652.

Pouillet published three important books: Éléments de physique expérimentale et de météorologie, 2 vols, in 4 pts. (Paris, 1827; 7th ed., 3 vols., Paris, 1856), German trans. by J. H. J. Müller (Brunswick, 1842); Portefeuille industriel du Conservatoire des arts et métiers, ou atlas et description des machines, appareils 2 vols. (Paris, 1834-1836), written with V. Leblanc; and Notions générales de physique et de météorologie à I“usage de la jeunesse (Paris, 1850).

His physics course was p÷ublished in A. Grosselin, ed Leçons de physique de la Faculté des sciences . . ., II (Paris, 1828).

II. Secondary Literature. Only a few articles and studies have been devoted to Pouillet’s life and work: G. Vapereau, in Dictionnaire universel des contemporains, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1861), 1420; E. Becquerel and H. Sainte-Claire-Deville, Discours prononcé aux funérailles de M. Pouillet (Paris, 1868); P. A. Bertin-Mourot, in Caisse de secours mutuels des anciens élèves de I’École normale, 24e réunion générale annuelle (Paris, 1869), 10-12; and the unsigned account in Cent cinquante ans de haut enseignement technique au Conservatoire national des arts et métiers (Paris, 1970), 3, 20, 25, 27, 33, 40, 78-80

RenÉ Taton

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Pouillet, Claude-Servais-Mathias

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