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Venetz, Ignatz

VENETZ, IGNATZ

(b. Visperterminen, Valais, Switzerland, 21 March 1788; d. Saxon–les–Bains, Valais, Switzerland, 20 April 1859)

civil engineering, glaciology.

Venetz was the son of Peter Ignatz Venetz, who, although said to be descended from Venetian nobility, was a poor carpenter all his life. His mother was Anna Maria Stoffel. Although his parents wished him to become a priest, Venetz was attracted to science and mathematics and studied these subjects at the Collége de Brig. During the French occupation of the Valais he entered the Service des Ponts et Chaussées, in which he rose to become chief engineer for the district. His engineering career was, however, marred by a disaster in 1818, when the Gétroz glacier in the Val de Bagnes had grown, after three years of heavy snow, to dam up a stream which quickly became a lake. It was feared that warm weather would melt the glacier and cause a flood. Venetz tried to obvitate the menace by making a channel through the ice through which the water might drain gradually. Unfortunately, the channel so weakened the ice dam that it gave way. Five hundred million cubic feet of water poured into the valleys below, causing great loss of life and property.

Venetz’ work in the Val de Bagnes led to a happier result through his conversations with a local chamois hunter, Jean–Pirre Perraudin, who had noticed that the striations left by glaciers extended as far as Martigny, a dozen miles away. Although skeptical, Venetz made his own observations and found that the hunter was correct. He presented his findings in a paper, read in 1821, which included evidence of earlier advances and retreats of glaciers and which won the prize offered by the Swiss Natural Science Society for an explanation of climatic deterioration. The work was nonetheless generally ignored until it was finally published in 1833 by Jean Charpentier, who had been convinced by another work of Venetz (written in 1829 but not published until 1861) that glaciers had extended more widely in earlier ages. Venetz thus provided the link between the observations of a peasant and the great discovery of a scientist–the Ice Age.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Venetz’ works include “Mémoire sur les variations de la température dans les Alpes de la Suisse,” in Denkschriften der allgemeinen Schweizerischen Gesellschaft für die gesammten Naturwissenschaften, 1 , sec. 2 (1833), 1; and “Mémoire sur l’extension des anciens glaciers, renfermant quelques explications sur leurs effets remarquables,” in Nouvelles mémoires de la Société helvétique des sciences naturelles, 18 (1861), 1.

On his life and work, see Ignace Mariétan, “La vie et l’oeuvre de l’ingénieur Ignace Venetz (1799–1859),” in Bulletin murithienne de la Société valaisanne des sciences naturelles, 76 (1959), 1.

Gavin de Beer

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