Charles-Marie de La Condamine

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Charles-Marie de La Condamine

1701-1774

French Mathematician and Explorer

Charles-Marie de la Condamine led the first foreign scientific expedition into the Spanish territories of the New World. After an extended surveying expedition in the Andes mountains of what is now Ecuador, La Condamine became the first scientist to explore the Amazon River from its source in the mountains to the river's mouth at the Atlantic Ocean.

La Condamine was born into an aristocratic French family that made its fortune by speculating in mines in the French territory of Louisiana. During his childhood a series of wars broke out in Spain as various powers vied to install a king that would ally them with the huge Spanish Empire. The wars continued into La Condamine's adulthood, and he served as a soldier in the French armies that eventually succeeded in placing a French monarch on the throne of Spain. It was this same monarchy that would years later grant permission to La Condamine and his French scientists to conduct studies in Spain's South American territories.

After his military service La Condamine continued his studies in mathematics and was elected into the French Academy of Science as a mathematician at the young age of 29. His mathematical skill also got him recognition by the eminent French intellectual of the time, Voltaire. When the French government instituted a lottery, La Condamine calculated that the government was not selling enough tickets for the prize, and that someone could, in theory, buy all the tickets and be assured of winning more than the price of the tickets. Voltaire put La Condamine's calculations to the test and gained half a million francs. With this money La Condamine gained a powerful ally in the French intellectual world.

La Condamine's South American odyssey began when the Academy of Sciences came to address two conflicting theories of the shape of Earth, one that Earth was elongated and narrow at the poles, the other that it was flat at the poles and bulging along the equator. The Academy appointed two teams of surveyors, one bound for the Scandinavian arctic and the other for the South American city of Quito in what is now Ecuador. Each team was to conduct precise measurements of Earth to settle the question for the Academy. After securing permission for the team of French scientists to travel within Spain's New World territories, the Academy took advantage of the unprecedented permission to conduct research in South America and appointed additional scientists to La Condamine's expedition.

The mission in Quito was plagued by delays that eventually made the data they were sent to collect outdated, as they learned when they received word that the Arctic expedition had returned to Paris in 1737 with data supporting Isaac Newton's (1642-1727) theory that Earth was flattened at the poles. Nevertheless, La Condamine's team continued their work and in 1743 took their last measurements, disbanding with only La Condamine returning to France to present their findings.

La Condamine decided to make the trip back to France by way of a mapping expedition down the Amazon River. During the course of his four-month trip down the river he made surprisingly accurate geographical measurements and made many corrections to the imperfect maps of the day. Most notably he dispelled some remaining myths of golden cities deep in the jungle and established the shape and size of Majoró Island at the mouth of the river. La Condamine also made important ethnographic and biological observations of the Amazon Basin.

When La Condamine finally returned to the Academy of Sciences after what had turned into a ten-year mission, he was honored, although the data he collected at the equator was contested by the scientists of the Academy. His observations of the Amazon remain one of the earliest and fullest accounts of the river and became the stimulus for a wave of scientific investigation in the region in the nineteenth century.

GEORGE SUAREZ