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Papin, Denis [Denys]

1. Dates
Born: near Blois, Aug 1647 He was christened on 22 August.
Died: probably in England, c. 1712 The last evidence of Papin was a letter to Sloane dated 23 Jan. 1712. He was destitute. Some early accounts suggest that he returned to Germany and died there about 1715-16, but it is extremely difficult to believe that he could have found the resources to make the trip.
Dateinfo: Death Uncertain
Lifespan: 65
2. Father
Occupation: Government Official
Also Denis Papin, the father was Receiver General of the Domaine de Blois.
No explicit information on financial status.
3. Nationality
Birth: French
Career: French, English, Italian, German
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: Angers, M.D.
Possibly educated initially by the Jesuits in Blois.
Apparently entered University of Angers in 1661 or 62. I assume a B.A.; M.D., 1669.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Calvinist
From a Huguenot family; Papin's life was greatly influenced by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which kept him in exile, though he had already left France, possibly because of the increasing restrictions that were the prelude to the revocation.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Engineering, Physics
Subordinate: Chemistry, Mechanics, Hydraulics
It is difficult to know how to categorize Papin, who was more an inventor than a theoretical scientist.
He began to work with Huygens in Paris in the early 70s on the airpump and associated problems. Nouvelle expériences du vide, 1675.
In 1681 he published the description of the digestor (pressure cooker, as we would say), which made him famous: A New Digestor or Engine for Softening Bones.
His most important work consisted of preliminary steps toward the steam engine, a topic to which he continually returned. De novis quibusdam machinis, early 90s. Nouvelle manière pour lever l'eau par la force de feu, 1707.
Early, he worked at preserving food in a vacuum, and in Germany he experimented extensively on chemical means to this end.
In 1688 he published a critique of Leibniz's theory of the cause of gravity; at least two further papers continued this. He and Leibniz became correspondents and explored issues of dynamics at length.
He conducted a dispute with Guglielmini (in the Acta) on questions of hydraulics.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Patronage
Secondary: Scientific Society, Academia, Schoolmastering
He may have practised medicine in Angers a couple of years. There is no information on this, however, and later Papin always expressed himself in very negative terms about medical practice.
Assitant to Christiaan Huygens, 1671-4, living in Huygens' chambers in the Royal Library in Paris.
In July 1675, with an introduction from Huygens, he moved to England, where initially he obtained a position as tutor to the sons of some unnamed member of the gentry. Soon he was an assitant to Boyle, 1675-9.
He became an assistant at the Royal Society to Hooke, then Secretary, 1679-81, with a salary of £20.
Director of experiments at Ambrose Sarotti's Accademia publicca di scienze, 1681-4. Sarotti, the Venetian minister to England, wanted to create in Venice an academy like the Royal Society and the Académie Royale. The academy soon failed for lack of financial support, and Papin, who had kept the door open in England, returned there.
Temporary Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society, 1684- 7, with salary of £30.
Charles-Auguste, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, appointed Papin Professor of Mathematics at University of Marburg, 1687-95. It was an extremely unhappy experience.
Councillor to the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, 1696-1707, living in Kassel. He is said to have also been physician to the Landgrave, but I distrust this information. He lived as the client of the Landgrave, opposed by nearly everyone else at the court.
He returned to England in 1707, and lived on small payments from the Royal Society. He died in absolute poverty.
8. Patronage
Types: Scientist, Court Official, Government Official, Aristrocrat, Gentry
Papin is an extremely interesting case. Whatever the father's status, Papin received no patrimony and was utterly dependent on patronage all his life, but as a refugee (and difficult man) he never got the position and security he needed. Initially Huygens and then Boyle supported him, and then the Royal Society. Huygens recommended him to Henry Oldenburg and remained something of a protector. Papin dedicated his pamphlet on the digestor to the Royal Society. In a letter to Huygens of 4 June 1679 (the letter of a client if ever I saw one), he sought Huygens' assistance in getting a pension from Louis XIV (for the digestor, which he had invented by then).
Sarotti seemed a savior, but that quickly petered out.
Then the Landgrave of Hesse. The relationship is extremely interesting; see Papin's letters to Leibniz which illuminate the whole system. The Landgrave, who was always involved in the European wars and consequently short of funds, did not lavish resources on Papin. To attract his attention, Papin constantly pursued inventions that would make spectacles. Thus the submarine. The first one failed miseraly. The second is said to have made a short trip in the river, but the Landgrave lost interest after the demonstration. Perhaps the main attraction of the steam engine was its potential to pump water into a tank at the top of the palace in order to run the fountains in the garden. Papin named his ultimate steam engine (1707) the Machine of the Elector, in honor of Charles- Auguste; again it functioned at a demonstration and again the Landgrave lost interest. It is revealing that there was apparently a public demonstration, with the Landgrave at center stage, for every invention. There is a lot of Papin correspondence published; I am convinced that it would repay study.
In Hesse Papin enjoyed the support of Herr Haes, the librarian of the court. Haes died after a few years, leaving Papin without a protector at the court (other than the lukewarm Landgrave).
He dedicated separate chapters of De novis quibusdam machinis to several German aristocracts, seeking to get monetary support from them. He did recieve gifts from at last one, Count von Seyn-Witgenstein.
He clearly expected patronage from the Royal Society (an institution he must never have understood) when he returned to England and was sorely disappointed.
I include here also that member of the gentry whose sons Papin briefly tutored.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Instruments, Mechanical Devices, Chemistry, Military Engineering, Civil Engineering
The improved airpump was one of his most important works. It is typical of Papin that he investigated the preservation of fruit in a vacuum.
Papin's entire career was driven by the goal of useful applications--pumping mines, driving ships, etc. He developed a centrifugal pump. He adapted the device to ventilating mines, and as what became known as the Hessian bellows it was applied to furnaces. Much of his activity as an inventor was in Hesse and is doubly interesting in that the support came, not from industrialists or anyone in the economic system, but from the Landgrave. His steam engine, initially to raise water, was first developed to supply a canal between Kassel and Karlshaven, and later to fill a tank that would feed the palace fountains. I get the impression that much of his frantic activity was directed towards conspicuous demonstrations that would seize the imagination of the Landgrave. In the end Papin's lack of any other base ruined him in Hesse.
Add to the items above the digestor, the safety valve on the digestor, the air gun, attempts to apply the steam engine first to a coach and then to a ship, a paddle boat. He is seen as an important preliminary innovator who helped prepare the steam engine.
During the War of the Spanish Succession he worked on military applications--for example, he developed a grenade launcher.
He also attempted, apparently with some success, to develop a glass industry for Hesse.
He worked at preserving food chemically.
For all that, it appears to me that almost nothing, except the improved airpump, came to fruition. Papin appears to me as an industrial scientist before the time (or the science) was ripe.
10. Scientific Societies
Membership: Royal Society
Informal Connections: Friendship and correspondence with Huygens, beginning in 1669. Connection with Boyle, Hooke and Leibniz. There is a lot of published correspondence--in Huygens' Oeuvres, in Gerhard's edition (soon to be supplanted by Ranea's) of Papin's correspondence with Huygens and Leibniz, and in Bunsen's Lettres inédits de Papin.
Royal Society, 1680.
  1. Dictionary of National Biography (repr., London: Oxford University Press, 1949-50), 15, 192-3. R. Thurston, A History of the Growth of the Steam Engine, (New York, 1878).
  2. H.W. Dickenson, A Short History of Steam Power,(Cambridge, 1938).
  3. Jean Francois de Paule Louis de la Saussaye [under L: la Saussaye], La vie et les ourvrages de Denis Papin, (Paris, 1869).
  4. H.W. Dickinson, "Tercentenary of Denis Papin," Nature, 160 (1947), 422-3.
  5. Charles Cabanes, Denys Papin, inventeur & philosophe cosmopolite, (Paris, 1935).
  6. Eugène et Emile Haag, La Frence protestante, reprint ed. 10 vols. (Geneva, 1966), 8, 106-16.
  7. H.W. Robinson, "Denis Papin (1647-1712)," Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 5 (1947), 48-50.
  8. Alberto Guillermo Ranea, "Leibniz Briefwechsel mit Denis Papin," Prima philosophia, 4 (1991), 277-90.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. Drei Hundert Jahre. Denis Papin, Naturforscher und Erfinder in Hessen. Ausstellung in der Universitätsbibliothek Marburg und dem Hessischen Landesmuseum Kassel. (Schriften der Universitätsbibliothek Marburg), (Marburg: Universitätsbibliothek Marburg, 1987). Exhibit under the directorship of Gerhard Schneider.
  2. Charles-Armand Klein, Denis Papin: illustre savant blaisois, (Chambray, 1987).
  3. Baron Ernouf, Denis Papin: sa vie et son oeuvre, (Paris, 1874).
  4. E. Wintzer, Denis Papins Erlebnisse in Marburg 1688-1695, (Marburg, 1898).
  5. B(annister), Denis Papin. Notice sur sa vie et ses écrits, (Blois, 1874).
  6. Patricia P. McLachlan, Scientific Professionals in the 17th Century, Ph.D. thesis, Yale University, 1968.
  7. Jean Chavigny, Grandeur et misère d'un inventeur, Denis Papin, (Blois, 1948).
  8. Gérard Rudolph, "Les relations entre Denis Papin (1647-1714) et Leibniz (1646-1716)," Compte rendus du 93o Congrés national des Sociétés Savantes, Section des sciences, 1968 (pub. 1971), 2, 55-68.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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