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Pascal, Blaise

1. Dates
Born: Clermont-Ferrand, 19 June 1623
Died: Paris, 19 August 1662
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 39
2. Father
Occupation: Government Official
Pascal's ancestors were rich merchants that attained the highest ranks of the burgess class. His father, Etienne, was a royal tax officer and a member of the petit noblesse. Although there is no explicit word about the financial status of the father, that ancestry of rich merchants, together with all the circumstances of Pascal's life, seem clearly to state that he grew up in wealthy circumstances.
3. Nationality
Birth: French
Career: French
Death: French
4. Education
Schooling: No University
Pascal appears to have had no formal education. As a young child his father took charge of his education. He continued his education in the salons and scientific gatherings he attended with his father as a young man in Paris.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic
In 1646 he had his first conversion experience and was attracted to the teaching of Saint-Cyran whose views were close to Jansenism. Pascal kept his ties with the Port Royalists for the rest of his life. He even came to the aid of the Jansenists against the Jesuits.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Mathematics, Physics
In 1640 Pascal wrote an essay on conics extending the work of Desargues in projective geometry. This essay was meant to be the outline of a much larger work, but it was never published. Only a few scholars like Leibniz and de la Hire saw the manuscript.
Pascal began work on his calculating machine in 1642. For three years he worked to develop a working model. In 1649 he received a monopoly for maufacturing and producing his calculating machine.
He began his barometric experiments in 1646 and continued them for eight years. He asserted that his experiments in the statics of gases and liquids contradicted the doctrine of horror vacui. In 1654 he completed a shorter work devoted to the laws of hydrostatics and to the demonstration and description of the various effects of the weight of air. This work, Traité de l'équilibre, was published posthumously by his brother-in-law, Perier, who participated in many of Pascal's experiments.
Upon the completion of his work on hydrostatics Pascal turned to his studies on arithmetic, combinatorial analysis and the calculus of probability. His work is reflected in his correspondence with Fermat. Pascal wrote his Traité du triangle arithmetique in the same year but it was not distributed until 1665. Pascal continued his work in mathematics with his Éléments de géometrie (1657), prepared upon the request of Arnauld. At the beginning of 1659 he devoted his energies to the perfecting of the theory of divisibles, which was a forerunner of the methods of integral calculus.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Personal Means
Secondary: Patronage
After his father's death, Pascal had to get repayment from his father's debtors. He invested this in shop premises and lived off of the rents.
Under the patronage of Duc de Roannez he bacame involved in a scheme for draining the Poitou marshes.
In 1649 he received a monopoly for the manufacturing and distributing of his calculating machine. However, he cannot have realized any income from this.
8. Patronage
Types: Aristrocrat, Government Official
Under the patronage of Duc de Roannez he participated in a scheme to drain the Poitou marshes. Through Roannez he met Chevalier de Mere who introduced him to games of chance and spawned his interest in mathematical probability.
The Chancellor of France, Pierre Seguier, encouraged Pascal to resume the development of his calculating machine in his early trials. In 1644 Pascal wrote a dedicatory letter at the beginning of his eighteen page pamphlet describing the machine. The text concluded that the machine could be seen in operation and purchased at the residence of Roberval. By royal decree, in 1649 Pascal received a monopoly on the machine.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Hydraulics, Instruments, Applied Mathematics
In 1645 after three years and 50 models Pascal produced the definitive model of his arithmetic machine which would mechanize addition and subtraction. I could argue for three different categories for this invention--mechanical device, mathematical application (in aid of calculating), and instrument. I have chosen to enter both of the final two.
He is said to have invented the hydraulic press.
His work on draining marshes is mentioned above.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
Pascal participated in the activities of Mersenne's academy. His father introduced him to several salons in Paris. Pascal corresponded with several scientists of his time among them were P. Noel and Fermat.
  1. L. Brunschvig, P. Boutroux, eds., Oeuvres de Blaise Pascal, 1, (Paris, 1923). B1900.A3B8 vol.1 J. Mesnard, Pascal, his Life and Works, trans. G.S. Fraser, (London, 1952). B1903.M52
  2. Edouard Morot-Sir, Pascal, (Paris, 1973). B1903.M627
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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