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Thévenot, Melchisédech

1. Dates
Born: Paris, c. 1620
Died: Issy, 29 Oct. 1692
Dateinfo: Birth Uncertain
Lifespan: 72
2. Father
Occupation: No Information
Although there is no information whatever about the family, every aspect of Thévenot's life and the tone of his own sketch of his life bespeaks a man born to wealth.
3. Nationality
Birth: French
Career: French
Death: French
4. Education
Schooling: No University
He received a excellent education. He knew English, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and several oriental languages, including Arabic and Turkish. Like everything else about him, where he received this education is a mystery.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic
In light of the silence, I think we have to assume that he conformed to the Catholic Church in France. That first name and his knowledge of Hebrew, together with the general silence about him, makes me wonder whether he was not of Jewish origin.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Scientific Communication, Scientific Organization, Geography
Subordinate: Instrumentation, Physics
He was one of the important correspondents linking Paris to the European scientific world. He organized his own academy in the early 60's, and he influenced the founding of the French Academy of Sciences.
His only notable direct contribution to science was in instrumentation: a bubble level, originally designed in 1661. From 1658-61 he conducted experiments on capillarity and the siphon. He made various astronomical and magnetic studies aided by Petit, Auzout, Frenicle de Bessy, and Huygens. In the 1660's he demonstrated the possibility that atmospheric pulsations had something to do with human and animal respiration.
His most famous work was his collection of translations of voyages of discovery, Relations de divers voyages curieus, (Paris, 1663-72).
7. Means of Support
Primary: Pers, Government
Thévenot's sketch of himself, in Bibliotheca thevenotia, tells little enough. However, it is clearly the sketch of a man born to position and wealth who could not imagine himself without them, to the extent that he hardly seemed aware of their existence. He frequented the most upper circles of society, filled governmental positions, discussed issues with Colbert and Louvois, etc.
He was the French ambassador to Genoa in 1647 and then to Rome in the 1650's. He participated in the conclave held after the death of Innocent X. He negotiated with the republic of Genoa as the envoy of the King.
He was appointed keeper of the royal library in 1684.
8. Patronage
Type: Court Official
He was charged to keep the royal library.
For the most part, Thévenot was patron rather than client, but the whole system was a set of pyramids within pyramids, and he was willing to accept patronage also--when it came from the King (or Colbert).
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Instruments, Pharmacology
He designed a bubble level, which seemed to lack convexity in the glass tube, in 1661. The level was filled with alcohol and mounted on a stone ruler fitted with a viewing lens. His design did not come into common use until the mid-eighteenth century with the development of improved construction techniques.
At the meetings of the Académie he discussed the use of lemon juice as a medicinal cure and ipecac as useful in treating dysentary. Although uneasy about this, knowing too well the sort of vague discussions on such topics that went on in the Royal Society, I will put it in.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: Académie Royal des Sciences, 1685-92
He attended Montmor's meeting at least as early as 1658.
After about 1662 he provided occasions for additional meetings and experimentation in his country house at Issy, several miles south of Paris. There he supported the mathematician Frenicle de Bessy, the Danish anatomist Nils Stensen, and a chemical demonstrator. He held his meetings until 1665 when a lack of funds for apparatus and experimentation hindered his work--or perhaps when the organization of the Académie forcefully disbanded the so- called Academy Thévenot.
About 1663 or 1664 a group that included him, Auzout, and Petit proposed a plan for a new academy of scientists. The proposed Compagnie would perform experiments and make observations for the perfection of the sciences and the arts and, in general, to search for all that can bring utility to the human race, and particularly to France. His utilitarian project for a compagnie des sciences et des arts was quite different from the one proposed by Charles Perrault. The Academy of Sciences that emerged in 1666 was more in Perrault's design than in his. He finally became a member of the Academy in 1685.
Throughout the 1660's and 1670's he maintained a wide correspondence with numerous persons. Much of it related his translation and publication of voyages of discovery, Relation de divers voyages. His intimate friends included Huygens, Oldenburg, A. Auzuot, and numerous other mid-seventeenth-century personages.
  1. "Eloge" of Thévenot, Journal des scavans, 20 (17 Nov. 1692), 646-9. Lilly Library.
  2. Louis Moreri, Le grand dictionnaire historique de Moreri, 10, (Paris, 1759), 138-9. D9.M8 (I am not sure what edition this is, but I think it is the 8th.) Harcourt Brown, Scientific Organization in Seventeeth Century France (1620-1680), (Baltimore, 1934). Q127.F8B8 Thévenot's sketch of himself in Bibliotheca thenvenotiana, (Lyons, 1694).
  3. Edmond R. Kiely, Surveying Instruments, (New York, 1947), p. 132.
  4. René Taton, Les origines de l'Académie des sciences, (Paris: Palais de la Découvert, 1965), pp. 27-8. Trevor McClaughlin, "Une lettre de Melchisédech Thévenot," Revue d'histoire des sciences et de leur applications, 27 (1974), 123-6.
  5. Robert M. McKeon, "Une lettre de Melchisédech Thévenot sur les débuts de l'Académie Royale des Sciences," Revue d'histoire des sciences et de leur applications, 18 (1965), 1-6.
  6. A.-G. Camus, Mémoire sur les collections des voyages de de Bry et de Thévenot, (Paris, 1802).
  7. Jan Swammerdam, The Letters of Jan Swammerdam to Melchisdec Thévenot, ed. G.A. Lindeboom, (Amsterdam, 1975), pp. 8-10.
  8. Thévenot appears a mystery to me. He appears in every account of French learned society in the mid 17th century. He was a prominent patron. I cannot find anything about his origins or the source of his wealth. I am giving up. Every one of the piddling sources above repeats what Thévenot himself said in his own autobiographical statement, which seems to me obviously to be concealing information about his origins.
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

©1995 Al Van Helden
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