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Varignon, Pierre

1. Dates
Born: Caen, 1654
Died: Paris, 23 December 1722
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 68
2. Father
Occupation: Artisan
Varignon was the son and brother of contracting masons.
Varignon himself says that he was born poor and had no patrimony or possession beyond his own labor.
3. Nationality
Birth: French
Career: French
Death: French
4. Education
Schooling: Caen, M.A.
He probably studied at the Jesuit college in Caen. He received a Master's of Arts degree (from the University, I believe) in 1682. I assume a B.A.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic
On 19 December 1676 he received the tonsure. At some unknown later date he became a priest. His ecclesiastical career enabled him to study at the University of Caen where he was undoubtedly one of the oldest students.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Mathematics, Mechanics
Varignon's primary contribution to the progress of science was his pedagogical activity in general statics. In 1687 he published his Projet d'une nouvelle méchanique. Like the work of Newton and Lamy, Varignon's Projet contained the principle of the compostion of forces by infinitely small movements rather than finite ones. This work, which he dedicated to the Académie des Sciences, led to his nomination to the Académie in 1688. In the same year he was appointed professor at the Collège Mazarin. He became one of a handful of men who were teaching advanced mathematics at the time. His teaching duties and his responsibilities as an academicien fully occupied his time and he had no leisure to prepare works for publication. He wrote short works that appeared in journals or as memoirs of the Académie. One memoir showed how to apply infinitesimal analysis to the science of motion and how, in specific cases, to use the relationship between force and acceleration.
Although Varignon did not develop any original ideas in the field of mechanics he generalized the methods of the pioneers in the field, prepared the way for the work of Bernoulli, and attempted to provide a broad justification of the principle of virtual velocities. In this way he took part in the development of what appeared later to be the foundation of classical mechanics. The majority of his research appears in posthumous works compiled by his disciples. His Eclaircissemens (1725) contained his notes on how to present l'Hopital's work to young mathematicians. He accepted the new procedures and even defended them against Rolle and others. Élémens de mathematiques (1731) was based on his courses at Collège Mazarin.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Academia, Government
Secondary: Church Life, Patronage
Varignon was named as priest to a parish in Caen in March 1683. The information above about his late career as a student implies an earlier ecclesiastic appointment, but I have not seen one mentioned.
About 1686 the Abbé de Saint-Pierre settled an income of 300 livres on Varignon. I gain the impression that he continued to receive this the rest of his life.
In 1688 he was appointed to the newly created professorship of mathematiques at Collège Mazarin (which was part of the university). He held this position and resided at the Collège until his death in 1722.
He was a member of the Académie from the same year 1688.
In 1704 du Hamel resigned his chair at the Collège Royal to Varignon. One source said it was a chair in Greek and Latin Philosophy, but Niceron says in mathematics, which is more plausible for Varignon.
8. Patronage
Types: Eccesiastic Official, Unknown
Charles Castel, Abbé de Saint-Pierre, offered to share his lodgings and income with Varignon and settled an income of 300 livres on him. In 1686 they left for Paris where Varignon made contacts in scientific circles through St.- Pierre.
What is not clear is who stood behind those two appointments in 1688. Varignon did publish his Projet d'une nouvelle méchanique in 1687 and dedicated it to the Academy. Academies, and institutions in general, seem to me to be precisely what could not respond to a dedication, however. The dedication did have the obligatory flattering reference to the King and another, perhaps not obligatory, to his minister (this would have been Louvois, I believe).
9. Technological Involvement
Type: Instruments
In 1699 Varignon published a mémoire on water clocks which applied the differential calculus to the flow of a fluid through an orifice.
In 1702 another mémoire used the calculus to determine the form of the fusees in spring driven clocks.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: Académie Royal des Sciences, 1688-1722; Berlin Academy, 1713; Royal Society, 1718
Varignon was nominated as geometer in the Académie in 1688.
Among his correspondents were du Hamel, du Verney, de la Hire, Newton, Leibniz, and Johann I Bernoulli.
  1. Bernard de Fontenelle, "Eloge de M. Varignon," Histoire et mémoires de l'Académie des sciences (1722), pp. 189-204.
  2. Pierre Costabel, Pierre Varignon et la diffusion en France du calcul differentiel et integral (Conférences du Palais de la Découverte, ser. D, #108, 1965). Joachim O. Fleckenstein, "Pierre Varignon und die mathematischen Wissenschaften in Zeitalter des Cartesianismus," Archives internationales d'histoire des sciences, 2 (1948), 76-138.
  3. J.P. Niceron, Mémoires pour servir a l'histoire des hommes illustres (1700s), 11. 153-76.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. Abbé Gouget, Mémoire historique et littéraire sur le Collège Royale de France, (Paris, 1758). Costabel lists this work, but I have not found any reference to it in any published catalogue of a library.
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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