Cassini de Thury and Europe
The French survey was begun in 1683 and, after frequent lengthy intermissions, produced in 1718 its first major accomplishment, the triangulation of over seven degrees of a meridian line through Paris. Operations resumed after political support for the project was regained in 1730. Prompted by Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis' measurement of an arc of meridian in Scandinavia in 1736–7, members of the Paris Academy of Sciences resurveyed the Paris meridian. The Cassinis had claimed that their measurements showed
the earth to have an oblong shape. But Maupertuis' result suggested otherwise; the remeasurement of the Paris meridian and a survey of an arc of meridian in South America made between 1735 and 1744 confirmed that the earth has an oblate shape. Thus measurements outside of France served to calibrate the geodetic work in France. The triangulation of the whole of France now went ahead, under the direction of César-François Cassini de Thury (third in the astronomer dynasty), although it was Nicolas-Louise Lacaille who did most of the fieldwork. Between 1739 and 1744 almost 800 triangles, from Dunkerque to Perpignan, were measured, along with nineteen bases. The triangles, printed on eighteen sheets, provided a "geometrical skeleton" rather than a map. This was considered to be sufficient for their intended users, namely, engineers involved in public construction works.
In the 1750s several projects were begun or completed in Europe to complement the measurements sponsored by the French in France, Lapland, and Peru. A leading promoter of these projects was the Jesuit Roger Boscovich, who obtained the support of the pope to measure an arc of meridian between Rome and Rimini. The survey, which ran from 1750 to 1752, had the dual purpose of adding to knowledge of the shape of the earth and updating maps of the papal state. A copy of the "toise of Peru," borrowed from Paris, allowed comparison of Boscovich's geodesy with French results. Boscovich persuaded the king of Sardinia, Carlo Emanuele III, to sponsor a measurement in Piedmont, which Giovanni Battista Beccaria, a Scolopian priest and professor of physics at the University of Turin, carried out between 1760 and 1764. Beccaria's result did not confirm the oblate shape deduced by the French and so contributed to debate about gravitational irregularities and the reliability of geodesy. This
was true also of the first measurement of an arc of meridian in North America, for which Boscovich was also in some measure responsible. It was carried out between 1764 and 1768 by Jeremiah Dixon and Charles Mason.
Another Jesuit, Father Joseph Liesganig, director of the Observatory at the University of Vienna, began his survey of an arc of meridian between Vienna and Brün in 1759. Maria Theresa ordered this measurement following suggestions from Boscovich, and probably also from Cassini de Thury, who worked on a triangulation to connect the Paris meridian with Vienna, one purpose of which was to correct the military maps of France's ally, Austria. Cassini de Thury participated in Liesganig's work, which was calibrated with his own by means of a copy of the toise of Peru. In 1762 Maria Theresa authorized an extension of this arc and provided Liesganig with instruments and engineers from the military academy in Vienna.
Boscovich and others, including Bouguer, had supposed that irregularities in the earth's mass distribution drew plumb bobs from the perpendicular and introduced serious error into geodetic measurements. His view was widely accepted by the 1770s. In 1775 Etienne Bonnot de Condillac made public a severe critique of existing geodetic investigations, and, in agreement with d'Alembert and later also Laplace, he judged that the different measurements of arcs of meridian were too contradictory to demonstrate that the earth has a regular ellipsoid shape. In particular, measurements in France and in Piedmont around the same degree of latitude did not agree. In Condillac's view measurements should conform to theory or else theory should be modified.
The conflict that Condillac and others pointed out may be characterized as one of quantification versus geometric simplicity. Possessing only a few measurements of meridianal arcs and a theoretical model authorized by the Principia , scientists could maintain that the earth had a regular shape. By the 1780s, however, it had become possible to be a Newtonian and still entertain novel shapes for the earth. The Newtonian theory flowed from the hypothesis that the earth had once been in a fluid state. With the decreasing interest in hypotheses about first causes, which characterized the late 18th-century instrumentalist attitude to science, one could choose any curve that fit the data. The work of William Roy offers an example.
Meanwhile, Cassini de Thury had created the first nationwide topographical map based on extensive triangulations. A team of draftsmen and engineers worked on the project between 1750 and its conclusion thirty-nine years later under Cassini de Thury's son, Jacques Dominique. French geodesy had a lasting influence on European cartography. As early as 1736–7, when Maupertuis visited "Lapland," the Swedish Surveying Office made an inspired but, as it happened, premature attempt to appropriate the new technology for the benefit of Swedish cartography. In Denmark, the Scientific Society of Copenhagen was commissioned to carry out a national triangulation on the French model in 1762. The Austrian military surveys by Joseph Jean Ferraris in the 1770s drew on Cassini's example in the choice of scale (1:86,400) and in the triangulation methods. Other European states and Russia did not introduce large-scale triangulations until the early 19th century.
In sum, French cartography and geodesy led European practices in both field and office. Meridianal arcs were triangulated as backbones for exact cartography; geodesists computed distances in terms of the
Peruvian toise, and draftsmen used the scale of the Cassini maps, sometimes even when cartographic methods remained traditional, as in Henri Mallet's maps of Switzerland. This calibration and standardization owed much to Cassini de Thury. He envisaged a Europe geometricized to a uniform scale; to this end he extended the French triangulation to Flanders and to Austria, and tried unsuccessfully to win support for a similar extension into Italy.
Britain kept outside the sphere of Cassini de Thury's influence until 1783. Then, about a month after the end of the American war of independence, he proposed to the British government that a triangular connection should be made between London and Paris. The resulting measurement became the starting point for the Ordnance Survey, a cartographic venture undertaken by military engineers.