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Pontchartrain: A Penurious Revival

Overview .   When Pontchartrain assumed control of the Academy in 1691, it was badly demoralized.[27] Members were owed their pensions for 1689 and 1690, treatises actually in press had been suppressed, and the number of members had fallen. More sympathetic to science and technology than Louvois had been, Pontchartrain tried to revive the Academy by immediately appointing energetic and highly qualified savants, approving publications, and resuming pensions and research subventions. The War of the League of Augsburg, however, allowed him to fund the Academy only sporadically and at minimal levels throughout the 1690s.[28] As a result, financing for the Academy declined steeply. Pontchartrain has nonetheless been regarded as a champion of the Academy, because he preserved and revived it during difficult times, made shrewd appointments, and launched its most ambitious publishing program.


From 1691 through 1699, Pontchartrain budgeted 322,849 livres, or an average of 35,872 livres a year, directly on the Academy. Of that amount, 286,017 livres, or 88.6 percent, was for pensions to academicians and their assistants; 2,873 livres, or nearly 1 percent, for the Observatory; and 35,960 livres, or 10.5 percent, for research (table 16). Because the crown converted many pensions into annuities, however, the actual direct cash outlay was less than the amount budgeted (table lc). In addition, the Academy benefited from 80,887 livres spent jointly on it and other royal buildings and institutions (table 12).

Natural philosophy was more costly than the mathematical sciences or practical projects (table 16). Pontchartrain spent at least 10,747 livres, or 31.6 percent of the research budget, on natural philosophy. In contrast he spent 4,677 livres for practical projects and 2,811 livres for the mathematical sciences, which accounted for 13.8 and 8.3 percent, respectively, of the research budget. The remaining 46.3 percent, or 15,725 livres, went toward small expenses, a category that defies elucidation; most of this sum was paid in 1699, suggesting that the crown delayed reimbursing academicians for months or years (table 11). Since small expenses account for so much of Pontchartrain's research subvention, it is dangerous to generalize from the financial records about his preferences. Other indicators suggest that he treated the Academy evenhandedly and channeled academicians' energies into publishing more than into research.[29]

Although Pontchartrain continued to fund the Academy, no mean feat during what was arguably the worst decade of the reign, he did so at markedly reduced levels. He pensioned a smaller proportion of academicians and drastically reduced research subventions, even though he increased membership. He actually spent less in each category than had either Colbert or Louvois. First, while Pontchartrain budgeted an average of 31,780 livres a year for pensions — as compared with 35,762 livres under Colbert and 19,093 livres under Louvois — he actually disbursed less. That was because many academicians had to take their pensions for 1692, 1693, 1694, and 1695 as annuities. Pontchartrain's average annual outlay for pensions was, therefore, smaller than normal.[30] Second, Pontchartrain spent on average only 319 livres a year on the Observatory, in contrast with 39,650 livres under Colbert and 1,371 livres under Louvois. Colbert built the Observatory, Louvois added the Marly tower to it, and Pontchartrain maintained it and paid for the salary and livery of the porter. Third, Pontchartrain spent only 3,773 livres a year for research, by comparison with Colbert who spent an average of 12,299 livres a year and Louvois who spent 6,020 livres (table 17).


Pontchartrain revived the Academy as inexpensively as possible. From 1691 until 1694 he made new appointments and encouraged academicians to publish. In 1699 he sponsored a formal règlement and, finally, a new infusion of money, and in the following year he authorized Cassini and his team of astronomers to extend the meridian. Before 1699, Pontchartrain applied the limited funds available to pensions, publication, and maintenance. After 1699, he was able to expand the research program.

The Mathematical Sciences .   Like his predecessors, Pontchartrain appointed more mathematicians than natural philosophers. Thus twenty-four of thirty-nine academicians, or 62 percent, were active principally in the mathematical sciences. Like Louvois, however, Pontchartrain apparently spent little on their research, focusing on the maintenance of scientific instruments (table 3d). The only known special purchases are six telescope lenses made by Nicolas Hartsoeker and a pendulum clock "supplied to Sr Couplet the son for the observations he has been ordered to make in Portugal" (table 3a).[31]

The principal new impetus in the mathematical sciences came from infinitesimal calculus, which the mathematicians debated. The astronomers continued to work as they had done under Louvois. They observed eclipses and the satellites of Jupiter, compared eastern and western calendars, catalogued fixed stars, and calculated solar and lunar diameters. Cassini and his son made observations and studied the declination of a magnetic needle during their travels in Italy, France, Holland, and England from 1694 to 1698. Above all, the astronomers awaited permission to extend the meridian. In keeping with Pontchartrain's policy of publishing as much as possible, Cassini's memoirs, the reports of Jesuits in the Far East, and several astronomical articles were printed.[32]

Natural Philosophical Research .   Only fourteen of thirty-nine academicians, or 36 percent, were natural philosophers. But Pontchartrain seems to have spent more on their work than on the mathematical sciences. The record of expenditure is far from complete, however, with respect to the laboratory, the petit jardin,[33] and engravings (tables 6b, 7, 8, and 12i). Payments for botanical illustrations, for example, reflect neither the forty to sixty-nine plates, which normally cost 90 livres apiece, that Chastillon completed, nor the plates for Tournefort's Élémens de botanique, rumored to have cost 12,000 livres. If engravings actually cost 15,000 to 18,000 livres more than the treasury accounts reveal, then Pontchartrain's average annual expenditure on natural philosophy was closer to that of Louvois and Colbert.[34]

New academicians scrutinized previous chemical research. They also


studied mineralogy (table 6d) and tried fresh approaches to botany, notably Tournefort's influential classification of plants. Otherwise the Academy's natural philosophy continued under Pontchartrain much as it had during the previous two decades. Anatomists resurrected the third installment of their Histoire des animaux . They revised plates (table 8b) and dissected corpses from the menagerie at Versailles or from the Hôtel des invalides. Du Verney and Méry published several articles reflecting their dissections during the 1680s and 1690s, and the Academy debated their conflicting views about the circulation of the blood in the fetus. Homberg earned the gratitude of his colleagues for enlivening meetings with papers and demonstrations and with recollections from his travels.[35]

Practical Projects .   Utilitarian problems continued to interest academicians, who investigated hydraulics (table 5), mapping, new inventions, and military technology.[36] The crown subsidized these studies modestly, however, in order to launch two new projects — writing a natural history of arts and crafts and designing a new typeface for the Imprimerie royale — that complimented Pontchartrain's program of publishing. At first Bignon and Pontchartrain founded a separate Compagnie des arts et métiers to undertake this double mission. But in 1699 the Academy absorbed the Compagnie and its work, and that year alone the crown spent nearly 4,000 livres on engravings of arts and crafts (table 10d). By 1700 when Pontchartrain resumed work on the meridian, he had revived the two Colbertian projects that had lapsed under Louvois — cartography and mechanics — and thus reestablished the Academy's utilitarian program.[37]

Summary .   During the 1690s research expenditure primarily maintained buildings and equipment or continued older projects. What Pontchartrain paid for research bore little relation to what academicians published, which mostly represented work done earlier or outside the institutional structure of the Academy. But the Academy bore impressive fruit under this parsimonious management, with academicians publishing in mathematics, botany, astronomy, and other fields.

The Academy suffered from reduced funding and poor morale during the 1690s, but it was also undergoing basic changes in its very conception. Under Colbert academicians worked principally in teams on long-term projects begun with the assurance of continuity and support. But facilities were cramped, funding diminished, and collaborative research faltered; these trends emerged late in Colbert's protectorship and Louvois and Pontchartrain exacerbated them. Under the circumstances the institution altered. As individual research became more prominent, the functions of meetings changed: they lost their importance for proposing research,


debating hypotheses, and demonstrating experiments; instead academicians used them to referee manuscripts for publication. Thus the costs of research during the 1690s reflect the two inconsistent ministerial policies of austerity and rejuvenation, against the background not only of foreign wars and domestic insolvency but also of a changing institution.

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