previous chapter
Chapter 5 Research Subventions and Ministerial Control
next sub-section

Colbert: The Generous Foundation

Overview .   From 1666 to 1683, Colbert spent 1,578,787 livres, or an average of 87,700 livres a year, directly on the Academy. Of that amount, 643,708 livres, or 41 percent, was for pensions to academicians and their assistants; 713,704 livres, or 45 percent, for the Observatory; and 221,374 livres, or 14 percent, for research (table 14). In addition, the Academy benefited from 207,349 livres spent jointly on it and other royal buildings and institutions (table 12).

The mathematical sciences were more costly than either natural philosophy or practical projects (table 14). Colbert spent 92,322 livres, or 42 percent of the research budget, on the mathematical sciences. By comparison he spent 56,110 livres for natural philosophy and 51,483 livres for practical projects, which accounted for 25 percent and 23 percent, respectively, of the research budget. The remaining 10 percent, or 22,231 livres, went toward expenses whose precise purpose is unknown (table 11).

The Mathematical Sciences .   The mathematical sciences dominated not


only the Academy's budget but also its membership. Twenty-two of the thirty-six academicians Colbert appointed, or 61 percent, were astronomers, geometers, or mechanicians. Colbert particularly favored the astronomers, who needed costly apparatus (table 3a, d), expeditions (table 4b, d), and engravings (table 9a–c). Many of the small expenses also paid for their work (table 11b–c).

The silver planisphere that Cassini and Butterfield made exemplifies the Academy's attitude toward theoretical astronomy. On its back was a mechanism that illustrated the Copernican, Tychonic, and Ptolemaic systems. The point was to show how similar the three systems were despite their very different hypotheses. This instrument symbolizes the fictionalist attitude of most academicians toward astronomical theories. A recurring theme in their writings is that it made little practical difference whether one accepted a heliocentric or a geocentric universe. This indifference to the underlying physical implications of competing astronomical theories helps explain why Cassini missed the point of reports from his assistants who had to shorten their pendulums near the equator. The Academy worried about publishing raw data and leaving hypothesizing to others, who would thereby unfairly gain credit to the detriment of the Company. But pragmatism and cosmological agnosticism led to just such a result and also turned the astronomers toward the practical projects that appealed to the crown.

Natural Philosophical Research .   Natural philosophy's share of the research budget did not reflect its share of the membership. Fourteen academicians, or 39 percent of Colbert's appointments, were botanists, anatomists, chemists, or natural philosophers. They controlled only 25 percent of the research budget, however, partly because they did not require expeditions or precision instruments. The laboratory (table 7), anatomical research (table 6a), and engravings (table 8) accounted for 88 percent of their funds and supported Perrault's comparative anatomy of animals, previous hit Dodart's next hit natural history of plants, Duclos's analyses of French mineral waters, and other inquiries. Small expenses (table 11a, c) also benefited these projects, while the costly burning mirror (table 3c) was peripheral to the Academy's research but interesting to the king.

Practical Projects .   The Academy was meant to be useful. Academicians expected their natural histories to improve medicine by correcting and amplifying pharmacopoeia, by clarifying human anatomy through comparative studies, or by identifying the components of mineral waters. Astronomy and mathematics too were no purely theoretical exercises but also the handmaidens of navigation and cartography. Colbert brought


Cassini from Italy and Huygens from Holland partly because they might solve the problem of determining longitude at sea, one of his interests as secretary of the navy and as champion of expanded overseas trade.[1] It is no surprise, then, that Colbert devoted a significant portion of the research budget to utilitarian interests.

There were four practical projects — technological, cartographic, architectural, and hydraulic — each of which the Academy sought to put on a sound theoretical foundation. Each also reflects the interests of the patrons. Colbert, for example, enlisted the Academy to reform industrial, agricultural, and military technology by charging members to study theoretical and applied mechanics. This work took three principal forms: academicians collaborated on a book about the principles of mechanics and their applications, they assessed inventions, and they collected models of machines (table 5).[2] Other projects had more immediate appeal to a vainglorious monarch. Architectural display, for example, glorified the reign. Thus, Colbert appointed to the Academy Perrault and Blondel, rival architects who designed several royal monuments, and Perrault's edition of Vitruvius illustrated classical architectural principles with buildings constructed by the crown (table 10b).[3]

The most important practical projects that Colbert initiated, however, were cartographic and hydraulic. Maps of France were notoriously inaccurate, yet Louis took pride in his kingdom and wanted to know its exact extent and Colbert needed correct maps to assist his economic and fiscal reforms. Colbert, therefore, appointed to the Academy astronomers and practitioners who could address this problem. They worked simultaneously on a world map and a map of the kingdom. For the former, they compiled the coordinates of cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, around the Mediterranean, and in the Far East, inking the sites onto the map on the Observatory floor. For the latter, they extended the meridian in France and mapped the Atlantic coast and the généralité, or administrative district, of Paris and its environs (tables 4a, 10a). As trial balloons for the map of France, these undertakings had three main advantages: the généralité de Paris was a small but central part of the kingdom, the Academy had established the meridian there (table 4b), and academicians could demonstrate vividly that extensive corrections to existing maps were necessary. Although these preliminary efforts were successful, they were also harbingers of the huge expenses that would be necessary to complete the map of the kingdom. Mapping the environs of Paris, for example, cost more than 21,000 livres, or 10 percent of Colbert's total spending on research (table 14), and took ten years to complete. Bringing the larger project to


fruition would require further extension of the meridian, triangulation along and then east and west of it, and topographic surveying, all associated with enormous costs. But from the mid-1670s, as Louis's wars deflected funds from the Academy, adequate funding was no longer available. For the remainder of the century academicians were armchair cartographers, correcting their world map with coordinates sent from abroad, teaching others to use the data and methods academicians had developed, and awaiting permission to revive work on the meridian.[4]

The hydraulic project provided direct support to king and court, for its goals were to guarantee the supply and quality of water for Versailles and to design fountains. The Academy surveyed rivers, analyzed the chemical composition of waters, studied hydraulic machines, and identified promising sites for aqueducts; members also developed the principles of decorative fountains for the gardens at Versailles. The work was costly, requiring surveying instruments, travel, and overnight accommodation. Academicians ran up bills of nearly 2,000 livres for incidentals, 3,500 livres for horses and carriages, and 1,335 livres for room and board at an inn in Versailles while they "worked to verify the surveying for the construction of aqueducts in the environs of Versailles" (tables 3b, 4c, 10e).[5]

Colbert relied on the Academy as a research institution and as a source of practical skills. Its members were physicians, surveyors, architects, and engineers, eager to improve those disciplines.[6] Pensions covered both theoretical and practical work, so that academicians were inexpensive consultants, even when the crown paid bonuses. The Academy could consider the work from several different angles, as its efforts on the water supply of Versailles reveal. From the crown's point of view, their interdisciplinary skills, commitment to theory and practice, and dependency on the king made academicians the ideal consultants.

Reimbursement of Academicians .   Although the royal treasury underwrote the costs of the Academy's research, academicians and their suppliers usually had to make extensive outlays and then request reimbursement. Only rarely did the crown advance funds, as when Mariotte got 200 livres for experiments related to the water supply of Versailles in 1682 (table 4c), or when Richer, Meurisse, and Deglos prepared for voyages (table 4d). Bourdelin's notebook offers a glimpse into the standard practices. He recorded the details of each purchase and every few months submitted a formal request, prepared by a notary, for repayment. Sometimes the crown paid him and his suppliers directly, but often it paid intermediaries such as Carcavi (or Homberg and Fontenelle in the 1690s).[7]

Academicians must have had some general authorization to purchase for


the Academy, but they needed special permission for certain items — for instance, engravings of plants — and requests for reimbursement had to provide details. Certain academicians acted as purchasing agents for the Academy. Thus, Perrault spent 4,000 livres, much of it probably for the natural history of animals (table 11a, 1674), and when Du Hamel went to London he bought 500 livres' worth of books and microscopes for the Academy (table 11a, 1669). But Couplet bore the heaviest responsibility for the institution's finances. He paid for many of the small expenses, purchasing animals for dissections, machines and apparatus for experiments, and seeing to repairs of equipment and physical plant at the Observatory (table 11). Finally, Nicolas Clérambault (table 11a), Carcavi, and Thévenot also bought for the Academy, sometimes mingling the Academy's and the Library's small expenses (table 12c–d).

Summary .   Colbert spent about 250,000 livres, or an average of 12,300 livres a year (table 14), on the Academy's research program. Expenditure fluctuated from year to year. It peaked from 1667 to 1672, because of astronomical expeditions, the map of the environs of Paris, and engravings. It plummeted from 1678 until 1683, because of the Dutch wars. During the 1660s and early 1670s, Colbert paid for expenses soon after they were incurred, but by the late 1670s, payments began to fall one or two years behind.

The Academy's research budget reflects Colbert's preferences. Astronomy and practical projects were clear favorites. The Academy was a reservoir of talent on which Louis and Colbert drew for technical expertise, and academicians themselves usually found scientific merit in these practical challenges. Far from being a disinterested and unalloyed supporter of basic research, Colbert demanded both practical and theoretical returns on the king's investment. By tapping the Academy for its technical advice and by reducing expenditure on the Academy during the last years of his ministry, Colbert set precedents for his successors that were more influential than his initial generosity.

previous chapter
Chapter 5 Research Subventions and Ministerial Control
next sub-section