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Dr. Ernst Gerland's Life and Letters of Papin

Nature volume 24, pages 377379 | Download Citation



AT a time when Britons have just been celebrating the centenary of Stephenson a glance at the life and works of one who in a much more accurate sense was the inventor of the steam-engine may not be amiss. Denis Papin, whose life and letters now appear from the editorial pen of Dr. Ernst Gerland, was born at Blois in 1647. In 1661 or 1662 he proceeded to the study of medicine at the University of Angers, and, receiving his degree in 1669, he appears to have intended to settle down to a physician's life in that city. Why this course was not fulfilled is not known; but we find him in 1674 at Paris, where also he had made the acquaintance of Huygens, with whom he was engaged in experimenting with the newly-discovered air-pump, an account of which was published in that year at Paris under the title of “Expériences du Vuide.” The Philosophical Transactions of our Royal Society for the following year (1675) were enriched by no fewer than five papers on the same subject by Huygens and Papin jointly. In Paris also Papin met Leibniz, who sojourned there from 1672 to 1676. His acquaintance with Leibniz was however interrupted, for, very shortly after the publication of his “Expériences,” he crossed the Channel to England, led, as Boyle tells us, by some hope that here he might procure a situation accordant to his genius. In London he assisted Boyle in his laboratory and with his writings, and shortly afterwards introduced into the air-pump the further improvement of making it with double barrels, and replacing the turncock hitherto used by the two valves. A little later he produced another instrument, the condensing pump, and in 1680, on Boyle's nomination, he was admitted to the distinction of Fellowship in the Royal Society. That honour he repaid in the following year by communicating to the Society his famous invention of “A new Digester or Engine for Softening Bones,” in which instrument—now so universally known—he applied as it seems for the first time the now common device of a safety-valve. For that year and the next he devoted himself to experiments with the digester and its various applications. Then he received an invitation to proceed to Venice to take part in the work of the Accademia di Scienze Filosofiche e Matematice, then newly founded, in imitation of the learned societies of Rome, Florence, Paris, and London. Here he appears to have remained nearly two years, and early in 1684 we find him back again in London, where, on April 2, he was elected by the Royal Society as their “temporary curator of experiments,” at a salary of 30l. per annum. This was in the palmiest days of the young Society, when Newton, Boyle, Hooke, Hawkesbee, and many other famous spirits took the most active part in its proceedings, and Papin shared in the work of bringing their experiments, embracing a most miscellaneous range of subjects, before the Society. Amongst the discoveries of his own, of which Dr. Gerland gives a summary, in this way brought before the Royal Society, was the so-called Würtemberg siphon. He also partially anticipated Franklin in his discovery of the ebullition of water under reduced pressure at lowered temperatures, concerning which point he observes: “This shows that liquors being freed from an external pressure will make bubbles upon the score of the elastic particles lurking in their pores, as has been observed long ago by the Hon. Mr. R. Boyle. I do therefore believe that the vapours raised by heat in an exhausted glass will make a pressure, which is quickly taken off when we condense these vapours by putting the glass into cold water or ice.” On another occasion Papin brought forward a model of a machine for raising water by pumps to a height, the pumps being worked by a water-wheel driven by the flow of a river. In November, 1687, this occupation came to an end by Papin resigning his post of curator on being appointed by the Landgrave of Hesse to be Professor of Mathematics at Marburg. Here the most active portion of his life began, to be continued when, in 1696, his place of residence was exchanged for Cassel. Here too began the correspondence with Huygens and with Leibniz, which forms the major part of the volume before us. By both of these great men he was highly esteemed. Huygens explained to him in 1690 his new theory of double refraction in a letter of considerable length. Leibniz wrote to Luca about Papin, referring to his ingenious inventions in the most enthusiastic terms. The correspondence with Leibniz went on almost unbroken until Papin's final return to England heart-broken and worn out. That with Huygens ended much earlier, being terminated by Huygens' premature decease in 1695. To Huygens in 1691 Papin writes from Cassel about a project he is undertaking for the Landgrave, to construct a ship on the plan suggested previously by Drebbel to move under water. In the same letter he mentions the production of fog or mist in the receiver of the air-pump, for which phenomenon Huygens, in replying, propounds an explanation. At the same date we find Papin busy with another invention, a rotilis suctor, which was nothing else than a centrifugal fan for supplying a blast for furnaces and for ventilating mines, which instrument he had the satisfaction of applying to a mine in Germany in 1699, and six years later he made the further improvements related in the Philosophical Transactions of that year. But his greater work was drawing on. In 1698 he writes to Leibniz that he is constructing a machine for raising water to a great height by the force of fire, and that by the success of his experiments he is persuaded that this force can be applied to many other more important ends. Leibniz replied forthwith with the inquiry whether his invention was based upon the principle of rarefaction; adding that he also had some ideas on the point. After two months Papin replies that he relies upon the principle of rarefaction produced by the condensation of steam, but that he proposes also to use the pressure exerted by the steam in expanding, “the power of which is not limited as is that of the suction” (of rarefaction). He also says that he has made a little model of a carriage which is propelled by this force, but that he fears difficulties for such carriages from the inequalities and sharp turns of ordinary high roads—difficulties which for water carriages do not exist. Leibniz's reply is only known from a summary of it scribbled in his own handwriting upon the back of Papin's letter. He first congratulates Papin on having set himself to this work; expresses his fears lest the direct pressure of expanding steam should produce explosions; and then suggests, “pour faciliter le chariotage,” an idea of his own (derived, he says, from the air-pump), that the steam which is to exert pressure should be introduced into a cylinder into which is fitted a second one, after the manner in which our modern gasometers fit into their cylindrical pits, the whole being rendered steam-tight by mercury. Papin, replying in August, announces that his machine has raised water to the height of 70 feet. He only half approves Leibniz's suggestion on account of the probable friction between the internal cylinders. To this Leibniz retorts that while the friction increases with the diameter of the piston of a pump, the pressure increases as the square of the diameter. The matter seems to have dropped at this stage for three years. In 1702 Papin, still at Cassel, announces to Leibniz that he has invented a steam ballista, “an invention to facilitate the capture of the strongest places,” which “will reduce France to make most promptly a durable peace!” This invention was a cylinder 5 inches in diameter filled with a piston connected to pivoted lever, which on the descent of the piston on the condensing of the steam below it -would project a stone weighing 2 lbs. to a distance of 40 feet. (A similar ballista, unknown to Papin, had been suggested by von Guéricke, in 1672, in his Experimenta Nova.)

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