Today, Napoleon builds iron monuments. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Two years before he imposed a
military dictatorship on France, Napoleon was the
twenty-eight-year-old head of the French army. That
year, 1797, he was made a member of the Scientific
Division of the Institute of France. That's right!
Napoleon was honored for contributions to science,
and it was more than a political sop.
The young Napoleon was an important supporter of
science and engineering. His support for the new
Polytechnique was crucial. The École
soon became the world's leading school of
engineering science. A year later, he made his Egyptian campaign into a
scientific mission as much as a military one. It
was during a military stalemate in Egypt that one
of the archaeologists he'd brought along discovered
the Rosetta Stone.
But Napoleon's support for the applied sciences
soon got mixed up with a fixation on architectural
monuments. In 1804, the same year he allowed
himself to be crowned emperor, he wrote, "Men are
only as large as the monuments they leave."
Historian Frances Steiner tells how Napoleon dreamt
of melting cannon into heroic iron structures to
celebrate battles won. He was still interested in
engineering, but that interest had turned to his
The snag in Napoleon's dream of immortalization in
iron was that working with iron takes expertise.
The British had mastered ironwork, but France
lagged far behind. English iron was expensive, and
French iron was inferior. France was still smelting
iron with charcoal instead of coke. Her engineers
hadn't learned the subtleties of building with
iron. Napoleon's new breed of French engineers was
eager and surprisingly well prepared to take up the
challenge. But French architects were consummate
artists in granite. They wanted nothing to do with
During Napoleon's reign as emperor his engineers
and architects did execute some major works in
iron. They built bridges with varying success. Once
they got the hang of it, they built a 160-foot arch
over the Seine River and named it after the Battle
of Austerlitz. The toughest job was using iron to
replace a 130-foot dome over a circular grain
exchange, the halle aux blés. That
was finished just two years before Waterloo at
seven times the original cost estimate.
France did not, by any means, catch up with England
during Napoleon's reign. She had too far to go.
France eventually produced the Eiffel Tower and the
structural skeleton for the Statue of Liberty using
iron, but that was seventy years after Napoleon.
When all's said and done, Napoleon probably did
start France on its way to iron construction. But
what he gave to technology was something else
entirely, and it never would've sprung from a
craving for monuments. It was the young idealistic
Napoleon who laid a foundation for modern education
in applied science.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds