Today, we meet the last great 18th-century genius.
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.
The 18th century radiated a
peculiar kind of genius. It gave us people like
Mozart, Jefferson, Euler, and Ben Franklin. Isaac
Newton led us into the astonishing 18th century,
and Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier led us out of it.
If you've ever studied mathematics, heat flow, or
acoustics, you've heard of Fourier. The man himself
was born in France in 1768. He was trained in
mathematics and military engineering. Then he was
caught up in the politics of the French Revolution.
He was a revolutionary, but other revolutionaries
jailed him when he defended victims of the Reign of
In 1795, Fourier, now 27, took a faculty post at
the new Ecole Polytechnique. But politics followed
him, and he was jailed again. A colleague finally
took him out of harm's way by finding him a foreign
post with a general even younger than he was. In
1798, Fourier went off to Egypt with -- Napoleon
Napoleon made Fourier the secretary of the newly
formed Institute of Egypt. Fourier did all sorts of
negotiation and administration during the Egypt
campaign. When Napoleon returned as the leader of
France, he sent Fourier to Grenoble as the Prefect
of Isère -- something like a state governor
Fourier went to work with astonishing energy. He
built roads, he engineered a large land-drainage
program, he wrote papers on mechanics and a book on
Egypt -- and he was made a baron. He finally
resigned the post in 1815 to avoid being entangled
in Napoleon's abortive return from exile. He went
back to full-time research.
Fourier had started thinking about heat flow in
Egypt. While he was in Isère, he submitted a
paper on the analytical theory of heat to the
Academy of Science. In it he showed how to describe
heat flow in solid bodies. But he did much more
than that. He also created a form of mathematics
that let engineers and scientists solve problems
that had previously been unthinkable.
Like most real masterpieces, the paper broke rules.
Fourier's intuition led him where his logic
couldn't always follow. The work offended many
great mathematicians, and for 15 years he fought to
get it published. It didn't come out until 1822. By
then it was a full book and the most important
mathematical work of his age.
The Egypt adventure touched Fourier's entire life.
It began a lifelong obsession with heat and with
the healing powers of heat. In his later years he
swathed himself, mummy-like, in his overheated
Paris apartment. At the end, he died of a chronic
illness he'd contracted in Egypt. But by then
Fourier's work had permanently expanded the very
character of engineering.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Fourier, J., The Analytical Theory of
Heat (transl. by A. Free man). New York: Dover
Publications, Inc., 1955.
Gratton-Guiness, I., Joseph Fourier
1768-1830 (With J.R. Ravetz). Cambridge: MIT
Joseph Fourier Savant et Préfet 1768-1830,
Grenoble: Bibliotheques Municipales, 1989. (no
This episode has been greatly revised as Episode 1878.
Click on the image for an
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Napoleon shown contemplating the Sphinx in the 1895