Today, history as an aging process. The University
of Houston presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
People often ask me to do
programs on the creative output of people still
living. But that's very dangerous, because
history's fermentation process is incomplete. Maybe
it's a bit like drinking May wine. That really came
home to me yesterday as I thumbed through the
Dictionary of Scientific Biography. I came
across a remarkable article about French chemist
Balthazar-Georges Sage (pronounced as
Sazh.) The article begins,
Except as founder of the Paris [School of
Mines] there is little reason to rate Sage as
[important]. He published extensively, often
hurriedly, and -- toward the end of life -- usually
for self-serving purposes. The chief modern study
of Sage describes his ... work as totally without
And it continues for seven pages. That
kind of length is reserved only for really famous
people. Von Neuman, Semmelweis, Edison, Boltzmann,
Coulomb, Voltaire, Schrödinger all get less
space. Why should a failure -- perhaps even a
charlatan -- get such coverage?
So I went back into the dusty stacks and picked up
a century-and-a-half old French
biographical dictionary. Here, only thirty years
after Sage's death, a similar story emerged. But
now it was heavily coded. Outwardly, the article
was laudatory. Between the lines, it was clearly
damning Sage with honeyed words.
As a boy, Sage followed in the path of his
pharmacist father. He also studied some chemistry
and took an interest in minerals. He managed to
develop contacts in the court of Louis XV. He even
co-opted the King into placing him in the Academy
And Sage kept jockeying for position. He worked for
a while with Lavoisier before he turned upon
Lavoisier's advanced chemical ideas. When Sage
announced that a certain lead ore was twenty
percent hydrochloric acid, the Academy took some
pains to prove that was completely false. Sage
simply put on his Teflon coat and ploughed ahead. A
few years later, a leading chemist remarked that
Sage's failure to understand chemistry is what gave
him such confidence in making rash claims. Sage,
meanwhile seemed oblivious to his own shortcomings.
A lifelong royalist, Sage got through the French
Revolution with only a little jail time. When the
old phlogiston theory was
debunked, he wouldn't let it go. And he kept
propping up his status until he died (in the words
of his biographer) as "an unregenerate
royalist, a scientific fossil, and a pathetic
hangover of the [old monarchy]."
Back then to my original bafflement: Why this long
article deconstructing a minor figure? I can only
guess. Perhaps the editors simply felt that the
record had to be set straight.
Whatever the cause, it's pretty clear that too much
of Sage's history had been written while he was
still living. And that is why I dodge when I'm
asked to talk about people who have not yet been
absorbed into the web of the past.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
H. Guerlac, Sage, Balthazar-Georges. Dictionary
of Scientific Biography (C.C. Gilespie, ed.) New
York: Charles Scribner's Sons, Vol. XII, pp. 63-69,
Biographie Universelle Ancienne et Moderne
(Joseph, Fr. Michaud, ed.) Paris: Madame C.
Desplaces; [etc., etc.] 1854.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H.