Today, a note on Napoleon and ironworks. 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 took
over France, Napoleon Bonaparte was only 28 and
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 for good
reason. The young Napoleon was an important
supporter of science and engineering. He'd already
done a lot to strengthen the Ecole Polytechnique --
the French engineering school. A year later he made
his Egyptian campaign
into a scientific mission as much as a military
one. It was during this campaign that a French
archaeologist discovered the Rosetta stone.
But later, Napoleon's support for the applied
sciences got mixed up with a fixation on
architectural monuments. In 1804 -- the same year
he was made emperor -- he wrote, "Men are only as
large as the monuments they leave." Historian
Frances Steiner tells us that Napoleon dreamt of
building monuments from his military spoils -- of
melting cannon into heroic structures in iron, to
celebrate battles won. He was still interested in
engineering, but that interest had turned to his
But there was a problem with working in iron.
England had mastered iron work, but France lagged
far behind. English iron was expensive, and the
quality of French iron was poor. France was still
smelting iron with charcoal instead of coke, and
her engineers hadn't learned how to build with
iron. Napoleon's new breed of French engineers was
eager, and suprisingly well prepared, to take up
the challenge; but French architects were
consummate artists in granite. They wanted nothing
to do with iron.
During Napoleon's reign as emperor, some major
works were done in iron. A number of bridges were
built with varying success. Once they got the hang
of it, the French built a 106-foot arch over the
Seine River and named it after the Battle of
Austerlitz. The toughest job was building a
129-foot iron dome over a circular grain exchange.
It was finished just two years before Waterloo, at
seven times the original cost estimate.
France didn't, by any means, catch up with England
during Napoleon's reign. She had too far to go.
France eventually built the Eiffel Tower and the
Statue of Liberty using iron, but that was 70 years
after Napoleon. Napoleon did start France on its
way to iron construction. But his greatest gift
didn't spring from his craving for monuments.
History has shown that the younger, more
idealistic, Napoleon left us a far more important
gift in the foundation he helped to lay for
education in the applied sciences.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds