Go back to article: Functionless: science museums and the display of ‘pure objects’

Art, science and the mechanical mastery of nature

The year Abbé Jean-Antoine Nollet died he dedicated his final opus, L’Art des expériences, to the Dauphin of France. Nollet personally knew the Dauphin since at least 1758 when the latter’s grandfather, Louis XV, officially named the famous lecturer demonstrator and académicien ‘maître de physique et d’histoire naturelle des Enfants de France’. Written for the esteemed pupil, who would become King Louis XVI, the book’s dedication emphasised the role played by Nollet’s scientific instruments and their corresponding leçons de physique in the monarch’s formal education. Not only did the Dauphin attend Nollet’s experimental performances, he enjoyed as well pulling apart and rebuilding the instruments to better understand their mechanism (Nollet, 1770, p iii). In England, the future King George III received a similar scientific education, for which an impressive and highly decorative physics cabinet was commissioned to George Adams the younger (Grant, 2015).[11] Beyond the aesthetic pleasure and the scientific knowledge one gets from the instruments and experimental demonstrations, there was a sense that such an education developed good thinking habits and moral values – qualities required for any virtuous monarch. In all cases, the decorative features found on the instruments, made for princes and kings, never outshined their central utility, certainty and functionality.

The Abbé’s instruments were in fact designed with a deep sense of purpose and performance. Nollet states five rules in L’Art des expériences, motivated by ‘reason and experience’, for constructing scientific instruments:

1) In your operations, avoid a superfluous apparatus, which is always costly and which is often capable of inducing error; for the more means one employs, the greater the difficulty of determining the referent for the effect under consideration;

2) Use ornamentation in the machines that you construct only with a great deal of economy; they will be easier to use, easier to clean, and will be less costly;

3) Construct solid instruments, so that they will retain their utility longer, for this must always be seen as their essential quality;

4) Make them serve more than one end, if you can do so without destroying their simplicity and precision: this will save you expense and will conserve space in the cabinet or in the school;

5) Finally, always design your experiments to be able to show the means immediately after having seen the effects: remember that while you concentrate the attention of your audience on phenomena that surprises them, it is not the role of a physicien to leave them ignorant of the causes, whenever the audience can be apprised of them; thus, while glass may be fragile, it must be used in the construction of physical machines, in preference to metal and other opaque materials, whenever its transparency will help see the mechanism of what is happening: for I repeat, our first aim must be to teach, to illuminate, and not to surprise or to embarrass (Nollet, 1770, pp xix-xxi).[12]

These five rules pursued one specific goal: functionality. Nollet’s instruments were meant to be well built, ornate (just enough), simply designed, multipurpose, and transparent. Considering that Nollet was an early member of the Parisian Société des Arts the thoughtful statement of these rules as early as 1738, and reinforced in 1770, is not surprising.

The Société’s chief goal was the improvement of the arts for the public good. From its foundation in 1728 under the patronage of Louis de Bourbon-Condé, count of Clermont, to its demise in 1736, the Société’s membership only consisted of the most skilful and learned artisans and artistes of France and Europe – the latter considered a new breed of artisans endowed with esprit, i.e. the chosen few who could combine theory with practice (Bertucci and Courcelle, 2015). Nollet’s foremost achievement as a member of the Société des Arts was the production of a pair of terrestrial and celestial globes, both viewed as notable contributions to geography, astronomy, and the French industry of globe and map making (Dahl and Gauvin, 2000).[13] The chef d’oeuvre perfectly fit with Paola Bertucci’s assertion that the Société’s artistes ‘strove to differentiate their work from that of other artisans by formulating a culture of ingenuity that defied any distinction between theory and practice’ (Bertucci and Courcelle, 2015, p 174). Throughout his career Nollet hired and trained ‘common’ Parisian artisans to build his numerous and diverse types of apparatus, often loathing their work ethic and poor judgment, whilst each instrument was attentively designed by himself to demonstrate specific lessons in natural philosophy.[14] Nollet’s profound craft and theoretical knowledge as an archetypal artiste, juxtaposed to his high-reward status as a savant and member of the Académie royale des sciences since 1739, soon made him the perfect State candidate to secretly investigate the Italian silk industry during a trip to Piedmont-Sardinia in 1749 – under the cover of a ‘philosophical duel’ about electricity (Bertucci, 2013). Behind a simple set of technical rules on how to manufacture demonstration apparatus one finds the formulation of an epistemology bridging theoretical and practical knowledge.

Nollet’s late publication of L’Art des expériences was also advertised as an answer to the increasing need for instrumentation owing to the rise of scientific instruction in colleges across France. Nollet experienced – and in many ways triggered – the upsurge first-hand: following his nomination to the first chair of experimental physics at the Collège de Navarre in 1753, he was appointed alternatively a professor at the artillery school of La Fère in 1757, the engineering school of Mézières in 1761, and the artillery school of Bapaume in 1765.[15] Nollet’s hope for his compendium was to provide enough information to artisans and other skilled ouvriers, especially those living in provincial towns, to recreate the instruments necessary in organising a complete course in physics. Though some instruments would be difficult to build outside a large city and without an adroit craftsman (one such instrument might very well be Nollet’s one-barrelled air pump, taking up to 57 pages of detailed descriptions), Nollet assured his readers that his protégé (survivancier), Mathurin-Jacques Brisson, would continue to provide guidance and even manufacture instruments for anyone who desired it – as he himself did so successfully heretofore.

Figure 3

One colour photograph of a vacuum pump from the mid 1700s on display in the Putnam Gallery at Harvard University and one early engraved design of a similar vacuum pump

(Left) Abbé Nollet’s vacuum pump from circa 1745–1749 as displayed in the Putnam Gallery. Photograph by Jean-François Gauvin. (Description available on Waywiser: http://waywiser.rc.fas.harvard.edu/view/objects/asitem/items$0040:13071) (Right) Engraving from Nollet, L’Art des expériences, vol. 2, plate 21, pp 447–504. Taken from the Conservatoire numérique des Arts et Métiers website: http://cnum.cnam.fr/CGI/fpage.cgi?12C15.2/524/100/578/0065/0572 (accessed 17 October 2015). Courtesy of the BLRCS – Université de Montréal

The instrumentation style, sophistication and system of production introduced by Nollet was actually an entrepreneurial business strategy developed to satisfy the taste of the coveted clientele he aspired to enlighten, i.e. the French aristocracy and bourgeoisie. He apparently did quite well for himself during a career spanning over forty years – according to financial records found in Nollet’s inventaire après décès (Turner, 2002, p 39). Though Nollet admitted in the Leçons de physique expérimentale that he would be ‘hardly flattered if people flocked to me only for visual effects’, he fully enjoyed ‘the elegance of instruments, which now adorn our schools and the cabinets of amateurs’.

Figure 4

One colour photograph of Abbé Nollets Hero of Alexandrias pressure fountain from the late 1700s and one early engraved design of a similar pressure fountain

(Left) Abbé Nollet’s Hero of Alexandria’s pressure fountain. One of the instruments mentioned in the late eighteenth-century Collège des Godrans’ inventory. Number 117 is stamped on one of the pump’s wooden handles. (Right) Engraving from Nollet, Leçons de physique expérimentale, vol. 3, leçon X, plate 3, figs. 16–17, pp 231–34. Both images courtesy of the Stewart Museum, Montréal. 4b = Courtesy of the BLRCS – Université de Montréal

Figure 5

One colour photograph of Abbé Nollets cobustion pump from the late 1700s and one early engraved design of a similar combustion pump

(Left) Abbé Nollet’s combustion pump. (Right) Engraving from Nollet, Leçons de physique expérimentale, vol. 4, leçon XII, plate 2, fig 7, pp 83–88

However, he continued, ‘[t]he facts discovered owe nothing in their certainty or in their utility to ornament, but when these facts are shown more gracefully it may be hoped that they will evoke greater interest’ (Nollet, 1759, pp xxix and lxxxj). Voltaire’s physics cabinet at the Château de Cirey, in large part equipped by Nollet in the late 1730s, is certainly a prime illustration of this ornamental/fact-finding instrument concord. To Voltaire, within the salon setting occupied by the Marquise du Châtelet (one of the great Enlightenment mathematicians) and various guests and philosophes de passage, the Abbé’s instruments epitomised the lavishness of a polite décor and the Newtonian experimental natural philosophy he was then busy introducing in France (Gauvin, 2006; Shank, 2008). The machines designed by Nollet and other eighteenth-century lecturer demonstrators not only highlighted the active powers found in matter – electricity being a foremost example – but also showcased, as a form of entertainment, the theological and moral implications of such controlled experiments. As Simon Schaffer (1994, p 159) convincingly demonstrates ‘[d]emonstration devices were designed to teach truths about nature, and the gestures which accompanied them were supposed to be invisible’. The active powers came from the machines themselves, transforming the natural philosopher into an invisible special representative of nature (Schaffer, 1983).

Video 1

Engraving from the frontispiece of Nollets Leçons de physique expérimentale volume 1

Hero of Alexandria’s pressure fountain. Designed and made by id3 in Montréal. Image comes from the frontispiece of Nollet’s Leçons de physique expérimentale, vol. 1. Taken from the Conservatoire numérique des Arts et Métiers website: http://cnum.cnam.fr/CGI/fpage.cgi?12C14.1/4/100/463/0004/0455 (accessed 2 November 2015)

Video 2

Detail image of the workings of Abbé Nollets combustion pump

Combustion pump. Designed and made by id3 in Montréal.

On a shelf in a physics cabinet Nollet’s instruments symbolised social status, new pedagogical standards and, to the connoisseur, a special type of scientific knowledge – Newtonianism. It was only through the repetitive use of the instruments, however, that one could fully embrace the mechanical, theological and moral implications of nature’s active powers. Without the former, the latter doesn’t mean much at all. Nollet’s mastery of nature depended on his mechanical skills as an artiste and the savoir-faire demonstrated during the well-choreographed lecture demonstrations. Instrument aesthetic – the fact these mechanical devices were designed to be pleasing to the eye – was an integral and essential feature of their all-encompassing functions. But certainly not the only one, as a modern visitor would mistakenly be led to believe if she saw Nollet’s instruments in a museum.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160506/003