Traité théorique et expérimental d’hydrodynamique

Charles Bossut, 1786-87

Charles Bossut (1730-1814) was a French mathematician Jesuit acknowledged as an expert on hydraulics and hydrostatics, in which he became one of the main French exponents of the eighteenth century. He was born in Tartaras in 1730, a village in the south of France. He studied at the High School Ampere, in Lyon, a Jesuit college where he began to devote himself to scientific research under the guidance of Père Béraud (1702-1777). In 1752, at the age of twenty-two years, he became a professor at the school of military engineering École du Génie at Mézières and collaborated with two brilliant mathematicians of the time: Leohnard Euler (1707 – 1783) and Daniel Bernoulli (1700 – 1782). There, he worked as a professor until 1769 and later as an examiner of students. Bossut was admitted to the Academy of Sciences in Paris as a correspondant in 1753.

In 1764, in Paris, Bossut collaborated with G. Viallet, Deputy Inspector of Bridges and Roads for the province of Champagne to publish the treatise Recherches sur la construction la plus avantageuse des digues. In 1771, he published his work Traité élémentaire d'hydrodynamique, based on research carried out over the years at Mezieres.

He was encouraged in his mathematical research by the encyclopedist Jean Baptiste Le Rond D’Alembert (1717 – 1783), who edited the famous Encyclopédie de Diderot et d’Alembert. In this context, he wrote the scientific section of the Encyclopédie méthodique. Also, in collaboration with D’Alembert, he published a treatise entitled Nouvelles experiences sur la resistance des fluids, in 1777.

He was the author of several works crowned by the French Academy of Sciences and his writings became a fundamental basis for the study and teaching of mathematics and some more specialized fields. Bossut was particularly interested in the problems of hydraulics. The importance of Bossut for the history of science is not only due to specialized research in hydraulics, but also to his role as a major contributor to French (and European) scientific education.

In 1775, he was called by the economist and minister of finance of Louis XVI, R. J. Turgot (1727 – 1781) to collaborate, along with D'Alembert and N. Condorcet (1743 – 1794), for a study on canals and natural waterways inland France for a development and improvement of trade. At the time, he was teaching hydrodynamics at the Ecole Royale du Génie in Mézière, but later, thanks to his collaboration with Turgot, a special chair was created at the Louvre in 1774, which he occupied until 1780. It was Turgot himself who created the special chair.

Turgot asked D'Alembert, Condorcet and Bossut to carry out studies to improve navigation within the French territory, with the aim of making trade more efficient. Bossut then carried out, in the summer of 1776, experiments on the basin of the Royal School of Engineering of Mézières to evaluate the resistance experienced by a body in motion within a fluid. The results obtained by Bossut were published in collaboration with D'Alembert and Condorcet the following year, in a treatise entitled Nouvelles expériences sur la résistance des fluids, where were reported the experiments conducted to enhance navigation within the French kingdom.

In 1786 was published by the Imprimerie Royale, the long compendium Traité théorique et expérimental d’hydrodynamique, which included both the contents of Traité élémentaire d'hydrodynamique (1771) and Nouvelles expériences sur la résistance des fluids.

It was in 1786 that was published by the Imprimerie Royale, the Traité théorique et expérimental d’hydrodynamique, which included both the contents of Traitée éeléementaire d'hydrodynamique (1771) and Nouvelles expériences sur la résistance des fluids. It is a long compendium, divided into two sections and introduced by a Discours préliminaire and a first chapter that takes up the general notions of hydrodynamics, clarifying the terms hydraulics and hydrostatics. In fact, it is on these two disciplines that the treatise is divided. The first section is devoted to hydrostatics and consists of fifteen chapters. The second section deals with hydraulics and, in addition to an introductory page, the discourse is organized into nineteen chapters. The first tome (1786) takes up the treatise of 1771.The second tome (1787) incorporates, though extending, the contents of the treatise of 1777. The treatise concludes with three appendices, one of which contains a Notice d'un Recueil d'Ouvrages Italiens sur le cours des eau, where Bossut refers to the Nuova Raccolta di autori, che trattano del moto dell'acque (1766), a voluminous work that gathers a large number of Italian authors, including the work of Benedetto Castelli Della misura dell’acque correnti(1628). This treatise underwent extensions and revisions and was reprinted in 1795.

The first edition of the Traité théorique et expérimental d’hydrodynamique is in the Central Library of Marinha, while the edition of 1794 is in the National Library of Spain. The edition of 1796 is in the National Library of Portugal (BNP).[1]


Editions & translations

  • The work was first published between 1786-87.

  • The second edition was published in 1796.


[1] DUGAS R., A History of Mechanics, Translated into English by MADDOX J. R., Neuchâtel, London 1955.

[2] MULCRONE T. F., A Note on the Mathematician Abbé Charles Bossut, in Bulletin American Association of Jesuit Scientists, 1965, vol. 42, n. 3, pp. 16-19.