Tratado de hydrodynamica

Charles Bossut, 1775

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.

Regarding Bossut’s Traité Elementaire d'hydrodynamique on the basis of studies carried out mainly during his professional years at the École Royale du Génie in Mézières, several revised editions were made. Bossut, in fact, after he was appointed by Turgot to teach the discipline, continued to deepen the study of hydraulic and new experiments led, fifteen years later, to the work of 1786 entitled Traité théorique et expérimental d'hydrodynamique (1786). The latter is a long compendium which which included both the contents of Traité élémentaire d'hydrodynamique (1771) and Nouvelles expériences sur la résistance des fluids.

Four years after the publication of Traite elementaire d'hydrodynamique, in 1775, it was published in Coimbra a Portuguese translation, entitled Tratado de hydrodinamica. The author of the translation was José Monteiro da Rocha (1734-1819), professor of mathematics at the University of Coimbra who received a scientific education from the Jesuits. This is an abbreviated version of the original French treatise: the latter was organized in two volumes while the Portuguese translation was collected in one. Concerning the structure, it remained the same in the translation, but with a dedication to the powerful Portuguese politician Marquis of Pombal. The Tratado de hydrodinamica is divided into two sections: the first one is dedicated to hydrostatics which consists of three chapters, the second one to hydraulics with ten chapters (and this is the section which is more distant from the French original). The work focuses on both theory and practice. The first section on hydrostatics initially discusses the problem of incompressible fluids and then on compressible, concluding with an analysis of the equilibrium of bodies immersed in a fluid. The second section initially establishes the difficulty of determining an exact theory of fluid motion and, during the chapters, attempts to investigate the different modes of motion through concrete examples as well. Therefore, hydraulics is defined by Bossut as the scientific discipline that deals with the study of fluid motion.

J. M. da Rocha's translation of Bossut's Traité élémentaire d'hydrodynamique played a significant role in Portugal in the context of the reform of the University of Coimbra in 1772. On this occasion, J. M. Rocha himself was responsible for the reorganization of the mathematics curriculum, and Bossut's Tratado de hydrodynamica, which he translated, was included in the third year as a textbook for the teaching of hydrostatics and hydraulics.

Therefore, six copies of different books by Bossut, such as the Tratado de hydrodynamica are available in the University Library of Coimbra[1] in the University Library of Santiago de Compostela and 15 at the National Library of Portugal (BNP). In the National Library of Portugal are also preserved his work Traité élémentaire de méchanique(1775) and the writings of algebra Traité élémentaire d'algebre (1781) and arithmetic Traité élémentaire d’arithmétique(1772).


Editions & Translators

  • The treatise was first published in 1771. The French title: Traité Elementaire d'hydrodynamique.

  • A Portuguese edition was published in 1775. The title: Tratado de hydrodynamica. This is an abbreviated version of the original French treatise. The author of the translation was the mathematician José Monteiro da Rocha (1734-1819).

  • The last edition was published in 1775. The title: Traité Elementaire d'hydrodynamique: Ouvrage Dans Lequel la Theorie et l'Experience s'Eclairent ou se Suppleent Mutuellement; Avec des Notes sur Plusieurs Endroits Qui Ont Paru Meriter d'Etre Approfondis. It was published by Laude-Antoine Jombert in Paris.

  • The Traité Elementaire d'hydrodynamique was republished and reviewed in the two-volume work Traité théorique et expérimental d'hydrodynamique. A treatise always by Bossut published in Paris between 1786-87.

  • The Italian translation was reprinted in 1788.


[1] FATIMA M. N., Portugal-Brasil, 1808. Transito de saberes, in Ensaio de Història das ciencias no Brasil. Das luzes à nação independente, EdUERJ Universidade do Estado de Rio de Janeiro 2012.

[2] FIGUEIREDO F. B., José Monteiro da Rocha e a actìvidade cientifica da “faculdade da mathematica” e do “Real Observatòrio da Universidade de Coimbra”: 1772-1820, PhD Dissertation, University of Coimbra 2011.

[3] GUILBAUD A., La «République des hydrodynamiciens» de 1738 jusqu’à la fin du 18e siècle, in Revue Dix-Huitième Siècle, Société Française d'Étude du Dix-Huitième Siècle, 2008, vol. 1, n. 40, pp. 173-191.

[4] LOPES A., RALHA M. E., RODRIGUES A., Os primeiros anos do Curso Matematico na Universidade de Coimbra: Historia pessoal de como o Morgado de Mateus se formou em Matematicas, in Encontro Luso-Brasileiro de História da Matemática, Encontro Luso-Brasileiro de História daMatemática, II, pp. 387-404.