Denis Papin

Quick Info

22 August 1647
Blois, France
26 August 1713
London, England

Denis Papin was a French inventor who worked on the steam engine and invented the pressure cooker and the paddle boat.


Denis Papin's father was also named Denis Papin so we will refer to him as Denis Papin Sr. Denis Papin Sr (born 21 October 1608, died 1688) was the eldest of the ten children of Jacques Papin and Jehanne Dufour. He became a royal counsellor and revenue collector for the district of Blois. Denis Papin Sr married Madeleine Pineau, whose family had a tradition of being medical practitioners, around 1640. They had thirteen children with Denis, the subject of this biography, being their fourth child and eldest son. His date of birth is unknown and the date we have given, 22 August 1647, is actually the date of his baptism. He was presented for baptism by his uncle, Isaac Papin who was 26 years old at the time. The family were Huguenots, a French branch of Protestants, and were protected from persecution by the Edict of Nantes which was passed in 1598.

When he was six years old, Denis was put into the care of his uncle Nicolas Papin (born 22 January 1625). Nicolas Papin was a medical doctor in Saumur, about 100 km west of Blois, and had married there in 1647 and had three children born in 1648, 1649 and 1653. In Saumur there was a Huguenot Academy and Denis studied at this school. In 1661, he began his studies of medicine at the University of Angers which had colleges of Law, Theology, Arts and Medicine,and attracted students from the whole of France. He graduated with a medical degree on 4 June 1669 but [13]:-
... he came away with a low opinion both of the teaching and of his fellow students but considered it worthwhile to obtain the degree of M.D.
At this stage in his career, Papin intended to follow medicine so, after some months back in Blois, he went to Paris in 1670 to begin life as a medical doctor. However, he was much more interested in mathematics and mechanics than he was in medicine and soon he was bored with medicine. He looked for ways to become involved in mathematics and approached Marie Charron Colbert, the wife of the Controller-General of Finances, Jean-Baptiste Colbert. The Charron and the Papin families were both from Blois so Marie Colbert was an obvious person for Papin to approach looking for support. Now, from December 1666, Colbert had been organising a small group of scholars to meet in the King's library. Christiaan Huygens, one of the leading scientists of his day, had been persuaded to work in Paris and was a leading member of Colbert's group. He was looking for an assistant so it was arranged for Papin to fill this role. He assisted Huygens with air pump experiments from 1671 to 1674, during which time he lived in Huygens's apartments in the Royal Library in Paris [8]:-
Under Huygens's supervision, Papin published a book, 'Nouvelles Expériences du Vuide' (Paris, 1674), based on the experiments he had heard about during his apprenticeship. This included Huygens's design of the air-pump as well as many of his experiments with the instrument that he had performed since 1668, including testing the reaction of animals and plants inside the pump and observing the barometer in the apparently vacuous receiver. Indeed, a section of Papin's book closely follows a lecture that Huygens delivered to the Académie Royale in 1668. Dismissive of the debates in which Huygens had been involved, Papin preferred instead to improve the instrument and to narrate observations of natural phenomena occurring inside the rarefied space of the air-pump. Also in 1674, Boyle, unaware of Papin's book, published a collection of short papers that included works about the 'hidden qualities of the air" ... Huygens received Boyle's collection of papers in June 1675, and in the following month Papin travelled to England with his own air-pump to engage directly with Boyle.
Huygens gave Papin a letter of introduction to Henry Oldenburg, secretary of the Royal Society. In the letter he asked Oldenburg to arrange for Papin to be introduced to Boyle and Brouncker. He also asked Oldenburg if he could find some way of letting Papin establish himself in England. Oldenburg arranged accommodation for Papin, organised for him to undertake temporary work as a tutor, and introduced him to Boyle. Papin joined the congregation of Huguenots in Threadneedle Street but, at this stage, he seemed to want to concentrate on learning English rather than on discussing science. Although the Royal Society of London was operating at this time, meetings were infrequent and Boyle did not attend them. By the autumn of 1675, however, Papin began to try to interest Boyle in his work. He did this by writing a number of papers with Huygens which he published in the Transactions of the Royal Society. At a meeting of the Royal Society in February 1676, Oldenburg reported on both Boyle's experiments and those of Papin and some of the experiments were demonstrated at the Society meeting. Papin had invented a double-barrelled air pump which was particularly effective. Boyle offered Papin a position as his assistant and this was gladly accepted. The two began to carry out experiments but, after Boyle became ill, Papin carried on the work on his own [17]:-
According to Boyle's own testimony, this is what Papin did: he designed and constructed the particular instrument used in these experiments; he operated the instrument, either by himself or with the assistance of other technicians; he measured and recorded almost all of the experimental phenomena; and he planned and organized a great part of the experiments to be per formed. Moreover, he composed at least a significant part, and possibly almost all, of the experimental reports.
Anita McConnell writes [13]:-
From July 1676 to February 1679 [Papin] worked closely with Boyle on experiments connected with respiration, magnetism, air, and the chemistry of blood and various medicaments, which he described in his 'Continuation of New Experiments' (1680).
He remained in this post until 1679 when he became Robert Hooke's assistant at the Royal Society. In 1679 Papin invented the pressure cooker which he demonstrated to the Royal Society [15]:-
The device exemplified the enormous elastic force that steam acquires when heated and confined. The properties of this digester for cooking and extracting gelatine from bones by high pressure steam contains all that is at present practised in the preparation of food by this method.
He published a work in English describing his digester in 1681, namely A new digester or engine for softening bones, containing a description of its make and use. A French edition was published in Paris in 1682. Papin was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1680 as a consequence of his excellent work with Hooke and Boyle. His work for Hooke seems to have been mainly as a low paid secretary and, on 1 March 1681, Papin returned to France to work with Huygens.

Although now established as a leading physicist, Papin did not entirely give up his interest in medicine for in 1681 he wrote A Treatise on Painless Operations [7]:-
In it the author describes the different means which may be used to lull the sensibility of patients and to spare them the pain of operations.
In 1681 Papin left for Italy where he was director of experiments at the Accademia publicca di scienze in Venice until 1684. There had been an attempt by Giovanni Ambrosio Sarotti to turn the Accademia in Venice into a Society modelled on the Royal Society in London and the Académie Royale in Paris. Sarotti had met Papin in England at the time when Sarotti had been elected to the Royal Society in 1679. In fact when Sarotti had returned to Venice, he took with him one of Papin's air pumps. Sarotti had created a magnificent library which he opened for scholars to use on three days each week. One of these days was a Monday and in the evening the scholars would meet for discussions. Experiments were demonstrated at these meetings and mathematics was discussed. However, lack of financial support ended Sarotti's attempt to create a Venetian version of the Royal Society. After leaving Italy, there were religious reasons why Papin could not return to France. He was a Calvinist, born into a Huguenot family, and after the Edict of Nantes which had granted religious liberty to the Huguenots was revoked by Louis XIV in 1685, he became an exile.

Papin returned to London in 1684 working again with the Royal Society until 1687. He was appointed as temporary curator of experiments and over these years wrote many papers and gave many demonstrations of experiments at Royal Society meetings. Some of his papers were published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society but most were preserved unpublished in the archives. In 1687 Papin left England and went to Hesse-Kassel where he was appointed professor of mathematics at the University of Marburg [13]:-
Prospects of a better life opened up in 1687 with Papin's appointment as professor of mathematics at the University of Marburg, in Germany. There he was reunited with other Huguenots who had fled France, among them his cousin Marie Papin and her husband, Jacques Maliverne, likewise a professor at the university, who shortly died, leaving his widow to support their small daughter, Charlotte. Papin's desire to marry Marie was opposed by the local pastor on the grounds of consanguinity and only achieved, on 1 January 1691, by special dispensation from the landgrave of Hesse.
He held this post until 1696 when he worked for the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel until 1707. This time in Hesse-Kassel was not a successful one for Papin who found himself in disagreement with his colleagues. He returned to London, living in Westminster, having left his wife and step-daughter in Germany.

We should mention Papin's friendship with Gottfried Leibniz and also the scientific controversy between the two. They met and became friends in the 1670s when Papin was working with Huygens. At this time Leibniz was a frequent visitor to Huygens' laboratory and so met Papin on a regular basis. Their scientific controversy occurs in an exchange of letters in 1689-1691, beginning with a letter from Leibniz concerning a paper by Papin which discusses the motion of freely falling bodies. Leibniz ends his letter saying:-
We conclude against the Cartesians that quantity of motion should not always be conserved.
The way Papin reacted was both to reply with a letter but also to write further papers. The controversy was over vis viva, what today we call kinetic energy, but the correspondence covered many other topics as well. Further letters were exchanged in 1692. Alberto Guillermo Ranea writes [14]:-
From January to November, 1692, they exchange about ten texts in which both Leibniz and Papin try to give the main points of their arguments. We may conjecture that these texts were intended to be published. But as Leibniz was firmly opposed to Papin's intention of submitting the controversy to the scientific community, they remained unedited ... In November, 1692, their correspondence suddenly stopped, presumably because of Papin's troubles with his new appointment in Marbourg. Nevertheless, they later intensively argue over vis motrix from July, 1695 until Papin's travel to Holland in 1700. ... Papin repeats the grounds of his position throughout the controversy: if we are dealing with bodies which are raised to a certain height by a motion acquired through a previous descent from the same height, we cannot assume that these heights are proportional to the vires motrices, since the forces are diminished by the resistance they must overcome, and not by the distance they traverse.
Papin is best known for his work as an inventor, particularly his work on the steam engine. We have already mentioned his invention of the pressure cooker and, in 1690 he published his first work on the steam engine in De novis quibusdam machinis. The purpose of the steam engine was to raise water to a canal between Kassel and Karlshaven. He also used a steam engine to pump water to a tank on the roof of the palace to supply water for the fountains in the grounds. In 1705, when Leibniz sent Papin a sketch of a steam engine, Papin began working on that topic again and wrote The New Art of Pumping Water by using Steam (1707). He designed a safety valve to prevent the pressure of steam building up to dangerous levels.

Other inventions which Papin worked on were the construction of a submarine, an air gun and a grenade launcher. He tried to build up a glass industry in Hesse-Kassel and also experimented with preserving food both with chemicals and using a vacuum. In 1707 Papin built the first paddle boat and that same year he returned to London where he lived in obscurity and poverty until his death. Clearly he hoped to be employed by the Royal Society when he returned to London in 1707 and he wrote many letters offering to present experiments to the Society. Isaac Newton was, at this time, President of the Royal Society and seems to have given no encouragement for Papin's reemployment. In addition, the Society was itself in financial difficulties and was not in a position to give Papin much in the way of financial assistance. Papin continued to write papers, for example he sent eleven papers to the Royal Society in 1711. These were read to the Society at their meetings but not published despite containing interesting ideas. One important idea he produced was his Hessian Bellows, a machine designed to produce blasts of air for melting ores. This idea became the basis of the blast furnace. The date given for his death is only a guess since no records seem to exist of his last years in London. His last known letter is dated 23 January 1712. The Society had voted to send him £10 for his services on 4 January 1712 but he had not received this payment at the time he wrote the letter on 23 January. It is likely that, with no relatives or money known to those who found him after he died, they would have him buried in an unmarked grave.

As to Papin's character, Alberto Guillermo Ranea writes that he was [14]:-
... a formidably obstinate character, a man incapable of conceding the least advantage to his adversary, a skilled expert in the rules and tricks of the art of disputing.
Although Papin received little in the way of honours in his lifetime, mainly because the importance of his work was not understood until 100 years after his death, nevertheless he has been honoured more recently in his native town of Blois where a bronze statue has been erected and one of the main streets is named after him. A Jean Monnet University building in St Étienne stands in the Rue Denis Papin. The Lycée Professionnel Denis Papin is in La Courneuve, not far from Blois. There is a Rue Papin in Paris as well as a Rue Denis Papin in Échirolles and in Bègles, near Bordeaux. In July 2013 there were 300 year celebrations of Papin's life at Chitenay in the Loir et Cher Department of France.

References (show)

  1. P P MacLaughlin, Biography in Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York 1970-1990).
    See THIS LINK.
  2. Biography in Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  3. C-A Klein, Denis Papin: illustre savant blaisois (Chambray, 1987).
  4. C Cabanes, Denys Papin, inventeur et philosophe cosmopolite (Paris, 1935).
  5. J Chavigny, Grandeur et misère d'un inventeur, Denis Papin (Blois, 1948).
  6. L de Saussaye, La vie et les ouvrages de Denis Papin (Lyon, 1869).
  7. An Interesting Manuscript, The British Medical Journal 2 (824) (1876), 502.
  8. L Boschiero, Translation, experimentation and the spring of the air: Richard Waller's 'Essayes of Natural Experiments', Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London 64 (1) (2010), 67-83.
  9. H W Dickinson, Tercentenary of Denis Papin, Nature 160 (1947), 422-423.
  10. A Guillermo Ranea, Leibniz Briefwechsel mit Denis Papin, Prima philosophia 4 (1991), 277-290.
  11. C Iltis, Leibniz and the Vis Viva Controversy, Isis 62 (1) (1971), 21-35.
  12. C S Maffioli, Guglielmini vs Papin (1691-1697), Science in Bologna at the end of the XVIIth century through a debate on hydraulics, Janus 71 (1-4) (1984), 63-105.
  13. A McConnell, Papin, Denis (1647-1712?), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004). See THIS LINK.
  14. A G Ranea, The a priori method and the actio concept revised : Dynamics and metaphysics in an unpublished controversy between Leibniz and Denis Papin, Studia Leibnitiana 21 (1) (1989), 42-68.
  15. H W Robinson, Denis Papin (1647-1712), Notes and Records of the Royal Society 5 (1947), 48-50.
  16. M E Rowbottom, Some Huguenot friends and acquaintances of Robert Boyle, 1627-1691, Proceedings of the Huguenot Society 20 (1958-64), 177-194.
  17. S Shapin, The Invisible Technician, American Scientist 77 (6) (1989), 554-563.

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Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update March 2014