Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788)

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February 18, 2020

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788)

On publishing curiosities, burning mirrors, and bison

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Vol. II, plate XV: A drawing of a burning mirror that Buffon used. Burning mirrors could produce flames at their focal point and were used to achieve high temperatures in Buffon’s era.

Vol. II, plate XV: A drawing of a burning mirror that Buffon used. Burning mirrors could produce flames at their focal point and were used to achieve high temperatures in Buffon’s era.

The Wenner Collection has a tremendous resource for historians of science in the 12-volume series of Buffon’s Suppléments à l’Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière. Part of his larger series, it is:

 

  • Volumes I through IV : Servant de suite à la Théorie de la Terre, et d’introduction à l’histoire des Minéraux.  Volumes I and II were published in 1774, III and IV in 1776.
  • Volumes V and VI: Servant de suite à l’histoire des Animaux quadrupèdes, published in 1777.
  • Volumes VII and VIII : Servant de suite à l’Histoire Naturelle de l’Homme, 1778.
  • Volumes IX and X : Contenant Les Époques de la nature, 1778.
  • Volumes XI and XII: Servant de suite à l’histoire des Animaux quadrupèdes,1782.
  • There are two volumes missing from the Wenner Collection in the series, XIII and XIV, both on quadrupeds.

 

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Vol. X, pg. 211: Notes justifying the facts in Époques.

Vol. X, pg. 211: Notes justifying the facts in Époques.     

This is an interesting edition of the Supplément. In his notes about it, Wenner refers to the Époques as being in Volume V, which is incorrect for this edition, as they are in IX and X. All note being published À Paris de L’Imprimerie Royale. All but volumes I, II, IX, and X state they have been copied from a quarto edition (Suivent la copie in 4. ). There are two volumes in the Wenner Collection's edition for each one of the quarto edition by the same publisher. The books have probably been rebound at some time, and don’t show much wear from use; some are so tight they barely open, and some have unopened pages. It would be interesting to know the history of this set! Volume I has a few undecipherable notations in pencil on a page at the front. There are a number of illustrations as well as tables of contents for each two volumes.

 Volumes I-IV, containing his revised theory of the earth and the history of minerals, record Buffon’s extensive and meticulous experimentation testing his assumptions about the time necessary for the earth to come from a molten state to its current status. He employed spheres of iron and those of a number of mineral compositions in various sizes from molten (or as close as he could get to it) to the point where he could put his finger on it without burning, and finally to “current temperatures.” Page after page of data and calculations record his reasoning and calculations as he worked through estimations of more than 75,000 to millions of years by including factors such as changing sea levels and sediment accumulation. When he got to the Époques in Volumes IX and X, he still used his estimate of 75,000 years, although his accounts of a molten Earth progressing through all the stages to our currently observed world surely implied a far greater time.

            The series is very well illustrated with quite exquisite drawings. Some of those are so large and folded so tightly it makes one question how many people have looked at them over their nearly 250 years since being printed. Here are a few examples:

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Vol. X, facing pg.372: Maps depicting the earth from the two polar regions.

Vol. X, facing pg.372: Maps depicting the earth from the two polar regions.

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Table of wood strengths and forge

Left: Vol. III, pg. 255: Buffon was well known for experiments on wood strength.

Right: Vol. II, plate II: A drawing of the forge Buffon designed.  

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Vol. I, pg. 251: A table of cooling times: The 1st column, cooling time needed to be able to withstand touching the substance for one half second; the 2nd, cooling time to ambient temperature. Buffon clarified his methods with extensive comments.
Vol. I, pg. 251: A table of cooling times: The 1st column, cooling time needed to be able to withstand touching the substance for one half second; the 2nd, cooling time to ambient temperature. Buffon clarified his methods with extensive comments.

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Left: Vol. VII, pg. 488: Buffon was known for his extensive population studies. Right: Vol. IX, p.iii: Some of the table of contents, Époques.

Left: Vol. VII, pg. 488: Buffon was known for his extensive population studies.

Right: Vol. IX, p.iii: Some of the table of contents, Époques.

 

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Vol. V, plate facing pg. 102: Bison. Buffon was known for his view that New World animals were “degenerate” and smaller than those in Europe. Thomas Jefferson objected to that view.

Vol. V, plate facing pg. 102: Bison. Buffon was known for his view that New World animals were “degenerate” and smaller than those in Europe. Thomas Jefferson objected to that view.

The entire Histoire Naturelle of which the Supplément is a part is probably the best-known of Buffon’s works, and was written over nearly 50 years from 1753 until 1789. It included twelve volumes on quadrupeds, nine on birds and five on minerals, as well as the original seven of the Suppléments. It displays the progression of Buffon’s thought, increasingly based on empirical evidence as science itself was. The whole series contains Buffon’s building sense of the earth’s history and includes his novel experimental methods of determining it.

Buffon is recognized as a major figure in the thought of life and earth sciences in Europe and Britain in the 18th and into the 19th centuries, although his place in the hierarchy is disputed.  Some of his well-known contemporaries such as Condorcet considered him a charlatan. Taylor (1997, 1409) pointed out, “his more evident scientific successes were more in pointing in new and promising directions than in effecting definitive resolutions of particular problems.” His first notable work was in mathematics where he was said to have independently discovered Newton’s binomial theory when he was twenty, and introduced differential and integral calculus into probability theory (Roger 1970, 577). Known for having influence in the right places, he was appointed to successive positions, ending as intendant at the Jardin du Roi, which led to his turn toward the natural sciences. The writing is more in the style of natural history rather than pure science as he shared his expansive view of the world.

 

Some references that lead into the rich Buffon scholarship are:

Roger, J. 1970. Buffon, Georges-Leclerc, Comte de. Dictionary of Scientific Biography, v.2, pp.576-582.

Roger, J. 1997. Buffon: A Life in Natural History. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Sloan, P. 2008. Buffon, Georges-Leclerc, Comte de. New Dictionary of Scientific Biography, v.1, pp.431-436.

Taylor, K. L. 1997. A Naturalist of Note. Book Reviews, Science v. 278, pp.1409-1410.

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Histoire_Naturelle

 

About the Author: 

After raising two excellent children and following her husband overseas several times, Sally Newcomb re-joined the academic world to add to her B.S. in chemistry. This resulted in a master’s degree in geochemistry, and another with the Committee on the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Maryland. Sally taught inorganic chemistry and physical geology at Prince George’s Community College, but retired to write history of the geosciences full time. This resulted in Special Paper 449 with the Geol. Soc. of America and a number of articles, serving as Chair of her GSA division and co-leading a Pardee session on the history of the ophiolite concept, as well being elected a Fellow of GSA. Sally is currently working on a long paper about early mapping and geological interpretation in mid-18th century America.

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