F. (François) Arago.

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alphabet as if he had been coeval with Cadmus; another, a celebrated
critic — you would have said the old man had studied political economy
and belles-lettres all his life; of science it is unnecessary to speak, it
was his own distinguished walk. And yet, Captain Clutterbuck,
when he spoke with your countryman, Jedediah Cleishbotham, you
would have sworn he had been coeval with Claver'se and Burley, with
the persecutors and persecuted, and could number everj' shot the
dragoons had fired at the fugitive covenanters. In fact we discovered
that no novel of the least celebrity escaped his perusal, and that the
gifted man of science was as much addicted to the productions of your
native country (the land of Utopia aforesaid), in other words, as
shameless and obstinate a peruser of novels as if he had been a very
milliner's apprentice of eighteen."

If our associate had wished it, he could also have made
himself a name among novelists. Among his intimate
friends he seldom failed to improve on the terrible,
moving, or burlesque anecdotes that he heard related. The
minute details of his recitals, the proper names with
which he strewed them ; the technical descriptions he
gave of the castles, the country houses, the forests, the
caverns, to which the sceng was successively transferred,
gave to these impromptus such an air of veracity, that one


could not entertain the slightest sentiment of distrust.
One day however, Watt was at a loss how to extricate
his characters from the labyrinth into which he had im-
prudently thrown them. One of his friends perceived,
by the uncommon number of pinches of snuff he took,
that the narrator wished thereby to excuse frequent
pauses, and gain time for reflection. He therefore ad-
dressed this indiscreet question to him : " Are you per-
haps relating to us a story of your own ci'eation ? "
" That doubt astonishes me," wittily replied the old man ;
" during the twenty years that I have had the happiness
of passing my evenings with you, I have done nothing
else ! It is possible that they really wished to represent
me as emulous of Robertson or of Hume, whilst all my
ambition was limited to follow, however far behind, the
steps of Princess Scheherazade in the Thousand and
One Nights ! "

Each year, during a very short visit to London, or to
other towns at a less distance from Birmingham, Watt
examined minutely all the novelties that had appeared
since his preceding visit. I do not except even the sight
of the industrious fleas or the puppet-shows ; for the
illustrious engineer went to them with all the delight of
a school-boy. While perusing, even at the present day,
the itinerary of these annual excursions, we should find
luminous traces of Watt's presence. At Manchester for
example, we should see the hydraulic ram serving, ac-
cording to his own proposition, to raise the water of con-
densation from a steam-engine up to the reservoir feeding
the caldron.

Watt generally resided on an estate near Soho called
Heathtield, which he acquired about the year 1790.
The filial veneration of my friend Mr. James Watt, for


every thing connected with his father's memory, pro-
curred for me, in 1834, the satisfaction of finding the
library and the furniture at Heathfield in the same state
in which the illustrious engineer left them. Another
property on the picturesque banks of the river Wye, in
Wales, offers to the tourist numerous proofs of the en-
lightened taste both of Watt and of his son, by the
improvement of the roads, by the plantations, and by
agricultural labours of all kinds.

"Watt's health had become stronger with his years.
His intellectual faculties continued in full vigour to his
last moments. He thought at one time that they were
declining, and adhering to the thought expressed on the
seal that he had selected (an eye surrounded by the word
Observare), he determined to clear up his doubts by self-
observation ; accordingly, when above seventy, we see
him seeking the kind of study to which he should best
have recourse for a trial, and distressed that no subject
was new to him. He recollects at last that there is an
Anglo-Saxon language, that it is a difficult language, and
the Anglo-Saxon becomes the desired experimental means,
— the facility which he finds in rendering himself master
of it, proves to him how unfounded his apprehensions

Watt devoted his last days to the construction of a
machine for copying promptly either statues or sculpture
of any size with mathematical fidelity. This machine,
of which we hope the arts will not be deprived, must
have been well advanced. Many of its productions —
already very satisfactory — may be seen in various pri-
vate collections in Scotland and in England. The illus-
trious engineer had presented them in joke, as the first
essays of a young artist entering the eighty-third year of
his age.


It was not permitted to our associate to see the end of
this eighty-third year. From the very beginning of tlie
summer of 1819, some alarming symptoms defied all the
powers of medicine. Watt himself was not deceived.
He said to the numerous friends who visited him — " I
am moved by the attachment that you show me, I hasten
to thank you for it, as you see me arrived at my last ill-
ness." His son did not appear to him sufficiently re-
signed ; whereupon he each day sought a new reason by
which to point out to him with gentleness and tenderness,
" all the motives of consolation that he might derive from
the circumstances under which the inevitable event was
about to occur." This sad event did in fact take place
on the 2oth of August, 1819.

Watt was buried by the side of the parish cliurch of
Heathfield, near Birmingham, in the county of Staftbrd.
Mr. James Watt, whose distinguished talents, and whose
noble sentiments delighted his father's heart for neai'ly
twenty-five years, erected a splendid Gothic monument
to him, and it now greatly adorns Handsworth Church.*
In the centre there stands an admirable statue by
Chantrey, the exact representation of the old man's
noble features.

A second statue, also of marble, from the hands of the
same sculptor, has been placed by filial piety in one of
the halls of the brilliant university where, during his
youth, the then unknown artist, though harassed by the
corporation, received such flattering and well-deserved
encouragement. Isor has Greenock forgotten that Watt

* To a general reader this paragraph might convey an ambiguity;
Watt died in his house at Heathfield, at the age of eighty-three years
and seven months ; and his remains are deposited in the chancel of
the adjoining parochial church of Handsworth, near those of his ex-
cellent friend Miss Boulton. — Translatm-.


was born there. The inhabitants have subscribed for a
statue of the iUustrious mechanic, to be placed in a fine
library, built on a piece of ground generously given by
Sir Michael Shaw Stewart ; and there will be gathered
the books that the town possessed, and the collection of
scientific works that Watt had presented to the towa
during his life. This building has already cost 3500^.
sterling (upwards of 87,000 frs. of our money), a con-
siderable expense for which the liberality of Mr. Watt,
Junior, has provided. A grand colossal statue in bronze,
on a beautiful granite base, now adorns one of the angles
of George's Square, at Glasgow ; proving to all beholders,
how much that capital of Scotch industry prides itself in
having been the cradle of Watt's discoveries. Finally,*
the gates of Westminster Abbey opened at the imposing
voice of a host of subscribers ; and a colossal statue of
our co-academician, of Carrara marble, a masterpiece of
Chantrey's, the pedestal bearing an inscription by Lord
Brougham, has become within these few years one of the
principal ornaments of the English Pantheon. Doubt-
less a little coquetry was necessary to bring together the
illustrious names of Watt, Chantrey, and Brougham on
the same monument ; but I can see nothing to blame in
it : glory to the people who thus seize every opportunity
of honouring their great men !

This inscription by Lord Brougham, put on the
pedestal of the statue of our confrere, appears to us to
be worthy of a place in these pages, devoted to the mem-
ory of one of the greatest geniuses that ever illustrated
science and industry ; we will reproduce it then literally,
a translation shall follow : —

* Two years ago a statue of Watt was erected in Edinburgh. —

LORD brougham's INSCRIPTION. 451






















There are, actually counted, five large statues erected
in a slioz't time to the honour of "Watt. Must we ac-
knowledge it ? — this homage of filial piety, of public
gratitude, has excited the ill-humour of some narrow
minds, who, remaining stationary themselves, think they
can arrest the march of centuries. If we believe them,
some military men, some magistrates, some ministers (I
must confess they have not dared to say all the ministers),
would have a right to statues. I know not whether
Homer, Aristotle, Descartes, Newton would appear to
these new Aristarchi deserving of a bust ; assuredly they
would refuse the most unassuming medal to the Papins,
the Vaucansons, the Watts, the Arkwrights, and other
mechanics, unknown, perhaps, in a certain world, but

* The French trauslation, for obvious reasons, is omitted. — Trans-


whose renown will go on increasing from age to age with
the progress of knowledge. When such heresies are
brought forward in open daylight, we ought not to dis-
dain combating them. It is not without reason that the
public has been called a sponge of prejudices ; now pre-
judices are like noxious weeds, the slightest effort suffices
to extirpate them on their first appearance ; but, on the
other hand, they resist if they are allowed time to grow,
to expand, to seize by their numerous organs all that is
suited to their nature.

If this discussion should wound the self-love of some
people, I must remark that it has been provoked. Have
the learned men of our own times uttered complaints at
not seeing any of the great authors, whose inheritance
they cultivate, figure in those long ranges of colossal
statues, which authority pompously raises on our bridges
and in our public squares ? Do they not know that
their monuments are fragile, that storms upset and de-
stroy them, that frost suffices to spoil their outlines, and
to reduce them to amorphous blocks ?

Their sculptui'e and their painting is the press. Thanks
to that admirable invention, when the works which science
or imagination produces possess real merit, they may defy
time and political revolutions. Neither the exigencies of
the Exchequer, nor the inquietudes and terrors of des-
pots, could prevent those productions from penetrating
beyond the best-guarded frontiers. A thousand ships
will carry them, in various shapes, from one hemisphere
to the other. They will be read in Iceland and in Van
Diemen's Land at the same time. They will be read at
evening meetings in the humble cottage, they will be read
in brilliant assemblies in palaces. The author, the artist,
ihe engineer are known, appreciated, by the whole world,


by that which there is in man of most noble, of most
elevated : by the soul, by the thoughts, by the intellect.
How foolish must that man be who, placed on such a
theatre, should be detected in wishing that his lineaments
were preserved by the chisel of a David,* to be some day
exposed to the glances of idlers taking their walk. Such
honours, I repeat it, need not be envied by the learned
man, by the author, or by the artist ; but they ought not,
on any account, to allow themselves to be declared un-
worthy of them. Such, at least, have been the thoughts
that lead me to submit the following discussion to your
Is it not a truly strange circumstance, that these vain
pretensions that I am combating should have been raised
merely on account of these five statues, not one of which
cost a single obolus to the public treasury ? Far from
me, however, to take advantage of this inconsiderateness.
I pi-efer taking the question in a more general point
of view, such as it was laid down : the pretended pre-
eminence of arms over letters, over science, over art ; for
we must not deceive ourselves — if magistrates and ad-
ministrators have been mentioned together with military
men, it was only as a passport.

The shortness of the time allowed me for this discus-

* It is uncertain whether the noted Jacques Louis David, or Pierre
Jean David is here meant; for though the former is generally known
as a painter only, he proposed to construct a huge colossus in honour
of the people, out of the ruins of royal statues; and of this he made a
model. But we could have wished that our author's taste had pre-
vented his intruding the truisms in this and m the tirade which fol-
lows; at least, the biography of the enriched and greatly honoured
Watt hardly appears to be a fit peg whereon to hang so laboured a
declamation. Even now, one of the finest line-of-battle ships in the
British fleet is the James Watt; still, we admit, the best records of
an eminent man are certainly his works. — Translator.


sion, imposes on me the duty of being methodical. In
order that my sentiments may not be mistaken, I will at
once declare aloud that independence, that national lib-
erty, are in my opinion the greatest possible good ; that
to defend them against foreigners, or against internal
enemies, is our first duty ; and that to have defended
them at the cost of our blood, is the highest title to pub-
lic gratitude. Raise, raise splendid monuments to the
memory of the soldiers who fell on the glorious ramparts
of Mayence, on the immortal fields of Zurich, of Marengo,
and certainly my offering shall not be waited for ; but do
not require me to do violence to my reason, to the senti-
ments that Nature has implanted in the human heart ; do
not hope that I will ever consent to place all military
services on the same level.

What Frenchman possessed of a heart, even in the
reign of Louis XIV., would have sought for an example
of courage either among the scenes of cruelty in the
Dragonnades, or among the whirlwinds of flame that
devoured the towns, the villages, and the rich country
of the Palatinate ?

Not long since, after a thousand prodigies of patience,
of cleverness, of bravery, our valiant soldiers penetrated
into the half-destroyed Saragossa, and reached the door
of a church where the preacher was still making the ears
of the resigned crowd ring w^ith these magnificent words :
" Spaniards, I am going to celebrate your funerals ! " I
know not, but I think that at such a moment the true
friends of our national glory, comparing the various
merits of the conquerors and the vanquished, would
willingly perhaps have inverted the address !

But I consent to your laying aside the question of
morality. Submit the personal claims of some gainers


of battles to the crucible of a conscientious analysis ;
believe me, that even if you make an equitable partition
by chance (a sort of ally ior whom one always makes
allowance, as being dumb), many pretended heroes will
appear to you very unworthy of that pompous title.

If it were found requisite, I would not recoil from
a detailed examination ; I, who in a purely academic
career, can have had but little opportunity of collecting
correct documents on such a subject, — I could, for exam-
p\e, cite in our own annals a recent battle, a battle gained,
the official report of which describes it as having been
foreseen and calmly prepared, with the most consummate
ability ; but which, in reality, was the result of a sudden
rush on the part of the soldiers, without any order from
the Commander-in-Chief to whom the honour was as-
signed, without his having been there, without his having
known of it !

To escape from the commonplace reproach of incom-
petence, I will call on some military men themselves to
aid in supporting the philosophic thesis which I maintain.
It will be seen what enthusiastic and enlightened appre-
ciators they were of intellectual labours ; it will be seen
that in their inner mind, these never held a second rank.
Obliged to restrict myself, I will try to make high re-
nown supply the deficiency of number and novelty : I
will cite Alexander, Pompey, Cassar, and Napoleon !

The Macedonian conqueror's admiration of Homer is
historical. Aristotle at his desire undertook the task of
revising the text of the Iliad. That corrected copy be-
came a cherished book ; and when, in the centre of Asia,
amidst the spoils of Darius, a magnificent casket was
found, enriched with gold, pearls, and precious stones,
which seemed to excite the covetousness of his highest


officers, the conqueror of Arbela exclaimed : " Let that
be reserved for me ; it shall contain my Homer. It is
the best and most faithful counsellor I have in my mili-
tary affairs. Besides, it is but just that the richest pro-
duction of art should preserve the most precious work of
the human mind."

The sacking of Thebes had already shown, still more
clearly, the unlimited respect and admiration that Alex-
ander entertained for letters. Only one family out of
that populous city escaped death and slavery : this was
the family of Pindar. Only one house remained intact
amidst the ruined temples, palaces, and private dwellings :
this was the house where Pindar was born, not Epami-
nondas !

When Pompey, after finishing the war against Mithri-
dates, went to visit the celebrated philosopher Posidonias,
he prohibited the lictors from knocking at the door with
their sticks, as was the custom. Thus, says PHny, were
the fasces of the man who had seen the East and the
West prostrated before him, lowered before the humble
dwelling of a learned man !

Cffisar, who may also be claimed as a man of letters,
allows us to perceive, in at least twenty places in his im-
mortal Commentaries, what rank was occupied in his own
esteem by the various faculties with which nature had so
liberally endowed him. How brief he is, how rapid in
relating combats and battles ! See, on the contrary,
whether he thinks any detail superfluous in the descrip-
tion of the temporary bridge by means of which his army
crossed the Rhine. It is because success depended here
on the conception, and the conception was exclusively
his own.

It has also been already remarked, that the part which


Ca2sar by preference attributed to himself in tlie events
of the war, that of which he seems to have been most
proud, was a moral influence. Ccesar harangued his army,
is constantly the first phrase with which he begins, when
describing a battle gained. And Ccesar did not arrive
soon enough to talk to his soldiers, to exhort them to con-
duct themselves tvell, is the general accompaniment of the
recital of a surprise or of a momentary rei^ulse. The
general frequently undertakes to efface himself in the
presence of the orator. And the judicious Montaigne
remarks : " His language, truly, in many places, does
him notable service ! "

Meantime, without transition, without even insisting-
on the well-known exclamation of Frederic the Great :
'■'■Iwould rather have written the Century of Louis XIV.
by Voltaire, than have gained a hundred battles." I
come to Napoleon. As we must hasten on, I will not
recall the celebrated proclamations, written under the
shade of the Egyptian Pyramids by the Member of the
Institute, Commander-in-Chief of the army of the East ;
nor the treaties of peace, in which monuments of art or
of science were the price of the vanquished people's ran-
som ; nor the profound esteem which the general, become
emperor, never ceased to feel for the Lagranges, the La-
places, the Monges, the Berthollets, nor the riches nor
the honoui's which he showered down upon them. An
anecdote, little known, will lead more directly to my

Everybody remembers the decennial prizes. The four
classes of the Institute had sketched out rapid analyses
of the progress made in the sciences, letters,, and arts.
The presidents and the ^secretaries were to be called in
succession to read them to Napoleon, in the presence of

SEC. SER. 20


the great dignitaries of the empii-e, and the Council of

On the 27th of February, 1808, it came to the turn
of the French Academy. As may be easily supposed,
the assembly on that day was even more numerous than
usual : who does not think himself a judge in matters of
taste ? Chenier reads. He is listened to with attentive
silence : but all at once he is interrupted by the emperor,
who, putting his hand on his heart, his body leaning for-
ward, his voice affected by a visible emotion, exclaimed :
"It is too much, too much. Gentlemen, you overpower
me ; words fail me in which to express my gratitude'! "

I leave you to imagine the deep surprise of the many
courtiers who witnessed this scene ; those men who from
flattery to flattery had come at last to say to their mastei-,
and without his appearing astonished at it : " When
God had created Napoleon, he felt the want of re-
pose ! "

But what then were the words that went so exactly, so
directly to the heart of Napoleon ? These words were
the following : —

" In camps where, far from the calamities of the inte-
rior, national glory was unalterably preserved, another
style of eloquence arose, unknown until then to modern
nations. We must even acknowledge, that when we read
in ancient authors harangues from the most renowned
leaders, we are often tempted to admire only the talent
of the historians in them. But here, it is impossible to
doubt ; the monuments exist : history has only to collect
them together. It was from the armies of Italy that
those beautiful proclamations emanated, in which the
conqueror of Lodi and of Arcoli, created at the same
time a new system of warfarp, and a new style <if mill-


tary eloquence, of which he will for ever remain the

On the 28th of February, the clay after the celebrated
sitting that I have just described, the Moniteur, with its
known fidelity, published an answer from the emperor to
Chenier's discourse. It was cold, laconic, unmeaning ;
it had, in short, all the chai'acteristics that other people
would say are those of an official document. As to the
incident that I recorded, there was no allusion to it ; a
wretched concession to predomuiant opinions, to the sus-
ceptibilities of a military etiquette ! The master of the
world, to use Pliny's expression, ceding for a moment to
his inward feeling, had not the less bowed his fasces to
the literary title awarded to him by an Academy.

These reflections on the comparative merits of the
man of letters and the man of arras, although not chiefly
suggested by what is said, by what is done under our
ocular experience, would not be inapplicable to the
country of James Watt. I travelled not long since
through England and Scotland. The good will with
which I was received, authorized questions on my part,
as dry, as pointed, as direct, as might, under other cir-
cumstances, have come only from the president of a com-
mission of inquiry. Already fully preoccupied with the
obligation I should be under, at my return, to give a
judgment on the illustrious mechanic ; already feeling
uneasy at the solemn character of the meeting before
which I am speaking, I had prepared the following
question: "What do you think of the influence that
Watt had on the riches, on the power, and on the pros-
perity of England?" I do not exaggerate in saying
that I addressed this question to upwards of a hundred
])crson^ belonging to all classes of society, to all varie-

Online LibraryF. (François) AragoBiographies of distinguished scientific men (Volume 2) → online text (page 35 of 38)