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Charles-Augustin Coulomb
(14 Jun 1736 - 23 Aug 1806)

French physicist who was a civil engineer in his early career, and later conducted experiments on electricity, for which he is best known. The SI unit of charge was named for him.


Charles-Augustin Coulomb
“The Sciences are monuments”

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“The Sciences are monuments devoted to the public good; each citizen owes to them a tribute proportional to his talents.”
— Charles-Augustin Coulomb
Mémoires présentés par divers Savants à l'Académie des Sciences (1778)

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This quote was written early in Coulomb's career, when he was a civil engineer. Hence the metaphor of a building is very apt. Charles-Augustin Coulomb is now remembered for his pioneering researches on electricity (for which the SI unit of charge has been named after him) that he undertook later in life. However, as a young graduate of the École du Corps Royale du Génie, he was qualified to act as the engineering officer assigned to Martinique (Feb 1764 to Jun 1772).

During the eight years he spent at Martinique, his duties included designing defensive fortifications on the island to protect it against possible attacks by the English Navy. For the construction designs, he had to work on the four “classic” eighteenth-century problems of civil engineering: the strength of columns and beams, the thrust of soil, and the thrust of arches. He wrote a book-length Mémoire1 of his solutions to these problems, which he read to the Académie Royale des Sciences on 10 Mar 1773 and 2 Apr 1773, the year after he had returned to France. It was published in 1776.

The most notable section of this book deals with the mathematical analysis of the problem of the thrust of soil. This was such a fundamental advance over any previous effort by others, that he is regarded as the father of soil mechanics.

Although originally written for his own use, as he developed the mathematical treatments applied to civil engineering, he published his work in the hope that it would be useful to others. He expressed this in his Introduction,1 addressed to the Académie: “Les Sciences sont des monumens consacrés au bien public; chaque citoyen leur doit un tribut proportionné à sès talens. Tandis que les grands hommes, portés au sommet de l’édifice, tracent & élèvent les étages supérieurs, les artistes ordinaires répandus dans les étages inférieurs, ou cachés dans l’obscurité des fondemens, doivent seulement chercher à perfectionner ce que des mains plus habiles ont créé.”

“The Sciences are monuments devoted to the public good; each citizen owes to them a tribute proportional to his talents. While the great men, carried to the summit of the edifice, draw and put up the higher floors, the ordinary artists scattered in the lower floors, or hidden in the obscurity of the foundations, must only seek to improve what cleverer hands have created.”

In his book on Structural Analysis,2 Jacques Heyman restates this part of Coulomb’s introduction..Quoting in Heyman’s words, Coulomb hoped that “the Académie will find his small contribution to the monument of learning to be useful; the grand design is in the hands of great men, but lesser workers, hidden in the darkness of the foundations, may also perhaps be of help.”

1 C.A. Coulomb, 'Essai sur une application des règles de maximis & minimis à quelques problèmes de statique, relatifs à l’architecture, Mémoires de Mathématique & de Physique, présentés à l‘Académie Royale des Sciences par divers Savans, & lûs dans ses Assemblées (1776), 7, 343-82. Reprinted in Théorie des machines simples (1821). Reproduced in Jacques Heyman, Coulomb's Memoir on Statics: An Essay in the History of Civil Engineering (1972), 4.
2 Jacques Heyman, Structural Analysis: A Historical Approach (1998), 24.

Text by Webmaster with biographical information and original French quote from Heyman’s books. English translation of subject quote from Ivor Grattan-Guinness, Convolutions in French Mathematics, 1800-1840: From the Calculus and Mechanics to Mathematical Analysis and Mathematical Physics (1990), Vol. 1, 533. (source)


See also:

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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- 90 -
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- 80 -
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- 30 -
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- 10 -
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