Gaspard Monge (1746 - 1818)

The French mathematician Gaspard Monge is responsible for developing many techniques used in modern technical drawing. In particular he is known for his Descriptive Geometry, which enables us to show three-dimensional objects in a two-dimensional drawing so that their geometric properties can be investigated and described accurately. He founded the École Polytechnique, the first modern engineering school.

His first break came about when a plan of his home town, Beaune, that he had drawn was seen by an officer at a military training school in a place called Mézières. However, because his father was only a merchant, and not of the correct social standing, Monge was only admitted to the annex of the school, where he studied surveying and technical drawing, and he had to study his beloved geometry in his spare time. Eventually he was given a project that combined his two skills when he was asked to design some fortifications that would prevent an enemy from seeing or attacking a military target regardless of the enemy’s position. It was such a success that he was appointed a professor, although his techniques were so advanced that they were labelled a military secret for ranking officers only!

In 1870 he was elected to the Academy as a specialist in geometry, and was by now teaching so much that he had to hire other tutors to teach some of his classes! He was also on the commission for Weights and Measures, which was involved in moving the system from imperial to metric (pounds and ounces to kilos and grams).

When the French Revolution began in 1789 with the storming of the Bastille, Monge, a staunch republican, joined various organisations to support it. Monge was appointed as the Minister of the Navy in 1792, but was not cut out to be a politician, and lasted only 8 months.

Despite the abolition of the Academy of Science in 1793, Monge continued his work, giving courses and writing papers on military topics such as arms and explosives. In 1794 he was appointed to help set up the École Centrale des Travaux Publics, where he trained other teachers in Descriptive Geometry. He also campaigned for the reinstatement of the Academy, which was eventually restarted and renamed the Institut National in 1795.

In 1796 he travelled to Italy - which had recently been conquered by France - to select the spoils for the victors. It was while in Italy that he met and formed a friendship with the Emperor Napoleon. When Napoleon defeated Austria, he entrusted Monge to carry the Treaty of Campo Formio (the document confirming Austria’s surrender) back to France in 1797.

In 1798, Monge went with Napoleon’s army to Egypt, along with Fourier. After France’s infamous defeat at the battle of the Nile, Monge was appointed president of the Egyptian Institute. When he returned to France in 1799, Napoleon appointed him as a lifelong senator on the newly founded Consulate, and later named him as the Count of Péluse.

Monge continued to support Napoleon even after his defeat at Waterloo, only leaving France after Napoleon in 1815. When he returned a year later he was immediately expelled from the Academy and frequently attacked for his unpopular political opinions. When he died in 1818, his pupils showed their support, even though officially they were banned from doing so.