1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fourier, Jean Baptiste Joseph
FOURIER, JEAN BAPTISTE JOSEPH (1768–1830), French mathematician, was born at Auxerre on the 21st of March 1768. He was the son of a tailor, and was left an orphan in his eighth year; but, through the kindness of a friend, admission was gained for him into the military school of his native town, which was then under the direction of the Benedictines of Saint-Maur. He soon distinguished himself as a student and made rapid progress, especially in mathematics. Debarred from entering the army on account of his lowness of birth and poverty, he was appointed professor of mathematics in the school in which he had been a pupil. In 1787 he became a novice at the abbey of St Benoît-sur-Loire; but he left the abbey in 1789 and returned to his college, where, in addition to his mathematical duties, he was frequently called to lecture on other subjects,—rhetoric, philosophy and history. On the institution of the École Normale at Paris in 1795 he was sent to teach in it, and was afterwards attached to the École Polytechnique, where he occupied the chair of analysis. Fourier was one of the savants who accompanied Bonaparte to Egypt in 1798; and during this expedition he was called to discharge important political duties in addition to his scientific ones. He was for a time virtually governor of half Egypt, and for three years was secretary of the Institut du Caire; he also delivered the funeral orations for Kléber and Desaix. He returned to France in 1801, and in the following year he was nominated prefect of Isère, and was created baron and chevalier of the Legion of Honour. He took an important part in the preparation of the famous Description de l’Égypte and wrote the historical introduction. He held his prefecture for fourteen years; and it was during this period that he carried on his elaborate and fruitful investigations on the conduction of heat. On the return of Napoleon from Elba, in 1815, Fourier published a royalist proclamation, and left Grenoble as Napoleon entered it. He was then deprived of his prefecture, and, although immediately named prefect of the Rhône, was soon after again deprived. He now settled at Paris, was elected to the Académie des Sciences in 1816, but in consequence of the opposition of Louis XVIII. was not admitted till the following year, when he succeeded the Abbé Alexis de Rochon. In 1822 he was made perpetual secretary in conjunction with Cuvier, in succession to Delambre. In 1826 Fourier became a member of the French Academy, and in 1827 succeeded Laplace as president of the council of the École Polytechnique. In 1828 he became a member of the government commission established for the encouragement of literature. He died at Paris on the 16th of May 1830.
As a politician Fourier achieved uncommon success, but his fame chiefly rests on his strikingly original contributions to science and mathematics. The theory of heat engaged his attention quite early, and in 1812 he obtained a prize offered by the Académie des Sciences with a memoir in two parts, Théorie des mouvements de la chaleur dans les corps solides. The first part was republished in 1822 as La Théorie analytique de la chaleur, which by its new methods and great results made an epoch in the history of mathematical and physical science (see below: Fourier’s Series). An English translation has been published by A. Freeman (Cambridge, 1872), and a German by Weinstein (Berlin, 1884). His mathematical researches were also concerned with the theory of equations, but the question as to his priority on several points has been keenly discussed. After his death Navier completed and published Fourier’s unfinished work, Analyse des équations indéterminées (1831), which contains much original matter. In addition to the works above mentioned, Fourier wrote many memoirs on scientific subjects, and éloges of distinguished men of science. His works have been collected and edited by Gaston Darboux with the title Œuvres de Fourier (Paris, 1889-1890).
For a list of Fourier’s publications see the Catalogue of Scientific Papers of the Royal Society of London. Reference may also be made to Arago, “Joseph Fourier,” in the Smithsonian Report (1871).