# 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lagrange, Joseph Louis

**LAGRANGE, JOSEPH LOUIS** (1736–1813), French mathematician,
was born at Turin, on the 25th of January 1736. He
was of French extraction, his great grandfather, a cavalry
captain, having passed from the service of France to that of
Sardinia, and settled in Turin under Emmanuel II. His father,
Joseph Louis Lagrange, married Maria Theresa Gros, only
daughter of a rich physician at Cambiano, and had by her eleven
children, of whom only the eldest (the subject of this notice)
and the youngest survived infancy. His emoluments as treasurer
at war, together with his wife’s fortune, provided him with
ample means, which he lost by rash speculations, a circumstance
regarded by his son as the prelude to his own good fortune; for
had he been rich, he used to say, he might never have known
mathematics.

The genius of Lagrange did not at once take its true bent.
His earliest tastes were literary rather than scientific, and he
learned the rudiments of geometry during his first year at the
college of Turin, without difficulty, but without distinction.
The perusal of a tract by Halley (*Phil. Trans*. xviii. 960)
roused his enthusiasm for the analytical method, of which he
was destined to develop the utmost capabilities. He now entered,
unaided save by his own unerring tact and vivid apprehension,
upon a course of study which, in two years, placed him on a level
with the greatest of his contemporaries. At the age of nineteen
he communicated to Leonhard Euler his idea of a general method
of dealing with “isoperimetrical” problems, known later as
the Calculus of Variations. It was eagerly welcomed by the
Berlin mathematician, who had the generosity to withhold from
publication his own further researches on the subject, until his
youthful correspondent should have had time to complete and
opportunity to claim the invention. This prosperous opening
gave the key-note to Lagrange’s career. Appointed, in 1754,
professor of geometry in the royal school of artillery, he formed
with some of his pupils—for the most part his seniors—friendships
based on community of scientific ardour. With the aid of
the marquis de Saluces and the anatomist G. F. Cigna, he
founded in 1758 a society which became the Turin Academy of
Sciences. The first volume of its memoirs, published in the
following year, contained a paper by Lagrange entitled *Recherches*
*sur la nature et la propagation du son*, in which the power of his
analysis and his address in its application were equally conspicuous.
He made his first appearance in public as the critic
of Newton, and the arbiter between d’Alembert and Euler. By
considering only the particles of air found in a right line, he
reduced the problem of the propagation of sound to the solution of
the same partial differential equations that include the motions
of vibrating strings, and demonstrated the insufficiency of the
methods employed by both his great contemporaries in dealing
with the latter subject. He further treated in a masterly manner
of echoes and the mixture of sounds, and explained the phenomenon
of grave harmonics as due to the occurrence of beats so
rapid as to generate a musical note. This was followed, in the
second volume of the *Miscellanea Taurinensia* (1762) by his
“Essai d’une nouvelle méthode pour déterminer les maxima et
les minima des formules intégrales indéfinies,” together with the
application of this important development of analysis to the
solution of several dynamical problems, as well as to the demonstration
of the mechanical principle of “least action.” The
essential point in his advance on Euler’s mode of investigating
curves of maximum or minimum consisted in his purely analytical
conception of the subject. He not only freed it from all trammels
of geometrical construction, but by the introduction of the
symbol δ gave it the efficacy of a new calculus. He is thus justly
regarded as the inventor of the “method of variations”—a
name supplied by Euler in 1766.

By these performances Lagrange found himself, at the age of twenty-six, on the summit of European fame. Such a height had not been reached without cost. Intense application during early youth had weakened a constitution never robust, and led to accesses of feverish exaltation culminating, in the spring of 1761, in an attack of bilious hypochondria, which permanently lowered the tone of his nervous system. Rest and exercise, however, temporarily restored his health, and he gave proof of the undiminished vigour of his powers by carrying off, in 1764, the prize offered by the Paris Academy of Sciences for the best essay on the libration of the moon. His treatise was remarkable, not only as offering a satisfactory explanation of the coincidence between the lunar periods of rotation and revolution, but as containing the first employment of his radical formula of mechanics, obtained by combining with the principle of d’Alembert that of virtual velocities. His success encouraged the Academy to propose, in 1766, as a theme for competition, the hitherto unattempted theory of the Jovian system. The prize was again awarded to Lagrange; and he earned the same distinction with essays on the problem of three bodies in 1772, on the secular equation of the moon in 1774, and in 1778 on the theory of cometary perturbations.

He had in the meantime gratified a long felt desire by a visit to Paris, where he enjoyed the stimulating delight of conversing with such mathematicians as A. C. Clairault, d’Alembert, Condorcet and the Abbé Marie. Illness prevented him from visiting London. The post of director of the mathematical department of the Berlin Academy (of which he had been a member since 1759) becoming vacant by the removal of Euler to St Petersburg, the latter and d’Alembert united to recommend Lagrange as his successor. Euler’s eulogium was enhanced by his desire to quit Berlin, d’Alembert’s by his dread of a royal command to repair thither; and the result was that an invitation, conveying the wish of the “greatest king in Europe” to have the “greatest mathematician” at his court, was sent to Turin. On the 6th of November 1766, Lagrange was installed in his new position, with a salary of 6000 francs, ample leisure for scientific research, and royal favour sufficient to secure him respect without exciting envy. The national jealousy of foreigners, was at first a source of annoyance to him; but such prejudices were gradually disarmed by the inoffensiveness of his demeanour. We are told that the universal example of his colleagues, rather than any desire for female society, impelled him to matrimony; his choice being a lady of the Conti family, who, by his request, joined him at Berlin. Soon after marriage his wife was attacked by a lingering illness, to which she succumbed, Lagrange devoting all his time, and a considerable store of medical knowledge, to her care.

The long series of memoirs—some of them complete treatises of great moment in the history of science—communicated by Lagrange to the Berlin Academy between the years 1767 and 1787 were not the only fruits of his exile. His *Mécanique analytique*, in which his genius most fully displayed itself, was produced during the same period. This great work was the perfect realization of a design conceived by the author almost in boyhood, and clearly sketched in his first published essay.^{[1]} Its scope may be briefly described as the reduction of the theory of mechanics to certain general formulae, from the simple development of which should be derived the equations necessary for the solution of each separate problem.^{[2]} From the fundamental principle of virtual velocities, which thus acquired a new significance, Lagrange deduced, with the aid of the calculus of variations, the whole system of mechanical truths, by processes so elegant, lucid and harmonious as to constitute, in Sir William Hamilton’s words, “a kind of scientific poem.” This unification of method was one of matter also. By his mode of regarding a liquid as a material system characterized by the unshackled mobility of its minutest parts, the separation between the mechanics of matter in different forms of aggregation finally disappeared, and the fundamental equation of forces was for the first time extended to hydrostatics and hydrodynamics.^{[3]} Thus a universal science of matter and motion was derived, by an unbroken sequence of deduction, from one radical principle; and analytical mechanics assumed the clear and complete form of logical perfection which it now wears.

A publisher having with some difficulty been found, the book appeared at Paris in 1788 under the supervision of A. M. Legendre. But before that time Lagrange himself was on the spot. After the death of Frederick the Great, his presence was competed for by the courts of France, Spain and Naples, and a residence in Berlin having ceased to possess any attraction for him, he removed to Paris in 1787. Marie Antoinette warmly patronized him. He was lodged in the Louvre, received the grant of an income equal to that he had hitherto enjoyed, and, with the title of “veteran pensioner” in lieu of that of “foreign associate” (conferred in 1772), the right of voting at the deliberations of the Academy. In the midst of these distinctions, a profound melancholy seized upon him. His mathematical enthusiasm was for the time completely quenched, and during two years the printed volume of his *Mécanique*, which he had seen only in manuscript, lay unopened beside him. He relieved his dejection with miscellaneous studies, especially with that of chemistry, which, in the new form given to it by Lavoisier, he found “aisée comme l’algèbre.” The Revolution roused him once more to activity and cheerfulness. Curiosity impelled him to remain and watch the progress of such a novel phenomenon; but curiosity was changed into dismay as the terrific character of the phenomenon unfolded itself. He now bitterly regretted his temerity in braving the danger. “Tu l’as voulu” he would repeat self-reproachfully. Even from revolutionary tribunals, however, the name of Lagrange uniformly commanded respect. His pension was continued by the National Assembly, and he was partially indemnified for the depreciation of the currency by remunerative appointments. Nominated president of the Academical commission for the reform of weights and measures, his services were retained when its “purification” by the Jacobins removed his most distinguished colleagues. He again sat on the commission of 1799 for the construction of the metric system, and by his zealous advocacy of the decimal principle largely contributed to its adoption.

Meanwhile, on the 31st of May 1792 he married Mademoiselle Lemonnier, daughter of the astronomer of that name, a young and beautiful girl, whose devotion ignored disparity of years, and formed the one tie with life which Lagrange found it hard to break. He had no children by either marriage. Although specially exempted from the operation of the decree of October 1793, imposing banishment on foreign residents, he took alarm at the fate of J. S. Bailly and A. L. Lavoisier, and prepared to resume his former situation in Berlin. His design was frustrated by the establishment of and his official connexion with the École Normale, and the École Polytechnique. The former institution had an ephemeral existence; but amongst the benefits derived from the foundation of the École Polytechnique one of the greatest, it has been observed,^{[4]} was the restoration of Lagrange to mathematics. The remembrance of his teachings was long treasured by such of his auditors—amongst whom were J. B. J. Delambre and S. F. Lacroix—as were capable of appreciating them. In expounding the principles of the differential calculus, he started, as it were, from the level of his pupils, and ascended with them by almost insensible gradations from elementary to abstruse conceptions. He seemed, not a professor amongst students, but a learner amongst learners; pauses for thought alternated with luminous exposition; invention accompanied demonstration; and thus originated his *Théorie des fonctions analytiques* (Paris, 1797). The leading idea of this work was contained in a paper published in the *Berlin Memoirs* for 1772.^{[5]} Its object was the elimination of the, to some minds, unsatisfactory conception of the infinite from the metaphysics of the higher mathematics, and the substitution for the differential and integral calculus of an analogous method depending wholly on the serial development of algebraical functions. By means of this “calculus of derived functions” Lagrange hoped to give to the solution of all analytical problems the utmost “rigour of the demonstrations of the ancients”;^{[6]} but it cannot be said that the attempt was successful. The validity of his fundamental position was impaired by the absence of a well-constituted theory of series; the notation employed was inconvenient, and was abandoned by its inventor in the second edition of his *Mécanique*; while his scruples as to the admission into analytical investigations of the idea of limits or vanishing ratios have long since been laid aside as idle. Nowhere, however, were the keenness and clearness of his intellect more conspicuous than in this brilliant effort, which, if it failed in its immediate object, was highly effective in secondary results. His purely abstract mode of regarding functions, apart from any mechanical or geometrical considerations, led the way to a new and sharply characterized development of the higher analysis in the hands of A. Cauchy, C. G. Jacobi, and others.^{[7]} The *Théorie des fonctions* is divided into three parts, of which the first explains the general doctrine of functions, the second deals with its application to geometry, and the third with its bearings on mechanics.

On the establishment of the Institute, Lagrange was placed at the head of the section of geometry; he was one of the first members of the Bureau des Longitudes; and his name appeared in 1791 on the list of foreign members of the Royal Society. On the annexation of Piedmont to France in 1796, a touching compliment was paid to him in the person of his aged father. By direction of Talleyrand, then minister for foreign affairs, the French commissary repaired in state to the old man’s residence in Turin, to congratulate him on the merits of his son, whom they declared “to have done honour to mankind by his genius, and whom Piedmont was proud to have produced, and France to possess.” Bonaparte, who styled him “la haute pyramide des sciences mathématiques,” loaded him with personal favours and official distinctions. He became a senator, a count of the empire, a grand officer of the legion of honour, and just before his death received the grand cross of the order of réunion.

The preparation of a new edition of his *Mécanique* exhausted his already falling powers. Frequent fainting fits gave presage of a speedy end, and on the 8th of April 1813 he had a final interview with his friends B. Lacépède, G. Monge and J. A. Chaptal. He spoke with the utmost calm of his approaching death; “c’est une dernière fonction,” he said, “qui n’est ni pénible ni désagréable.” He nevertheless looked forward to a future meeting, when he promised to complete the autobiographical details which weakness obliged him to interrupt. They remained untold, for he died two days later on the 10th of April, and was buried in the Pantheon, the funeral oration being pronounced by Laplace and Lacépède.

Amongst the brilliant group of mathematicians whose magnanimous rivalry contributed to accomplish the task of generalization and deduction reserved for the 18th century, Lagrange occupies an eminent place. It is indeed by no means easy to distinguish and apportion the respective merits of the competitors. This is especially the case between Lagrange and Euler on the one side, and between Lagrange and Laplace on the other. The calculus of variations lay undeveloped in Euler’s mode of treating isoperimetrical problems. The fruitful method, again, of the variation of elements was introduced by Euler, but adopted and perfected by Lagrange, who first recognized its supreme importance to the analytical investigation of the planetary movements. Finally, of the grand series of researches by which the stability of the solar system was ascertained, the glory must be almost equally divided between Lagrange and Laplace. In analytical invention, and mastery over the calculus, the Turin mathematician was admittedly unrivalled. Laplace owned that he had despaired of effecting the integration of the differential equations relative to secular inequalities until Lagrange showed him the way. But Laplace unquestionably surpassed his rival in practical sagacity and the intuition of physical truth. Lagrange saw in the problems of nature so many occasions for analytical triumphs; Laplace regarded analytical triumphs as the means of solving the problems of nature. One mind seemed the complement of the other; and both, united in honourable rivalry, formed an instrument of unexampled perfection for the investigation of the celestial machinery. What may be called Lagrange’s first period of research into planetary perturbations extended from 1774 to 1784 (see Astronomy: *History*). The notable group of treatises communicated, 1781–1784, to the Berlin Academy was designed, but did not prove to be his final contribution to the theory of the planets. After an interval of twenty-four years the subject, re-opened by S. D. Poisson in a paper read on the 20th of June 1808, was once more attacked by Lagrange with all his pristine vigour and fertility of invention. Resuming the inquiry into the invariability of mean motions, Poisson carried the approximation, with Lagrange’s formulae, as far as the squares of the disturbing forces, hitherto neglected, with the same result as to the stability of the system. He had not attempted to include in his calculations the orbital variations of the disturbing bodies; but Lagrange, by the happy artifice of transferring the origin of coordinates from the centre of the sun to the centre of gravity of the sun and planets, obtained a simplification of the formulae, by which the same analysis was rendered equally applicable to each of the planets severally. It deserves to be recorded as one of the numerous coincidences of discovery that Laplace, on being made acquainted by Lagrange with his new method, produced analogous expressions, to which his independent researches had led him. The final achievement of Lagrange in this direction was the extension of the method of the variation of arbitrary constants, successfully used by him in the investigation of periodical as well as of secular inequalities, to any system whatever of mutually interacting bodies.^{[8]} “Not without astonishment,” even to himself, regard being had to the great generality of the differential equations, he reached a result so wide as to include, as a particular case, the solution of the planetary problem recently obtained by him. He proposed to apply the same principles to the calculation of the disturbances produced in the rotation of the planets by external action on their equatorial protuberances, but was anticipated by Poisson, who gave formulae for the variation of the elements of rotation strictly corresponding with those found by Lagrange for the variation of the elements of revolution. The revision of the *Mécanique analytique* was undertaken mainly for the purpose of embodying in it these new methods and final results, but was interrupted, when two-thirds completed, by the death of its author.

In the advancement of almost every branch of pure mathematics Lagrange took a conspicuous part. The calculus of variations is indissolubly associated with his name. In the theory of numbers he furnished solutions of many of P. Fermat’s theorems, and added some of his own. In algebra he discovered the method of approximating to the real roots of an equation by means of continued fractions, and imagined a general process of solving algebraical equations of every degree. The method indeed fails for equations of an order above the fourth, because it then involves the solution of an equation of higher dimensions than they proposed. Yet it possesses the great and characteristic merit of generalizing the solutions of his predecessors, exhibiting them all as modifications of one principle. To Lagrange, perhaps more than to any other, the theory of differential equations is indebted for its position as a science, rather than a collection of ingenious artifices for the solution of particular problems. To the calculus of finite differences he contributed the beautiful formula of interpolation which bears his name; although substantially the same result seems to have been previously obtained by Euler. But it was in the application to mechanical questions of the instrument which he thus helped to form that his singular merit lay. It was his just boast to have transformed mechanics (defined by him as a “geometry of four dimensions”) into a branch of analysis, and to have exhibited the so-called mechanical “principles” as simple results of the calculus. The method of “generalized coordinates,” as it is now called, by which he attained this result, is the most brilliant achievement of the analytical method. Instead of following the motion of each individual part of a material system, he showed that, if we determine its configuration by a sufficient number of variables, whose number is that of the degrees of freedom to move (there being as many equations as the system has degrees of freedom), the kinetic and potential energies of the system can be expressed in terms of these, and the differential equations of motion thence deduced by simple differentiation. Besides this most important contribution to the general fabric of dynamical science, we owe to Lagrange several minor theorems of great elegance,—among which may be mentioned his theorem that the kinetic energy imparted by given impulses to a material system under given constraints is a maximum. To this entire branch of knowledge, in short, he successfully imparted that character of generality and completeness towards which his labours invariably tended.

His share in the gigantic task of verifying the Newtonian theory would alone suffice to immortalize his name. His co-operation was indeed more indispensable than at first sight appears. Much as was done *by* him, what was done *through* him was still more important. Some of his brilliant rival’s most conspicuous discoveries were implicitly contained in his writings, and wanted but one step for completion. But that one step, from the abstract to the concrete, was precisely that which the character of Lagrange’s mind indisposed him to make. As notable instances may be mentioned Laplace’s discoveries relating to the velocity of sound and the secular acceleration of the moon, both of which were led close up to by Lagrange’s analytical demonstrations. In the *Berlin Memoirs* for 1778 and 1783 Lagrange gave the first direct and theoretically perfect method of determining cometary orbits. It has not indeed proved practically available; but his system of calculating cometary perturbations by means of “mechanical quadratures” has formed the starting-point of all subsequent researches on the subject. His determination^{[9]} of maximum and minimum values for the slowly varying planetary eccentricities was the earliest attempt to deal with the problem. Without a more accurate knowledge of the masses of the planets than was then possessed a satisfactory solution was impossible; but the upper limits assigned by him agreed closely with those obtained later by U. J. J. Leverrier.^{[10]} As a mathematical writer Lagrange has perhaps never been surpassed. His treatises are not only storehouses of ingenious methods, but models of symmetrical form. The clearness, elegance and originality of his mode of presentation give lucidity to what is obscure, novelty to what is familiar, and simplicity to what is abstruse. His genius was one of generalization and abstraction; and the aspirations of the time towards unity and perfection received, by his serene labours, an embodiment denied to them in the troubled world of politics.

Bibliography.—Lagrange’s numerous scattered memoirs have been collected and published in seven 4to volumes, under the title *Œuvres de Lagrange, publiées sous les soins de M. J. A. Serret* (Paris, 1867–1877). The first, second and third sections of this publication comprise respectively the papers communicated by him to the Academies of Sciences of Turin, Berlin and Paris; the fourth includes his miscellaneous contributions to other scientific collections, together with his additions to Euler’s *Algebra*, and his *Leçons élémentaires* at the École Normale in 1795. Delambre’s notice of his life, extracted from the *Mém. de l’Institut*, 1812, is prefixed to the first volume. Besides the separate works already named are *Résolution des équations numériques* (1798, 2nd ed., 1808, 3rd ed., 1826), and *Leçons sur le calcul des fonctions* (1805, 2nd ed., 1806), designed as a commentary and supplement to the first part of the *Théorie des fonctions*. The first volume of the enlarged edition of the *Mécanique* appeared in 1811, the second, of which the revision was completed by MM Prony and Binet, in 1815. A third edition, in 2 vols., 4to, was issued in 1853–1855, and a second of the *Théorie des fonctions* in 1813.

See also J. J. Virey and Potel, *Précis historique* (1813); Th. Thomson’s *Annals of Philosophy* (1813–1820), vols. ii. and iv.; H. Suter, *Geschichte der math. Wiss.* (1873); E. Dühring, *Kritische Gesch. der allgemeinen Principien der Mechanik* (1877, 2nd ed.); A. Gautier, *Essai historique sur le problème des trois corps* (1817); R. Grant, *History of Physical Astronomy*, &c.; Pietro Cossali, *Éloge* (Padua, 1813); L. Martini, *Cenni biográfici* (1840); *Moniteur du 26 Février* (1814); W. Whewell, *Hist. of the Inductive Sciences*, ii. *passim*; J. Clerk Maxwell, *Electricity and Magnetism*, ii. 184; A. Berry, *Short Hist. of Astr.*, p. 313; J. S. Bailly, *Hist. de l’astr. moderne*, iii. 156, 185, 232; J. C. Poggendorff, *Biog. Lit. Handwörterbuch*. (A. M. C.)

- ↑
*Œuvres*, i. 15. - ↑
*Méc. An.*, Advertisement to 1st ed. - ↑ E. Dühring,
*Kritische Gesch. der Mechanik*, 220, 367; Lagrange,*Méc. An.*i. 166-172, 3rd ed. - ↑ Notice by J. Delambre,
*Œuvres de Lagrange*, i. p. xlii. - ↑
*Œuvres*, iii. 441. - ↑
*Théorie des fonctions*, p. 6. - ↑ H. Suter,
*Geschichte der math. Wiss.*ii. 222-223. - ↑
*Œuvres*, vi. 771. - ↑
*Œuvres*, v. 211 seq. - ↑ Grant,
*History of Physical Astronomy*, p. 117.