Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Papin, Denis

PAPIN, DENIS (1647–1712?), natural philosopher, son of Denys Papin and Magdaleine Pineau, was born at Blois on 22 Aug. 1647. He studied medicine at the university of Angers, taking his degree in 1669. He devoted himself to natural philosophy and mechanics, and became assistant to Huyghens at the laboratory of the academy at Paris. In 1675 he left Paris and proceeded to London, where he became connected with Robert Boyle [q. v.], who employed him to make a translation of a theological treatise. From 1676 to 1679 he assisted Boyle in his experiments with the air-pump. To this period belongs Papin's invention of the digester, an apparatus for boiling food under pressure. This was shown to the Royal Society at a meeting held on 22 May 1679, and in the following year Papin published an account of it under the title ‘A New Digester, or Engine for softening Bones.’ Under the date 12 April 1682 Evelyn records in his ‘Diary’ how he took part in a ‘philosophical supper’ at the Royal Society, cooked in Papin's digester. A French translation appeared at Paris in 1682, and in 1687 he issued ‘A Continuation of the New Digester of Bones.’ Of all Papin's inventions this was the most practical, and is in use at this day. His portrait at the university of Marburg represents him holding in his hand a copy of his account of the digester, open at the place where the apparatus is figured.

From July to December 1679 Papin was employed at the Royal Society by Hooke as an amanuensis, and during part of 1680 he was again at Paris with Huyghens. He was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1680, and in 1681 he left England for Venice, where he remained for three years, acting as curator of a scientific society established by Sarotti. He renewed his connection with the Royal Society in 1684, and on 2 April of that year he was appointed curator at a salary of 30l. per annum, his principal duty being to exhibit experiments at the meetings. Brief notes of many of these experiments are given in Birch's ‘History of the Royal Society,’ vol. iv., while others are described at greater length in the ‘Philosophical Transactions.’ In 1688 he became professor of mathematics at the university of Marburg, and in 1695 he removed to Cassel, where he assisted his patron, the landgrave of Hesse, in making experiments upon a great variety of subjects. At the end of 1707 he was again in London, endeavouring to interest the Royal Society in his steam-navigation projects, and to induce them to institute comparative experiments of his steam engine and that of Savery.

Papin's claims to be regarded as ‘the inventor of the steam engine’ have been advocated with considerable warmth by many French writers, but his labours in this direction have little connection with his career in England, and all the evidence adduced is inconclusive (cf. a very careful summary of his claims in Robert L. Galloway's Steam Engine and its Inventors, and an article by the present writer in the Engineer, 19 May 1876). It is often asserted that he actually made a steam engine, which he fitted in a boat in which he intended to cross the sea to England. It is true that he did construct a boat with paddle-wheels, which was destroyed by the boatmen on the Weser at Münden in 1707; but there is no evidence whatever that the boat was propelled by steam power. In 1876 a large cast-iron cylinder preserved at the Royal Museum at Cassel was exhibited at the loan collection of scientific instruments at South Kensington as the cylinder of Papin's steam engine; but it was conclusively shown by Sir Frederick Bramwell in ‘Science Lectures at South Kensington’ (1878, i. 112) that it could not possibly have formed any part of a steam engine.

From the time of his arrival in England in 1707 he seems to have lived on small payments received from the Royal Society; but all his early friends were dead, and little is heard of him. The date and place of his death are alike unknown. The last certain evidence of his existence is furnished by a letter from him to Sir Hans Sloane, dated 23 Jan. 1712, preserved among the papers at the Royal Society.

There is a portrait of Papin, dated 1689, in the hall of the university at Marburg, which is engraved in De la Saussaye and Pean's book referred to below. He is commemorated in his native town of Blois by a statue erected in 1881.

Isaac Papin (1657–1709), theologian, son of Isaac Papin, receiver-general at Blois, by his wife, who was a sister of Claude Pajon, was born at Blois on 27 March 1657, and was probably related to Denis Papin. Isaac came into prominence as an advocate of the tolerant ‘universalist’ party among the French protestants, as opposed to the ‘particularists’ under Pierre Jurieu. After completing his studies at Geneva and Saumur, he refused to sign a condemnation of ‘Pajonism,’ as the advanced views were stigmatised, and was consequently debarred from a career in the protestant church. In 1686 he came over to England, where he was granted deacon's and subsequently priest's orders by Turner, bishop of Ely. Through the influence of his English friends he obtained in 1687 the post of professor in the church of the protestant refugees at Danzig; but he was still pursued by the hostility of Jurieu, and had to resign his appointment. He was subsequently admitted by Bossuet (15 Jan. 1690) into the Roman catholic communion. He died in 1709. Of his numerous expository and controversial works (all of which were written in French) a collective edition was published at Paris in 1823, with a brief memoir and justification (see Life prefixed to Recueil, 1823; Haag, France Protestante; Hagenbach, Hist. of Doctrines; McClintock and Strong, Cyclopædia; Nouvelle Biogr. Générale; Chalmers, Biogr. Dict.)

[Authorities cited. The best authority for the facts of Denis Papin's career is Ernst Gerland's Leibnizens und Huygens' Briefwechsel mit Papin (Berlin, 1881), which contains transcripts of a large number of letters collected from various public libraries on the continent and in England. He also gives a complete list of Denis Papin's writings, together with a number of references to books and periodicals in which Papin's discoveries and inventions are described. De la Saussaye and Pean's La Vie et les Ouvrages de Denis Papin (Paris, 1869) was never completed, the first volume only having been published. The want of the second and concluding volume, which was intended to contain the author's ‘pièces justificatives,’ considerably impairs the value of the work.]

R. B. P.