Passages from the Life of a Philosopher/Chapter XIV


recollections of laplace, biot, and humbolt.

My First Visit to Paris—Anecdote of the fifty-two Eggs—Mistake about Woodhouse—Fourier—Biot—Drawings of the Difference Engine—Strong characteristic of Humboldt's mind—English Clergyman at Paris—Great Meeting of Philosophers at Berlin, 1828—Introduces the Author to Magnus and Derichlet—Puts the Englishman upon the Dining Committee—Conversation in the Linden Walk—Humboldt's study—Various members of the family of Buonaparte— Lucien and his Children— Louis, the King of Holland—Joseph, the King of Spain—His second Daughter married to a Son of Louis—Their taste—Drawings and Lithographs—Her Death.

My first visit to Paris was made in company with my friend John Herschel. On reaching Abbeville, we wanted breakfast, and I undertook to order it. Each of us usually required a couple of eggs. I preferred having mine moderately boiled, but my friend required his to be boiled quite hard. Having explained this matter to the waiter, I concluded by instructing him that each of us required two eggs thus cooked, concluding my order with the words, "pour chacun deux."

The garçon ran along the passage half way towards the kitchen, and then called out in his loudest tone—

"Il faut faire bouillir cinquante-deux œufs pour Messieurs les Anglais." I burst into such a fit of uncontrollable laughter at this absurd misunderstanding of chacun deux, for cinquante-deux, that it was some time before I could explain it to Herschel, and but for his running into the kitchen to countermand it, the half hundred of eggs would have assuredly been simmering over the fire.

A few days after our arrival in Paris, we dined with Laplace, where we met a large party, most of whom were members of the Institut. The story had already arrived at at Paris, having rapidly passed through several editions.

To my great amusement, one of the party told the company that, a few days before, two young Englishman being at Abbeville, had ordered fifty-two eggs to be boiled for their breakfast, and that they ate up every one of them, as well as a large pie which was put before them.

My next neighbour at dinner asked me if I thought it probable. I replied, that there was no absurdity a young Englishman would not occasionally commit.

One morning Herschel and I called on Laplace, who spoke to us of various English works on mathematical subjects. Amongst others, he mentioned with approbation, "Un ouvrage de vous deux." We were both quite at a loss to know to what work he referred. Herschel and I had not written any joint work, although we had together translated the work of Lacroix. The volume of the "Memoirs of the Analytical Society," though really our joint production, was not known to be such, and it was also clear that Laplace did not refer to that work. Perceiving that we did not recognise the name of the author to whom he referred, Laplace varied the pronunciation by calling him vous deux; the first word being pronounced as the French word "vous," and the second as the English word "deuce."

Upon further explanation, it turned out that Laplace meant to speak of a work published by Woodhouse, whose name is in the pronunciation of the French so very like vous deux.

Poisson, Fourier, and Biot were amongst my earliest friends in Paris. Fourier, then Secretary of the Institute, had accompanied the first Napoleon in his expedition to Egypt. His profound acquaintance with analysis remains recorded in his works. His unaffected and genial manner, the vast extent of his acquirements, and his admirable taste conspicuous even in the apartments he inhabited, were most felt by those who were honoured by his friendship.

With M. Biot I became acquainted in early life; he was then surrounded by a happy family. In my occasional visits to Paris I never omitted an opportunity of paying my respects to him: when deprived of those supports and advanced in life, he still earnestly occupied himself in carrying out the investigations of his earlier years.

His son, M. Biot, a profound oriental scholar, who did me the honour of translating "The Economy of Manufactures," died many years before his father.

In one of my visits to Paris, at a period when beards had become fashionable amongst a certain class of my countrymen, I met Biot. After our first greeting, looking me full in the face, he said, "My dear friend, you are the best shaved man in Europe."

At a later period I took with me to Paris the complete drawings of Difference Engine No. 2. As soon as I had hung them up round my own apartments to explain them to my friends I went to the College de France, where M. Biot resided. I mentioned to him the fact, and said that if it was a subject in which he was interested, and had leisure to look at these drawings, I should have great pleasure in bringing them to him, and giving him any explanation that he might desire. I told him, however, that I was fully aware how much the time of every man who really adds to science must be occupied, and that I made this proposal rather to satisfy my own mind that I had not neglected one of my oldest friends than in the expectation that he had time for the examination of this new subject.

The answer of my friend was remarkable. After thanking me in the warmest terms for this mark of friendship, he explained to me that the effect of age upon his own mind was to render the pursuit of any new inquiry a matter of slow and painful effort; but that in following out the studies of his youth he was not so much impeded. He added that in those subjects he could still study with satisfaction, and even make advances in them, assisted in the working out of his views experimentally by the aid of his younger friends.

I was much gratified by this unreserved expression of the state of the case, and I am sure those younger men who so kindly assisted the aged philosopher will be glad to know that their assistance was duly appreciated.

The last time during M. Biot's life that I visited Paris I went, as usual, to the College de France. I inquired of the servant who opened the door after the state of M. Biot's health, which was admitted to be feeble. I then asked whether he was well enough to see an old friend. Biot himself had heard the latter part of this conversation. Coming into the passage he seized my hand and said "My dear friend, I would see you even if I were dying."

Alexander Humboldt.

One of the most remarkable characteristics of Humboldt's mind was, that he not merely loved and pursued science for its own sake, but that he derived pleasure from assisting with his information and advice any other inquirer, however humble, who might need it.

In one of my visits to Paris, Humboldt was sitting with me when a friend of mine, an English clergyman, who had just arrived in Paris, and had only two days to spare for it, called upon me to ask my assistance about getting access to certain MSS. Putting into Humboldt's hand a tract lying on my table, I asked him to excuse me for a few minutes whilst I gave what advice I could to my countryman.

My friend told me that he wanted to examine a MS., which he was informed was in a certain library in a certain street in Paris: that he knew nobody in the city to help him in his mission.

Humboldt having heard this statement, came over to us and said, "If you will introduce me to your friend, I can put him in the way of seeing the MSS. he is in search of." He then explained that the MSS. had been removed to another library in Paris, and proposed to give my friend a note of introduction to the librarian, and mentioned other MSS. and other libraries in which he would find information upon the same subject.

Many years after, being at Vienna, I heard that Humboldt was at Töplitz, a circumstance which induced me to visit that town. On my arrival I found he had left it a few days before on his return to Berlin. In the course of a few days, I followed him to that city, and having arrived in the middle of the day, I took apartments in the Linden Walk, and got all my travelling apparatus in order; I then went out to call on Humboldt. Finding that he had gone to dine with his brother William, who resided at a short distance from Berlin, I therefore merely left my card.

The next morning at seven o'clock, before I was out of bed, I received a very kind note from Humboldt, to ask me to breakfast with him at nine. In a postscript he added, "What are the moving molecules of Robert Brown?" These atoms of dead matter in rapid motion, when examined under the microscope, were then exciting great attention amongst philosophers.

I met at breakfast several of Humboldt's friends, with whose names and reputation I was well acquainted.

Humboldt himself expressed great pleasure that I should have visited Berlin to attend the great meeting of German philosophers, who in a few weeks were going to assemble in that capital. I assured him that I was quite unaware of the intended meeting, and had directed my steps to Berlin merely to enjoy the pleasure of his society. I soon perceived that this meeting of philosophers on a very large scale, supported by the King and by all the science of Germany, might itself have a powerful influence upon the future progress of human knowledge. Amongst my companions at the breakfast-table were Derichlet and Magnus. In the course of the morning Humboldt mentioned to me that his own duties required his attendance on the King every day at three o'clock, and having also in his hands the organization of the great meeting of philosophers, it would not be in his power to accompany me as much as he wished in seeing the various institutions in Berlin. He said that, under these circumstances, he had asked his two young friends, Derichlet and Magnus, to supply his place. During many weeks of my residence in Berlin, I felt the daily advantage of this thoughtful kindness of Humboldt. Accompanied by one or other, and frequently by both, of my young friends, I saw everything to the best advantage, and derived an amount of information and instruction which under less favourable circumstances it would have been impossible to have obtained.

The next morning, I again breakfasted with Humboldt. On the previous day I had mentioned that I was making a collection of the signs employed in map-making. I now met Von Buch and General Ruhl, both of whom were profoundly acquainted with that subject. I had searched in vain for any specimen of a map shaded upon the principle of lines of equal elevation. Von Buch the next morning gave me an engraving of a small map upon that principle, which was, I believe, at that time the only one existing.

After breakfast we went into Humboldt's study to look at something he wished to show us. In turning over his papers, which, like my own, were lying apparently in great disorder upon the table, he picked up the cover of a letter on which was written a number of names in different parallel columns. "That," he observed incidentally, "is for you." After he had shown us the object of our visit to his sanctum, he reverted to the envelop which he put into my hands, explaining that he had grouped roughly together for my use all the remarkable men then in Berlin, and several of those who were expected.

These he had arranged in classes:—Men of science, men of letters, sculptors, painters, and artists generally, instrument-makers, &c. This list I found very convenient for reference.

When the time of the great meeting approached, it became necessary to prepare the arrangements for the convenience of the assembled science of Europe. One of the first things, of course, was the important question, how they were to dine? A committee was therefore appointed to make experiment by dining successively at each of the three or four hotels competing for the honour of providing a table d'hôte for the savans.

Humboldt put me on that committee, remarking, that an Englishman always appreciates a good dinner. The committee performed their agreeable duty in a manner quite satisfactory to themselves, and I hope, also, to the digestions of the Naturforschers.

During the meeting much gaiety was going on at Berlin. One evening previous to our parties, I was walking in the Linden Walk with Humboldt, discussing the singularities of several of our learned acquaintance. My companion made many acute and very amusing remarks; some of these were a little caustic, but not one was ill-natured. I had contributed a very small and much less brilliant share to this conversation, when the clock striking, warned us that the hour for our visits had arrived. I never shall forget the expression of archness which lightened up Humboldt's countenance when shaking my hand he said, in English, "My dear friend, I think it may be as well that we should not speak of each other until we meet again." We then each kept our respective engagements, and met again at the most recherché of all, a concert at Mendelssohn's.

Of the Buonaparte Family.

From my father's house on the coast, near Teignmouth, we could, with a telescope, see every ship which entered Torbay. When the "Bellerophon" anchored, the news was rapidly spread that Napoleon was on board. On hearing the rumour, I put a small telescope into my pocket, and, mounting my horse, rode over to Torbay. A crowd of boats surrounded the ship, then six miles distant; but, by the aid of my glass, I saw upon the quarter-deck that extraordinary man, with many members of whose family I subsequently became acquainted. Of those who are no more I may without impropriety say a few words.

My first acquaintance with several branches of the family of Napoleon Buonaparte arose under the following circumstances:—

When his elder brother Lucien, to avoid the necessity of accepting a kingdom, fled from his imperial brother, and took refuge in England, his position was either not well understood, or, perhaps, was entirely mistaken. Lucien seems to have been looked upon with suspicion by our Government, and was placed in the middle of England under a species of espionage.

Political parties then ran high, and he did not meet with those attentions which his varied and highly-cultivated tastes, especially in the fine arts, entitled him to receive, as a stranger in a foreign land.

A family connection of mine, residing in Worcestershire, was in the habit of visiting Lucien Buonaparte. Thus, in my occasional visits to my brother-in-law's place, I became acquainted with the Prince of Canino. In after-years, when he occasionally visited London, I had generally the pleasure of seeing him.

In 1828 I met at Rome the eldest son of Lucien, who introduced me to his sisters, Lady Dudley Stuart and the Princess Gabrielli.

In the same year I became acquainted, at Bologna, with the Princess d'Ercolano, another daughter of Lucien, whom I afterwards met at Florence, at the palace of her uncle Louis, the former king of Holland. During a residence of several months in that city I was a frequent guest at the family table of the Compte St. Leu. One of his sons had married the Princess Charlotte, the second daughter of the King of Spain, a most accomplished, excellent, and charming person. They reminded me much of a sensible English couple, in the best class of English society. Both had great taste in the fine arts. The prince had a workshop at the top of the palace, in which he had a variety of tools and a lithographic printing press. Occasionally, in the course of their morning drives, some picturesque scene, in that beautiful country, would arrest their attention. Stopping the carriage, they would select a favourable spot, and the princess would then make a sketch of it.

At other times they would spend the evening, the prince in extemporizing an imaginary scene, which he described to his wife, who, with admirable skill, embodied upon paper the tasteful conceptions of her husband. These sketches then passed up to the workshop of the Prince, were transferred to stone, and in a few days lithographic impressions descended to the drawing-room. I fortunately possess some of these impressions, which I value highly, not only as the productions of an amiable and most accomplished lady, but of one who did not shrink from the severer duties of life, and died in fulfilling them.

After the melancholy loss of her husband, the Princess Charlotte remained with her father, who resided at one period in the Regent's Park, where I from time to time paid my respects to them. Occasionally I received them at my own house. One summer letters from Florence reached them, announcing the dangerous illness of the Comte de St. Leu. The daughter of Joseph immediately set out alone for Florence to minister to the comfort of her uncle and father-in-law. On her return from Italy she was attacked by cholera and died in the south of France.

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.