Guillaume Amontons (1663-1705)


One of the reasons that science is a reliable source of knowledge its great reliance on careful measurements in the description of phenomena. This implies the use of instruments. It is no coincidence that the 17th century which saw the blossoming of modern science was also the one in which some of the most basic measuring devices were invented and improved upon.

Among the many ingenious investigators who contributed to this field of science was Guillaume Amontons. It is said that when he was in his teens Amontons practically lost his hearing faculty. But he was not deterred by this impairement. Rather, it enabled him to concentrate better on matters that interested him most. These ranged from drawing and architecture to mechanics and measuring devices. He also studied celestial mechanics to boot.

The telescope explores the skies and the microscope probes into the very minute, but neither of them was as yet a measuring gadget. The pendulum clock was for measuring time, but there had been other time-measuring devices before.

The important new measuring instruments of the seventeenth century were the thermometer for measuring the heat-condition (temperature), and the barometer for measuring atmospheric pressure. Both these were concepts and discoveries made in that century, and were to play a major role in the future development of science.

Amontons is remembered for the refinements he brought on these. He invented a barometer with multiple connected tubes, shorter than the one then in vogue. He invented a hygrometer which measured the water-vapor content in the atmosphere. He made a new version of the clepsydra (time-measuring device) for use in ships. He  devised an air thermometer in which a U-shaped tube with mercury contained some air above. By marking the variation of the length of the air column with changing temperature, one could measure temperature. In this context, he considered what would happen if the temperature were reduced more and more: the volume becoming less and less. By extrapolating the observed reduction in volume with the lowering of temperature, he speculated that that must be a temperature at which the volume would become zero. Thus, intuitively and unwittingly, he had thought of an absolute zero temperature: an idea which was to emerge in a more sophisticated version in the nineteenth century. Playing with his air-columns Amontons also discovered one of the basic gas-laws: the proportionality between the pressure and temperature of an enclosed volume of gas.

Amontons studied the relationship between the friction generated when bodies are in contact and the mutual pressure at the surface of contact. He is also credited with the idea of an optical telegraph: a system by which messages could be sent over long distances by light signals which were observed with spyglasses.

With all that, not many students of physics, let alone the people in the world beyond, have even heard the name of Guillaume Amontons.

As  noted earlier, Amontons  had hearing impairment. As with Edison at one stage of his life, or with Beethoven towards the end of his life,  this physical constraint put no constraint on his creative abilities. When one looks into lives of people like Amontons one begins to realize that those who accomplish significant things in life are seldom preoccupied with the hindrances and obstacles that come their way or are even part of their everyday life: They are more focused on  positive side of life than on the negative.

October 30, 2013

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About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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