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  • Writer's picturejoyce hampton

Huguenot of renown - Denis Papin

On a recent visit to Blois I was delighted to find the town commemorating one of its famous sons.

Denis Papin has been born in Blois on the 22 August 1647, and as it is the anniversary of his birthday, it seems a propitious date to write a blog about his life.

He was the son of Denys and Magdaleine Papin. His father was a Protestant doctor and Denis went on to study medicine at the University of Angers before taking up a position in Paris as assistant to the famous Dutch physicist and astronomer Christian Huygens. His abilities and intellect impressed Huygens who decided to send him to England in 1675 where he was given the opportunity to work with the greatly respected Robert Boyle, a physicist and chemist as well as one of the greatest scholars of his time. The two men worked on a project to create a machine using air pressure and in 1679 added the finishing touches to the well-known ‘cooking pot’, the original model for all modern pressure-cookers. It was Denis Papin who invented the famous ‘safety valve’ and published an account of his invention in 1681.

In 1679, he became the assistant of Robert Hooke, a mathematician and an astronomer belonging to the Royal Society of Physics in London. One year later Papin himself became a member of this illustrious institution.

Image © Joyce Hampton 2023

It has always been Papin’s intention to return to France but with the signing of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685, he was forced to choose between his country and his faith. As a committed protestant he decided to abandon any hope of returning to France.

Instead two years later in 1687, he accepted the appointment from the Elector of Hesse-Cassel to become professor of mathematics at the University of Marburg. It was during his time at this university that he built various remarkable machines; to name but a few - he built a centrifugal ventilator to provide air for the mines, a machine for making plate glass for windows, and another for pumping water out of salt mines. But his greatest goal by then was to build a steam engine with a piston, which he did and a book, published in Latin in 1705, describes the process. He went on to build his first steamship, but sadly, this was destroyed by boatmen who were jealous of this new invention and thought that it might cause them to lose their jobs. Saddened by this wanton destruction, he returned to England, where he continued to experiment but without success. He died in London, around 1712, in poverty and forgotten by all.

In present day Blois, France, he is now a celebrated person of the town with a fine staircase leading to a statue of their famous son. In the Chateau of Blois can also be found a bust of Denis Papin (see above image).

image © Joyce Hampton 2023

Further Reading

The Story of the Huguenots: A Unique Legacy pp. 281,284-5

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