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Whipple Library

Department of History and Philosophy of Science

Chatelet Institutions chapter heading

Gabrielle-Émilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise Du Châtelet (1706-1749), was a key figure in the study and advancement of Newtonian physics in France. Her Foundations of physics began as an introductory text for her son’s education but in fact encapsulated the work of both Newton and Leibniz, along with historical background and the most recent developments in physics at the time. Initially published anonymously, it was the first new book on theoretical physics to appear in France since 1671 and generated heated debate. She also produced a celebrated French translation and commentary of Newton’s Principia, still considered the standard edition today.

The frontispiece to the Institutions shows the Muses of the sciences (botany, astronomy, physics, medicine and chemistry) seated on the ground, as a female figure climbs up towards the temple of Truth. Three male scientists, perhaps Descartes, Newton and Leibniz, are pictured at the top. The book was also illustrated with engraved chapter headings relating to the various topics covered, such as Newton's discoveries on gravity, shown above.

Chatelet Institutions title page     Chatelet Institutions frontispiece

Institutions de physique
A Paris : Chez Prault fils, 1740
STORE 19:1

Although remembered for her affair with Voltaire, Émilie Du Châtelet was also his scientific collaborator and made important contributions to his Elements of Newton’s philosophy, an account of Newtonian theories aimed at a popular French audience. Voltaire dedicated his work to the Marquise and pointed to her contribution. Her home in Cirey, where Voltaire lived for a time, became a centre for Newtonian science in France. It was remodelled to include a library and laboratory, complete with scientific instruments, and received numerous visitors. These included Francesco Algarotti, who consulted the Marquise when writing his Il Newtonianismo per le dame (1739), written specifically for the entertainment of women and the popularisation of Newton’s theories.

Voltaire title page     Voltaire dedication

Elémens de la philosophie de Neuton, mis à la portée de tout le monde, par Mr. de Voltaire
A Amsterdam : Chez Jacques Desbordes, 1738
STORE 71:13

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