Charles Marie de La Condamine

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Charles Marie de La Condamine (1701–1774)

Charles Marie de La Condamine (Paris, January 27, 1701 – Paris, February 4, 1774) was a French geodesist, astronomer, and mathematician with strong interests in ethnography and botany. He spent ten years in present-day Ecuador measuring the length of a degree latitude at the equator and preparing the first map of the Amazon region based on astronomical observations.


Charles Marie de La Condamine was a son of well-to-do parents, Charles de La Condamine and Louise Marguerite Chourses. He studied at the Collège Louis-le-Grand where he was trained in humanities as well as in mathematics. After finishing his studies, he enlisted in the army and fought in the war against Spain (1719). After returning from the war, he became acquainted with scientific circles in Paris. On December 12, 1730 he became a member of the Académie des Sciences and was appointed Assistant Chemist at the Academy.

The next year (May 1731) he sailed with the Levant Company to Constantinople (now Istanbul) where he stayed five months. After returning to Paris, La Condamine submitted in November 1732 a paper to the Academy entitled Mathematical and Physical Observations made during a Visit of the Levant in 1731 and 1732.

Three years later he joined an expedition to present-day Ecuador that had the aim to test a hypothesis of Isaac Newton. Newton had posited that the Earth is not a perfect sphere, but bulges around the equator and is flattened at the poles. Newton's opinion had raised a huge controversy among French scientists. Pierre Louis Maupertuis, Alexis Claude Clairaut, and Pierre Charles Le Monnier traveled to Lapland, where they were to measure the length of several degrees of latitude orthogonal to the arctic circle, while Louis Godin, Pierre Bouguer, and La Condamine were sent to South America to perform similar measurements around the equator.

On May 16, 1735, La Condamine sailed from La Rochelle accompanied by Godin, Bougier, and a botanist Joseph de Jussieu. After stopovers in Martinique, Santo Domingo, Cartagena (Columbia), they came to Panama where they crossed the continent. Finally (March 10, 1736) the expedition arrived at the pacific port of Manta. From Manta, Condamine took a route separate from Godin and Bouguer and joined them again on June 4, 1736 in the city of Quito (now the capital of Ecuador).

The meridian (longitudinal) arc that was chosen to measure the length of passed through a high valley perpendicular to the equator, stretching from Quito in the north to Cuenca in the south. The scientists spent a month performing triangulation measurements in the Yaruqui plains—from October 3 to November 3, 1736—and then returned to Quito. After they had come back in Quito, they found that subsidies expected from Paris had not arrived. La Condamine, who had taken precautions and had made a deposit on a bank in Lima, traveled early 1737 to Lima to collect money. He prolonged this journey somewhat to study the Cinchona tree with its medicinally active bark (containing the anti-malarial drug quinine) that was hardly known in Europe.

After returning to Quito on June 20, 1737, he found that Godin refused to disclose his results, whereupon La Condamine joined forces with Bouguer. The two men continued with their length measurements in the mountainous and inaccessible region close to Quito. When in December 1741 Bouguer, detected an error in a calculation of La Condamine, these two explorers got into a quarrel as well and stopped speaking to each other. However, working separately, the two completed their project in May 1743.

La Condamine chose to return by way of the Amazon River, a route which is longer and more dangerous. He reached the Atlantic Ocean on September 19, 1743, having made observations of astronomic and topographic interest on the way. He also made some botanical studies, notably of Cinchona and Rubber trees. In February 1744 he arrived in Cayenne, the capital of French Guyana. He did not dare to travel back to France on a French merchant ship because France was at war (the Austrian Succession War of 1740–1748) and he had to wait for five months for a Dutch ship, but made good use of his waiting time by observing and recording physical, biological, and ethnological phenomena. Leaving finally Cayenne in August 1744, he arrived in Amsterdam on November 30, 1744 where he stayed for a while, and arrived in Paris in February 1745. He brought with him many notes, natural history specimens, and art objects that he donated to the naturalist Buffon (1707–1788).

The scientific results of the expedition were unambiguous: the Earth is indeed a spheroid flattened at the poles as was believed by Newton. Not surprisingly, La Condamine and Bouguer failed to write a joint publication, it is Bouguer's death in 1758 that put an end to their quarrel. The other expedition member, Godin, died in 1760. The only surviving member, La Condamine, obtained most of the credits for the expedition that drew lots of attention in France. Although less talented in astronomy than Godin and a lesser mathematician than Bouguer, La Condamine was a gifted writer and popularizer.

La Condamine had contracted smallpox in his youth. This led him to take part in the debate on vaccination against the disease and to propagate inoculation against small-pox. Assisted by the clarity and elegance of his writing, he presented several papers at the Academy of Sciences in which he defended his ideas with passion. He became a corresponding member of the academies of London, Berlin, Saint Petersburg and Bologna and was elected to the l'Académie française on November 29, 1760. In August 1756, he married, with papal dispensation, his young niece Charlotte Bouzia of Estouilly. La Condamine had many friends, the closest one being Maupertuis whom he bequeathed his papers. Condamine died in Paris February 4, 1774, following a hernia operation.

External links

Selected Works

  • Observations mathématiques et physiques faites dans un voyage du Levant en 1731 et 1732.
  • Relation abrégée d'un voyage, fait dans l'intérieur de l'Amérique méridional (1745)
  • Mémoire sur quelques anciens monumens du Perou, du tems des Incas, Histoire de l'Académie Royale des Sciences et Belles Lettres II Berlin (1746), pp. 435-456. PDF (Accessed March 22, 2010)
  • La figure de la terre déterminée (1749)
  • Mesure des trois premiers degrés du méridien dans l'hémisphère australe (1751)
  • Journal du voyage, fait par ordre du roi, à l'équateur (1751)


Neil Safier, Measuring the new world: enlightenment science and South America, Chicago University Press (2008) Google Books