Charles Marie de La Condamine


Born: 28 January 1701 in Paris, France
Died: 4 February 1774 in Paris, France


Charles-Marie La Condamine studied at the Jesuit College of Louis-le-Grand in Paris. There he was taught mathematics by Père Louis Castel. On leaving the College he decided to take up a military career and, when war broke out with Spain he joined the army. He distinguished himself with his bravery at the siege of Rosas in 1719 but decided that army life did not suit him.

At this point La Condamine made contact with scientists in Paris and became a member of the Académie Royale des Sciences in 1730. The quiet life in Paris did not suit him either and he sailed on a voyage to Algiers, Alexandria, Palestine, Cyprus and Constantinople (now Istanbul) where he spent five months. On his return to Paris he published mathematical and physical observations of his voyage.

The Académie Royale was impressed and sent him on an expedition to Peru. In April 1735 La Condamine set out on the expedition to Peru to measure the length of a degree of meridian at the equator. Bouguer was a member of the same expedition and its third scientific member was the leader of the expedition Louis Godin. The three finished their journey by different routes, La Condamine going overland from Manta, the other two sailing to Quito where they joined up.

The three were soon involved in disagreements. Godin began to work on his own while La Condamine worked with Bouguer. In 1741 Bouguer discovered a small error in their joint measurements and these two fell out when Bouguer refused to allow La Condamine to recheck the results. All three made independent measurements, the work being completed in 1743. The three returned by different routes.

In 1743 La Condamine began his return journey which included a four month raft journey down the Amazon river. His was the first scientific account of the Amazon which he published as Journal du voyage fait par ordre du roi a l'équateur (1751).

La Condamine spent five months in Cayenne on his journey home and here he repeated Richer's experiments on the variation of weights at different latitudes.

By February 1745 La Condamine was back in Paris after his ten year journey. He returned with many notes, 200 natural history specimens and works of art which he gave to Buffon. Y Laissus writing in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography says:-

The last survivor of the expedition, La Condamine, who was a less gifted astronomer than Godin and a less reliable mathematician than Bouguer often received the major part of the credit, probably because of his amiable nature and his talent as a writer.

La Condamine was a close friend of Maupertuis for many years. He spent much effort in the last part of his life campaigning for inoculation against small-pox. His passion on this topic was partly due to the fact that he had suffered from small-pox as a child.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson

December 1996


MacTutor History of Mathematics
[http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/La_Condamine.html]