The 1700s included such events as Louis XIV dying of gangrene and his 5-year-old grandson succeeding him on the throne as Louis XV. There was also the Treaty of the Hague signed by France and its allies that ended the War of the Quadruple Alliance. When Louis XV died on 10 May 1774, Louis XVI became king. It was under Louis XVI that France recognized the American colonies and waged war against the United Kingdom in the Americas. Unfortunately, for Louis XVI he was beheaded and so was his wife, Marie Antoinette. More tumult occurred with the Coup of 18 Brumaire when General Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the French Directory and replaced it with the French Consulate. However, these events were not the only interesting events that happened in France in the 1700s. There were also nine interesting firsts accomplished in France in the 1700s. They included a couple of balloon firsts, firsts related to art, medicine, and inventions, a story of mythical beast, and the idea of mass conscription.
The first fatal balloon fatalities happened in France on 15 June 1785. The balloon ascended with two intrepid adventurers, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and Pierre Romain. They were attempting to cross the English Channel and lifted of from the coastal town of Boulogne-sur-Mer. After making some progress, the wind changed direction and pushed them back within three miles of their starting point. Suddenly, the balloon deflated and fell with “incredible velocity.” It crashed near Wimereux in the Pas-de-Calais. Rozier was dead before the balloon hit the ground as he had been thrown about and suffered a “violent contusion on his Breast.” Witnesses at the crash site claimed Romain breathed for a few moments but then “uttered the Exclamation — Oh, Jesu!” and expired. To learn more about this fatal accident, click here.
With all the balloons flying around, it should be no surprise to learn that the first time a balloon was used in battle also happened in the 1700s. It occurred at the Battle of Fleurus on 26 June 1794 and was used by the army of the First French Republic, under General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan. Jourdan was fighting against the Coalition Army composed of Britain, Hanover, the Dutch Republic, and the Habsburg Monarchy that was commanded by Prince Josias of Coburg. Coburg maneuvered around the French, split his army into five columns, and attacked them. In response, the French launched a reconnaissance balloon named l’Entreprenant. The Aerostatic Corps operated it and continuously informed Jourdan about Austrian movements, so that the French were ultimately able to concentrate their troops and win the most significant battle of the Flanders Campaign in the Low Countries during the French Revolutionary Wars.
Female painter Adélaïde Labille-Guiard was an eighteenth century painter who had a crisp style with sharp edges. It was her style that helped her become a popular painter with French nobility and royalty. Her style also allowed her to become a master of miniatures and full-size paintings. In 1783, she was among the few women elected to the prestigious Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. But an even greater award awaited her when she was named “First Painter to Mesdames Tantes” (the mesdames Tantes were Louis XV’s daughters, Victoire, Sophie, and Adélaïde). She received the award in 1787 on the strength of her life-size painting of Madame Adélaïde described by one person as having “cool colors, muted tones and spare elegance … played off against the brilliant color and opulence of the princess’s raiments and the luxurious furnishing that surrounded her.”
In the 1750s, the first life-size obstetrical mannequin, for teaching, was devised by Angelique du Coudray. Coudray was a midwife and appointed as the head accoucheuse at the famous Parisian Hôtel Dieu Hospital. She then met King Louis XV who was worried about France’s decreasing population. He decided he needed to do something to increase the population and because of Coudray’s accomplishments in midwifery, he appointed her to teach rural midwives in 1759. To aid in this teaching, Coudray created what was called a “machine.” The machine was actually created from leather and cloth. It was used to teach future midwives about obstetrics and childbirth using various strings and straps to simulate the stretching of the birth canal and perineum. Moreover, the machine was extremely detailed and very accurate so that it allowed students to understand how to properly deliver a baby not only during normal deliveries but also under unusual circumstances, such as breech births.
Another first that occurred in France happened in 1774. It was the discovery by chemist Antoine Lavoisier about the oxygen theory of combustion. His discovery discredited the phlogiston theory (a theory that postulated that a fire-like element called phlogiston was contained in combustible bodies and released during combustion). Lavoisier achieved this discovery by conducting the first adequate quantitative experiment on oxidation that resulted in the first correct explanation of how combustion worked. In addition, oxygen had been called “vital air” and Lavoisier renamed it oxygène in 1777 mistakenly believing that oxygen was a constituent of all acids. Englishman Sir Davy Humphrey later proved that theory wrong as hydrogen forms the basis for acid chemistry. However, despite, Lavoisier’s mistake, the name oxygen stuck.
In 1728, Pierre Fauchard published Le Chirurgien Dentiste (“The Surgeon Dentist”). His book was the first of its kind. Fauchard was also alleged to be one of France’s best dentist and acquired the title of “father of modern dentistry.” Besides making remarkable improvisations of dental instruments by adapting tools from jewelers, barbers, and watchmakers, Fauchard also introduced dental fillings, pioneered dental prosthesis, and strongly recommended braces when teeth overlapped, “even in children at the breast.” In addition, his book described basic oral anatomy, operative dental methods, periodontal disease, tooth transplantation, and orthodontics, and as dentistry was still a relatively a new field, Fauchard quickly started a dental revolution with his forward thinking ideas.
We also owe the modern pencil to an inventor from France. His name was Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Besides being the pencil inventor, he was also a painter, balloonist, and army officer. During the French Revolution, France was under an economic blockade and could not import graphite from Great Britain. At the request of Lazard Nicolas Marguerite Carnot, Conté was asked to create a pencil that did not rely on foreign imports. Within a few days, Conté conceived a simple idea.
“[C]lay was the best cement to hold the graphite together for writing and drawing purposes. Instead of mixing the clay with graphite, pressing it into slabs, letting it harden and cutting it into slips, the mixture, while still in a doughy consistency was pressed out by means of a forming press, working very much on the same plan as an old-fashioned sausage stuffer, into stems of the required length and size. These ‘leads’ were then allowed to dry, whereupon they were removed to the furnace and fired, and were then upon cooling ready for their wooden sheaths.”
This new pencil used less graphite and allowed for varying degrees of hardness, making it much more versatile and more popular. In 1795, Conté received a patent and formed la Société Conté to produce modern pencils that have remained a hit ever since.
Pencils weren’t the only thing making headlines in the 1700s. A story of some mythical beast that attacked people first made headlines when newspapers reported that a monstrous creature, known as la bête de Gevaudan (The Beast of Gévaudan), appeared in December of 1764 and attacked a little girl and devoured her. Other attacks soon followed. Fear and hysteria eventually resulted in a detachment of dragoons sent to find and kill the beast. When that didn’t work, the legend of the beast grew. Witness reports ranged from the beast being some mythical creature to something like a lynx, bear, hyena, wolf, or something else. Eventually, the beast was killed, but that didn’t happen for some time, and various reports credited different people with killing the beast. To learn more about The Beast of Gévaudan, click here.
If you wonder who is credited with the idea of mass conscription or Levée en masse, it is the French. Although conscription started in antiquity, it was the French who devised massive military enlistments of able-bodied, unmarried men between the ages of 18 and 25. They devised it during the French Revolution in order to defend the Republic from foreign invaders, and a decree was enacted by the National Convention on 23 August 1793 stating:
“From this moment until such time as its enemies shall have been driven from the soil of the Republic, all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition for the services of the armies. The young men shall fight; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn old lint into linen; the old men shall betake themselves to the public squares in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic.”
Supposedly Deputy Jean-Baptiste Jourdan gave Levée en masse its name. Levée en masse also enabled the creation of Napoleon’s Grande Armée, which thereby allowed him to dominate Europe by overwhelming the professional European armies as they numbered only into the low tens of thousands.
-  The London Magazine Enlarged and Improved, Volume 4, 1785, p. 463.
-  Hyde, Melissa and Jennifer Milam, Women, Art and the Politics of Identity in Eighteenth-Century Europe, 2017.
-  The New York Dental Journal, Volume 1, 1859, p. 6.
-  The American Stationer, Volume 25, 1889, p. 311.
-  Modern History SourceBook: The Levée en Masse, August 23, 1793, Fordham University.