Contemporaries

Colleagues and Contemporaries

Euler was not just influenced by his professional colleagues, but also by those who were pursuing technological and scientific goals outside of Basel, Berlin, or St. Petersburg. Many of these people contributed to work that was of particular interest to Euler, while others simply added to general scientific knowledge of the time. In all cases, these people had an impact on Euler’s life, both professionally and personally. Brief descriptions of some of Euler’s contemporaries are given below; you may also view a comparative timeline encompassing all the people described on this page.

Colleague

Johann Bernoulli (1667-1748), Swiss mathematician. Along with this brother Jacob (with whom he maintained a fierce rivalry famous to this day), Johann founded the Bernoulli dynasty, an impressive family of mathematicians and scientists who would do important work throughout Europe for generations. It was Johann Bernoulli who tutored Euler in mathematics when he was young, and who started Euler on his path to scientific greatness.

Daniel Bernoulli (1700-1782), Swiss mathematician. The son of Johann Bernoulli, Daniel was born in the Netherlands, but spent much of his life in Basel, Switzerland. He knew Euler in Basel when they were both young, and later he worked with Euler in Saint Petersburg for eight years. (When he left Russia, Euler took over his position as professor of mathematics). Bernoulli spent most of his life studying problems of pressure and fluid dyanamics, eventually publishing this masterpiece, the Hydrodynamica, in 1738.

Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis (1698-1759), French mathematician and astronomer. In 1736, Maupertuis headed an expedition to Lapland, which confirmed Newton’s theory that the earth is not spherical, but is slightly flattened at the poles. In 1740, he went to Berlin upon the invitation of Frederick II of Prussia, where he was made president of the new Berlin Academy of Sciences. In addition to his many astronomical publications (e.g., Discours sur la figure des astres (1732) and Discours sur la parallaxe de la lune (1741)), he wrote a work setting forth a mechanistic view of the universe (Essai de cosmologie (1750)) and several biological studies.

Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783), French mathematician and philosopher. The illegitimate son of the chevalier Destouches, he was named for the St. Jean le Rond church, on whose steps he was found. Diderot made him coeditor of the Encyclopédie, for which he wrote the “preliminary discourse” (1751) in addition to mathematical, philosophical, and literary articles. Discouraged, however, by attacks on his unorthodox views, he withdrew (1758) from the Encyclopédie. A member of the Academy of Sciences (1741) and of the French Academy (1754; appointed secretary, 1772), he was a leading representative of the Enlightenment. His writings include: a treatise on dynamics (1743), in which he enunciated a principle of mechanics known as d’Alembert’s principle; a work on the theoretical and practical elements of music (1759); and a valuable history of the members of the French Academy (1787).

Christian Goldbach (1690-1764) became professor of mathematics and historian at St. Petersburg in 1725. He met Euler there, and when he (Goldbach) left St. Petersberg three years later, he and Euler maintained an active correspondence. It was Goldbach who first whetted Euler’s interest in number theory. In fact, what we refer to today as “Goldbach’s Conjecture” (that every even integer is the sum of two primes), was first stated in a letter from Goldbach to Euler.

Philosophers

Olympe de Gouges (1745-1793), French writer, political philosopher. Despite her lack of formal education, Olympe de Gouges became one of Europe’s first feminist writers, producing “The Rights of Women” in response to the French Revolutionary publication, “The Rights of Man.” In it, she argued that women should be allowed to vote, seek public office, own property, and enjoy an equal role in the church. Too radical for many French Revolutionaries, and criticized for her opposition to Louis XVI’s execution, she was beheaded by guillotine in 1793.

David Hume (1711-1776), Scottish philosopher and historian. One of the British Empiricists, Hume published a number of fundamental philosophical treatises, including An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), and The Natural History of Religion (1755). Before long, however, Hume moved from philosophy to history, publishing his History of England in 1762. A year later, Hume was named secretary to the British embassy in France. He died in 1776.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Prussian philosopher. Kant’s work is generally considered to be the culmination of the tradition of modern philosophy that began with Descartes. Any philosopher following Kant would be forced to take his work into consideration, and a new age of philosophy is said to have begun. His central thesis—that the possibility of human knowledge presupposes the active participation of the human mind—is deceptively simple, but the details of its application are notoriously complex.

We know that Kant sent Euler a letter in 1749, though it is not known whether Euler responded. The Euler Archive is attempting to acquire a copy of this letter.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), French philosopher and writer. An influential philospher, Rousseau is best remembered for his contenton that man is essentially good, a “noble savage” when in the “state of nature” (the state we lived in before the advent of civilization), and that good people are made unhappy and corrupted by their living in society. Ironically, Rousseau also wrote “The Social Contract”, in which he contracts himself to explain that we willingly live in society to protect ourselves against brutality and unnecessary competition.

Adam Smith (1723-1790), Scottish economist, writer. Smith’s work on economic theory helped to define much of the field as we know it today. His 1776 publication, Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations presented several disadvantages of mercantilism and instead suggested a free trade system. Smith also proposed that government regulation, while often necessary, should be limited and should not include tariffs and other trade barriers.

Scientists

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), American statesman, printer, scientist, writer. Born and raised in Boston, Franklin came to Philadelphia in 1723, ultimately becoming editor of the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1730. He later published Poor Richard’s Almanack, from the years 1732 to 1757. However, Franklin’s interests extended far beyond the press. He became well known as a scientist and inventor as well. Among his inventions were bifocal eyeglasses and the lightning rod. Later in life, Franklin supported the American Revolution, serving in the Continental Congress and as the American envoy to France. Last of all, he was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Franklin died in 1790 at the age of 84.

Edmond Halley (1656-1742), English astronomer and mathematician. Halley achieved a number of impressive astronomy “firsts” during his lifetime. He was the first astronomer to predict the return of a comet (now known as Halley’s comet). He was the first astronomer to note that a transit of Venus could be used to determine the parallax of the sun. (This is the purpose of James Cook’s voyage to the south seas in 1768.) He was the first to make a complete observation of a transit of Mercury. He made one of the first studies of compass variations in the North Atlantic. Halley also financed the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia. Halley died in 1742. His comet returned as predicted in 1758, 14 years after his death.

William Herschel (1738-1822), English astronomer and mathematician. Herschel was an astronomer of almost legendary proportions, even during his own life. He is best remembered today for discovering the planet Uranus in 1781, the first new planet to have been discovered since antiquity. He later went on to discover several moons of Uranus and the Orion Nebula, construct a 48-inch telescope, and publish a catalog of more than 2500 stellar objects (mostly nebulae and star clusters) which would be used and followed for generations.

Antoine Lavosier (1743-1794), French chemist. A member of the minor French aristocracy, Lavosier became the father of modern chemistry. It was Lavosier who declared that such “substances” as phlogiston and mephitic airs were not part of the study of chemistry. Lavosier, along with his wife and colleague, Madame Lavosier, separated water into hydrogen and oxygen, recognized them for what they were, and gave them their modern names. They determined that a rusting object does not lose weight (as was commonly though), and laid the groundwork for the Law of Conservation of Matter. Lavosier would help found the metric system and coauthor the Methode de Nomenclature Chimique before being beheaded during the French Revolution.

Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish taxonomist, botanist. Linnaeus developed a system of classification of organisms that became the system used today, thus laying the groundwork for the field of taxonomy. He was also instrumental in the development and adoption of the Centigrade temperature scale. In addition to his scientific investigations, Linnaeus co-founded the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1739.

James Watt (1736-1819), Scottish inventor. Watt was an instrument maker at the University of Glasgow when he developed his steam engine, which was an improvement of a design by Thomas Newcomen. Shortly thereafter (beginning in the 1770s), Watt and partner Matthew Boulton began manufacturing the new steam engines, bringing steam power into widespread use in Britain.

Political Leaders

Peter I “the Great” (1672-1725), Czar of Russia (1682-1725). One of only two Russian leaders given the title “the Great,” Peter is remembered primarily as a reformer who brought Russia firmly into the European political and cultural scene. Shortly after the death of his nephew and co-czar Ivan V, Peter made a secret trip to Western Europe, where he explored the political and scientific milieu of the time. Upon his return, Peter enacted wide-reaching reforms of the military, bureaucracy, and education, with an eye to Westernization. One result of these policies was the establishment of the Saint Petersburg Academy of Sciences in 1724. (It was here that Euler came three years later.) When Peter died in 1725, he was succeeded by his wife, Catherine.

Catherine I, (1683-1727), Empress of Russia (1725-1727). Originally a peasant from Livonia (present day Latvia), Catherine was mistress of Aleksander Menshikov when she first met Czar Peter I. She later became Peter’s mistress, and after he divorced his first wife, she became his wife. Peter named her Czarina and co-ruler of Russia in 1724, and when Peter died in 1725 without naming an heir, Catherine became Empress. It was Catherine’s unexpected death that greeted Euler upon his arrival in St. Petersburg in 1727.

Peter II (1715-1730), Emperor of Russia (1727-1730). Grandson of Peter the Great, Peter inherited the throne upon the death of his step-grandmother, Catherine I. Only 12 at the time of his accession, Peter ruled under the regency of his cousins Anna and Elizabeth (daughters of Peter I by his marriage to Catherine). Under the influence of Aleksander Menshikov and others, Peter moved his court to Moscow, the traditional capital. This move signified a change in attitude toward the St. Petersburg Academy; the mostly-foreign faculty was largely ignored by Peter’s regime. In 1730, Peter caught smallpox and died at the age of 15.

Anna Ivanovna (1693-1740), Empress of Russia, (1730-1740). Grandniece of Peter the Great and Duchess of Courland, Anna was chosen Empress by the supreme privy council upon the death of her cousin Peter II in 1730. The council hoped to use her accession as a way to limit the power of the monarchy, and persuaded Anna to sign agreements limiting her power. Anna later reneged on these agreements, and with the support of the lesser nobility and the imperial guards, she restored the autocratic system that had preceded her. During her reign, Anna excluded Russians from important positions and replaced them largely with Baltic Germans. While this state of affairs was beneficial in the short term to the St. Petersburg Academy’s foreign-born faculty, Anna’s favorable treatment of foreigners ultimately created a xenophobic backlash after her death.

Ivan VI (1740-1764), Emperor of Russia (1740-1741). The son of Prince Anthony Ulric of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and Anna Leopoldovna, Ivan succeeded his great-aunt Anna on the Russian throne as an infant, under the regency of his mother. In 1741, Elizabeth, (daughter of Peter I) overthrew his mother’s regime and declared herself Empress. It is at this time, with the chaos and xenophobia that had taken hold in Russia, that Euler decided to take an offer from Frederick II of Prussia to come to the Berlin Academy of Sciences. Ivan himself was imprisoned and ultimately murdered in Schlüsselburg Fortress on the orders of Catherine II.

Frederick II “the Great” (1712-1786), King of Prussia (1740-1786). While pursuing an aggressive foreign policy that resulted in a dramatic expansion of Prussian influence and territory, Frederick also pursued a vigorous domestic policy. During his reign, he carried out a number of internal reforms, improving the Prussian educational system (including the reorganization of the Berlin Academy of Sciences), strengthening the military, and expanding Prussia’s industrial base. It was this atmosphere–contrasted with the situation in Russia–that persuaded Euler to come to the Academy in 1741. Unfortunately, Frederick and Euler’s relationship was often tenuous. Frederick was enamored of the Enlightenment and French culture, and became suspicious of the Swiss Euler, who he termed a “limited Cyclops.” Also, Frederick was a strict atheist, while Euler was a devout Calvinist. This, along with other things, led to a cold relationship by the time Euler left Berlin in 1766.

Elizabeth I (1709-1762), Empress of Russia (1741-1762), daughter of Peter I and Catherine I. Elizabeth came to power in 1741 by overthrowing the infant czar Ivan VI and his mother Anna Leopoldovna with the help of anti-German members of the imperial guard. After taking control, Elizabeth set out to eliminate the heavy German influence in the court that was established under the rule of Empress Anna (1730-1740). Additionally, Russia sided against Frederick II of Prussia in the Seven Years War, with Russian soldiers ultimately capturing Berlin in 1760 (during Euler’s tenure at the Berlin Academy). Elizabeth died in 1762 and was succeeded by her nephew, Peter III.

Catherine II “the Great” (1729-1796), Empress of Russia (1762-1796). After overthrowing her husband, Emperor Peter III, in 1762, Catherine increased Russia’s power and prestige in Europe by expanding Russian territory and continuing the cultural reformation begun under Peter I. An enthusiastic patron of literature, art, and education, Catherine wrote memoirs, comedies, and stories, and corresponded several Enlightenment figures, including Voltaire, Diderot, and d’Alembert. For much of her reign, she encouraged free and open discussion of political and social issues in Russia. However, the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 turned Catherine into a staunch political conservative, and she reversed many of her political reforms. She died in 1796, and was succeeded by her son, Paul I.

Other Contemporaries

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), German composer. Born in Eisenach, Bach held a number of music-related positions in various German principalities, taking him to such cities as Lüneberg, Weimar, Arnstadt, Mühlhausen, and Köthen. Ultimately, he was appointed music director at Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) in Leipzig. It is known that Bach and Euler were both at the court of Frederick II in Berlin at the same time, and it is possible that they met. Bach remained in Leipzig until his death in 1750.

James Cook (1728-1779), English explorer and navigator. Cook joined the royal navy in 1755, beginning an impressive career of exploration. His travels took him to such far-flung places as Newfoundland, New Zealand, Australia, the Antarctic Ocean, and Hawaii. Of particular note is his 1768 expedition to the southern oceans, to observe and chart the transit of Venus. Cook was killed by Hawaiian natives in 1779, en route to England after an expedition to the northwest coast of North America.