A household name

My last post on John Flamsteed provoked a brief exchange in the comments between myself and Jim Harrison on the relationship between science and technology with footnotes on kitchen appliances, which forms a perfect introduction to my latest obscure scientist Flamsteed’s contemporary the Huguenot Denis Papin (1642 – 1712?) who was baptised on 22nd August. Now chances are that unless you are an avid historian of steam power you will never have heard of Monsieur Papin although the list of people with whom he worked reads like a who’s who of the scientific greats of the period. However Papin should really be a household name in the true sense of the term as he invented the pressure cooker. I find it interesting that we glorify scientists such as Newton or Einstein whose work whilst intellectual fascinating in truth has very little impact on the everyday lives of the common people whereas a man such as Papin whose invention can be found in the homes of many of those people disappears into obscurity.

Papin originally studied medicine but abandoned his medical practice in favour of mathematics and machinery. He became an assistant to Christian Huygens in Paris and was involved in Huygens’ attempts to create a vacuum under a piston using gunpowder. His own earlier studies of the vacuum had led to his speculation on using the vacuum as a motive force. During his time in Paris he also made the acquaintance and obtained the friendship of Leibniz. Sent by Huygens as a courier to the Royal Society in London Papin became an employee of Robert Boyle whom he assisted in his experiment with the air pump, the design of which he improved. As a result of these experiments Papin realised that the boiling point of water could be raised by increasing the pressure and this led him to the invention of the pressure cooker including the safety valve which would play an important role in the future harnessing of steam power. Papin realised that food could be cook with less energy and less loss of nutrients in his invention which he regarded as a boon for poor families.

After three years he left the employment of Boyle and became an assistant to Robert Hooke at the Royal Society. Leaving Britain he stayed briefly with Huygens in Paris before moving on to Venice where he was employed as director of experiments at the academy of Ambrose Sarotti. However this led nowhere and he returned to London and employment at the Royal Society. In 1687 Papin was appointed professor of mathematics at the University of Marburg, where he designed a simple one-cylinder atmospheric steam engine, which he published in 1695. In the atmospheric steam engine a piston is driven out of cylinder by expanding steam that is then forced to contract by cooling, causing a vacuum that sucks the piston back into the cylinder. Papin appears to have made no attempt to further develop or exploit this machine.

Papin on The Louvre in Paris with his piston

Courtesy of Arjen Dijksman

In 1707 Papin returned London and in 1712 he disappeared off the map and is assumed to have died. This year is significant, as it the year in which Thomas Newcomen invented his steam engine regarded as the first practical device to harness steam power but which is in fact only a modified version of Papin’s design. This raises the unanswered question as to whether Newcomen invented his machine in ignorance of Papin’s work or whether he copied it. In the history of technology this is not a trivial question as it was Newcomen’s engine that Watt improved and thereby laid the foundations of the industrial revolution.  To be fair to Newcomen Watt generally receives the laurels that are by rights his but the question remains whether they are by rights Papin’s. At least Papin gets the laurels for that most practical of household appliances the pressure cooker even if most people are not aware of it.


Filed under History of science, Small animals also make manure

14 responses to “A household name

  1. Will Thomas

    Einstein does get a footnote in the history of household appliances as the co-inventor of a refrigerator with Leo Szilard. The design never came into common use, though apparently there are reports of a possible comeback!

  2. I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) this post early this morning, and then later in the morning I started Chapter 2 of William Rosen’s _The Most Powerful Idea in the World_. In the first paragraph, he describes a statue outside the Louvre, and the statue’s subject is holding “the world’s first steam-driven piston. The hand holding it belongs to its inventor, Denis Papin, whose ingenuity was critical to the creation of a steam-powered world, and whose life illustrates, as well as anyone’s, the challenges of the inventive life.” It was a terrific coincidence, and Rosen does a fine job of filling in some of the details of Papin’s life.

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  7. John F Ptak

    Thanks for this, Thony. This could be a great start to a History of Science tour of the house–identifying the stuff of every room and associating it with its tech/phys history. Fill your kitchen with science! I’m sure I’ve not seen a version of the “Secret House” like this….

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  10. matthewcoatman

    Phillip Valenti argues that Papin does indeed deserve the credit for inventing the steam engine. I’d be interested to know your thoughts on his argument.


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