The Instruments of Jean-Charles de Borda

Reflecting circle. On display at Toulon naval museum.

Reflecting circle. On display at Toulon naval museum.

On May 4, 1733French mathematician, physicist, political scientist, and sailor Jean-Charles de Borda was born. De Borda noted for his studies of fluid mechanics and his development of instruments for navigation and geodesy, the study of the size and shape of the Earth. He is one of 72 scientists commemorated by plaques on the Eiffel tower.

Jean-Charles de Borda grew up in Dax, France as part of a noble family. With their military connections, several of his brothers pursued military careers. It is believed that Jean-Charles’ cousin Jacques-François had a great influence on him. The cousin, an enthusiast for mathematics and science himself, taught Jean-Charles de Borda from early age. Starting from the age of seven, Jean-Charles de Borda began studying Greek and Latin at the Collège des Barnabites at Dax and at the age of eleven and with the help of Jacques-François, Jean-Charles de Borda enrolled at the Jesuit college at La Flèche where he was able to focus more on mathematics and science, as well as military engineering and civil service. This paved the way for de Borda’s later career, at 15 years old, de Borda was appointed mathematician in the army.

In 1758, Jean-Charles de Borda enrolled at the École du Génie at Mézière and after completion proceeded his career at the as military engineer. During the 1760s and 1770s, Borda crossed the Atlantic several times while working as a scientist and for the military. For instance, he was actove in cartography and drew charts of the Azores and Canary Islands. In 1778, he took part in the military conflict against Britain during the American War of Independence. During 1781, Jean-Charles de Borda was put in charge of several vessels and in 1784, Borda was appointed France’s Inspector of Naval Shipbuilding.

During his career, Borda developed trigonometric tables, and studied fluid flow on ships, pumps, as well as scientific instruments. For instance, Borda improved the reflecting cicle initially invented by Tobias Mayer. The reflecting cicle preceded the sextant and was motivated by the need to create a superior surveying instruments. Jean-Charles de Borda further improved the repeating cicle which had been invented by his assistant Etienne Lenoir, it was used to measure the meridian arc from Dunkirk to Barcelona by Delambre and Méchain.

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