Joseph Sauveur and the Science of Acoustics

Baroque Musical Instruments by Breughel,
unfortunately there is no portrait of Joseph Sauveur

On March 24, 1653, French mathematician and physicist Joseph Sauveur was born. Sauveur is known principally for his detailed studies on acoustics, a term he also has coined for the first time.

Joseph Sauveur was the son of a provincial notaryin La Fléche, France. Despite a hearing and speech impairment that kept him totally mute until he was seven, Joseph benefited from a fine education at the Jesuit College of La Flèche, where his favorite subject was math. Even ever after Joseph was obliged to speak very slowly and with difficulty. He very early discovered a great turn for mechanics and read with greediness books of arithmetic and geometry. Being intended for the church, applied himself for a time to the study of philosophy and theology. At seventeen, his uncle agreed to finance his studies in philosophy and theology at Paris. Joseph, however, during his course of philosophy, he learned the first six books of Euclid in the space of a month, without the help of a master, and turned to anatomy and botany.

As he had an impediment in his voice, he gave up the church and applied himself to the study of physic. As this was against the wishes of his uncle, from whom he drew his principal resources, Sauveur determined to devote himself to his favourite study, so as to be able to teach it for his support. Despite his handicap, Joseph at age 23 managed to teach mathematics to the French Dauphine’s pages and also to a number of princes of the Royal court, among them Eugene of Savoy. He had not yet read the geometry of Descartes, but he managed to make himself master of it in an inconceivably small space of time. By 1680, he was something of a pet at court, where he gave anatomy courses. “Basset” being a fashionable game at that time, the marquis of Dangeau asked him for calculating the odds, which gave such satisfaction, that Sauveur had the honor to explain them to the king and queen.

Saveur’s enormous aptitude in mathematics and geometry, along with his serendipititios mathematical work on games of chance at a time when nobles and courtiers spent much of their time at Versailles gambling, led to a rapid accumulation of rich and powerful patrons, students, and positions. In 1681, Sauveur did the mathematical calculations for a waterworks project for the “Grand Condé’s” estate at Chantilly, working with Edmé Mariotte, the “father of French hydraulics”. Condé became very fond of Sauveur and severely reprimanded anyone who laughed at the mathematician’s speech impediment. During his stay in Chantilly, Sauveur did his work on hydrostatics. During the summer of 1689, Sauveur was chosen to be the science and mathematics teacher for the Duke of Chartres, Louis XIV’s nephew. For the prince, he drew up a manuscript outlining the “elements” of geometry and, in collaboration with Marshal Vauban, a manuscript on the “elements of military fortification” and, in order to join practice with theory, he went to the siege of Mons in 1691, where he | continued all the while in the trenches. In 1686 Sauveur obtained the mathematics chair at the Collège de France, which granted him a rare exemption: since he was incapable of reciting a speech from memory, he was permitted to read his inaugural lecture. Circa 1694, Sauveur began working with Émile Loulié, a musician and teacher at the royal court, on “the science of sound“, that is, acoustics. This is really something extraordinary taking in mind Sauveur’s handicapped condition. He had neither a voice nor hearing, yet he could think only of music. For all acoustical experiments he was reduced to borrowing the ear of someone else.

Sauveur is known principally for his detailed studies on a new branch of physics called acoustics. Indeed, he has been credited with coining the term acoustique, which he derived from the ancient Greek word ????????, meaning “able to be heard“. His work involved researching the correlation between frequency and musical pitch, and he conducted studies on subjects such as the vibrating string, tuning pitch, harmonics, ranges of voices and musical instruments. If particular, Saveur also determined how to identify the pitch of a note by assessing the frequency of its vibration. He also asserted that harmonics are the component parts of all musical sound. In 1696, Saveur had been elected to the French Royal Academy of Sciences and most of his work on acoustics was therefore done under its aegis. Saveur, whom a contemporary described as “over-obliging, gentle, and humorless”, was declared a “pensioned veteran” of the Academy in on March 4, 1699. It was not until 1701 that Sauveur presented the results of his research to the Academy. The presentation was studded with jibes about musicians and their closed minds. In 1703, Marquis de Vanban having been made marshal of France, proposed Sauveur to the king as his successor in the office of examiner of the engineers, to which the king agreed, and honored him with a life-long pension. Sauveur was of an obliging disposition, and of a good temper; humble in his deportment, and of simple manners. He passed away in 1716.

At yovisto you can learn more about computer music and acoustics from the Computer Chronicles in the episode about “MIDI music

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