Nicolas Jacques Conte - Encyclopedia

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NICOLAS JACQUES CONTE (1755-1805), French mechanical genius, chemist and painter, was born at Aunou-sur-Orne, near Sees, on the 4th of August 1755, of a family of poor farm labourers. At the age of fourteen he displayed precocious artistic talent in a series of religious panels, remarkably fine in colour and composition, for the principal hospital of Sees, where he was employed to help the gardener. With the advice of Greuze he took up portrait painting, quickly became the fashion, and laid by in a few years a fair competency. From that time he gave free rein to his passion for the mechanical arts and scientific studies. He attended the lectures of J. A. C. Charles, L. N. Vaquelin and J. B. Leroy, and exhibited before the Academy of Science an hydraulic machine of his own invention of which the model was the subject of a flattering report, and was placed in Charles's collection. The events of the Revolution soon gave him an opportunity for a further display of his inventive faculty. The war with England deprived France of plumbago; he substituted for it an artificial substance obtained from a mixture of graphite and clay, and took out a patent in 1795 for the form of pencil which still bears his name. At this time he was associated with Monge and Berthollet in experiments in connexion with the inflation of military balloons, was conducting the school for that department of the engineer corps at Meudon, was perfecting the methods of producing hydrogen in quantity, and was appointed (1796) by the Directory to the command of all the aerostatic establishments. He was at the head of the newly created Conservatoire des arts et metiers, and occupied himself with experiments in new compositions of permanent colours, and in 1798 constructed a metal-covered barometer for measuring comparative heights, by observing the weight of mercury issuing from the tube. Summoned by Bonaparte to take part as chief of the aerostatic corps in the expedition to Egypt, he considerably extended his field of activity, and for three years and a half was, to quote Berthollet, "the soul of the colony." The disaster of Aboukir and the revolt of Cairo had caused the loss of the greater part of the instruments and munitions taken out by the French. Conte, who, as Monge says, "had every science in his head and every art in his hands," and whom the First Consul described as "good at everything," seemed to be everywhere at once and triumphed over apparently insurmountable difficulties. He made, in an almost uncivilized country, utensils, tools and machinery of every sort from simple windmills to stamps for minting coin. Thanks to his activity and genius, the expedition was provided with bread, cloth, arms and munitions of war; the engineers with the exact tools of their trade; the surgeons with operating instruments. He made the designs, built the models, organized and supervised the manufacture, and seemed to be able to invent immediately anything required. On his return to France in 1802 he was commissioned by the minister of the interior, Chaptal, to superintend the publication of the great work of the commission on Egypt, and an engraving machine of his construction materially shortened this task, which, however, he did not live to see finished. He died at Paris on the 6th of December 1805. Napoleon had included him in his first promotions to the Legion of Honour. A bronze statue was erected to his memory in 1852 at Sees, by public subscription.

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