Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier
6) LAVOISIER, ECONOMIST
The General Farm
The Gunpowder and Saltpeter Administration
The Spinning and Bleaching Workshop
The "Montgolfieres " and the "Charlieres"
Of all Lavoisier's roles, the least known is that of the economist.Everybody knows that he was a Farmer General andas such wasguillotined along with twenty-seven of his colleagues on May 8, 1794.But his contribution topolitical and economic life inFrance was farmore extensive.
This born organizer possessed both the ambition and practical sense necessary for directing industrial and financial undertakings.His wealth as a Farmer General and banker, his permanent contacts with the world of decision-makers offered him the opportunities.His scientific method, exact accountingpractices and balance sheets could assure his success.
The economy obeys scientific laws, the Physiocrats claimed.In hisactivities as a financier at the General Farm, the Gunpowder Administration and the Discount Bank, Lavoisier was well placed to see thelimitations of this science which"like almost all others began with metaphysical discussions. The theory has advanced but the practical science is still in its infancy and the modern statesman is constantly short of facts on which he can base his speculations."(Lavoisier, Oeuvres, vol. VI, p. 404.)Seeking to specify the laws of this practical science throughout his life, Lavoisier was going to prepare the way for quantitative economics and national accounting.
The General Farm
At twenty-five and already possessing a personal fortune, Lavoisier became a stockholder in the General Farm, a private company in charge of collecting annually for the Royal Treasury some 175 million livres in indirect taxes, which consisted of the gabelle (the tax on salt), traites (customs duties) and aides (the tax on tobacco and alcohol).(The monetary multiplying coefficient that has beenused to transform livres or francs from the period prior to 1789 is 200.Cf. J.-P. Poirier,
Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier,
Paris, Pygmalion-Gérard Watelet, 1993, pp. 445-46.)
Appointed as regional inspector for the TobaccoCommission, he was in charge of eliminatingthecontreband and the fraud being perpetrated by certain retailers.He soon married the daughter of his director, Jacques Paulze, the wealthy nephew of the Abbé Terray.For the next twenty-three years he was going to occupy posts of increasing responsibility in the Farm, culminating with aplace on the powerful Comité des Caisses.
At the Tobacco Commission, he pursued an efficient industrial policy:modernization of factories, increased productivity, importation of tobacco from Virginiaandthe introductionof grindingprocedures for the fabrication of snuff.But as far as the mouillade, or moistening of tobacco, was concerned, he never succeeded in having the norms respected and preventing abuses.The sale by dealers of a "putrefied" tobacco, unfit for consumption, would be the main cause of his unpopularity.
Also responsible for collecting duties on goods entering Paris, that is, for the octrois,or city tolls, he had the ideaof constructing a wall around the cityas a means of controlling the smuggling of alcohols and tobacco.At a cost of 30 million livres, the gifted architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux was commissioned to construct an impenetrable barrier broken onlybyforty-five pavilions which would serve as tollgates.The projectaroused widespread hostility.In the streets, as well as the salons, "le mur murant Paris rend Paris murmurant."("The wall walling in Paris has made Paris murmur.")
As an urbanist, Lavoisir had even foreseen the construction of a boulevard beyond the wall which would allow for the circulation of heavy carts and the installation of slaughterhouses on the outskirts of the city.But the days of the Farm were numbered and the wall was destroyed on July 13, 1789.Of the forty-five tollgates constructed by Ledoux, only four remain: the Pavillon deDenfert, on the Place Denfert-Rochereau; thePavillon de Trône at the Place de la Nation,and the rotundas at the Parc Monceau and la Villette atthe Place Saint-Pétersbourg.
The Gunpowder and Saltpeter Administration
In 1776, Turgot appointed Lavoisier as one of four commissioners of the Gunpowder and Saltpeter Administration, a nationalized industry which had replaced the Gunpowder Farm, a private company whose poor management was partly responsible for the disastrous defeat of France in the Seven Years' War. Lavoisier, very conscious of the geopolitical dimension of his job wrote: "A state such as France, vast and surrounded by neighbors jealous of its strength, rivals for its trade, and ever ready to upset its prosperity and peace, is forced by its very situation and scattered possessions to concern itself with everything that takes placein Europe, America and Asia.Regardless of what is happening there, Francemust be able to obtain within its own borders all the saltpeter and gunpowder necessary for arming herfleets, supplying herarmies, defending herborders, and storing and protecting herharvests; and also for stimulating hermanufacturing activityandthe exploitation of hermines, public works and trade."(Lavoisier,
, vol. V, p. 704.)
The Administration produced several kinds of gunpowder: one used for military purposes; two types used by hunters, with the poudre royale being the more powerful; an explosive used for excavating quarries; and an inferiorpoudre de traite, or trading powder,sold toslave trading Africans in the ports. All were composed of the same mixture: 75% saltpeter, 12.5 % charcoal and 12.5% sulphur.France was greatly lacking in saltpeter or nitrate, formed from efflorescences of potassium nitrate which develops on demolition rubble and old humid walls.In spite of the right to search for it in private houses, the saltpeter collectors hadmanaged to amass only 1,600,000 pounds per year, whereas twice as much was needed.It should benoted that England imported its saltpeter from India, Prussia produced 150,000 pounds and it was estimated that Sweden produced between 180,000 and 600,000 pounds. Lavoisier forbade the saltpeter workers to enter wine cellars and private quarters, but encouraged the collection of demolition material.He himself made a prospecting trip tosouthwest France, and triedwithout success to producesaltpeter from asynthesis using nitric acid.
Seeking then to develop an industrial production of saltpeter in artificial nitrate works (nitrières), he published a manualgiving potential investors very detailed instructionsondetecting soils containing saltpeter,choosingsites for building the sheds, , setting up pyramids under the sheds,how to water and leach themandmeasure their saltpeter content.He then explained the process ofrefiningthe product using potash, and how to evaporate and crystallize it.He even calculated the profit that could be realized from nitrate works consisting of ten sheds: the initial investment would be 32,900 livres, annual operating costs would amount to around 7,000 livres and the turnover would be 12,000 livres.Hence the profit - 5,000 livres - would represent slightly more than 15% of the capital outlay. But the incentives proved to be of no avail.The investors attracted by new industries were limited to a few noblemen and bankers.The bourgeois were under the spell of agiotage (speculation on the stock exchange) and investment in land whichconfirmed a rise in social status.The only nitrate factories created were those belonging to the Gunpowder Administration.
Lavoisier was not howeverblind to the contradictions of the double role he was playing as a commissioner for the Gunpowder Administration and Farmer General.For example,to facilitate the precipitation of potassium nitrate in the barrels where it leached the saltpeter filled stones, the Parisian saltpeter men habitually added ashes.These ashes, although poor in potash, were rich in sea salt, useless for the production of saltpeter. The General Farm bought this salt for 7sous a pound."The payment of 7 sous per pound to the saltpeter men for the sea salt that they deliver to the Arsenal," wrote Lavoisier," the object of which is to encourage their efforts, is likely to result in many inconveniences regarding the fabrication of saltpeter.It discourages the saltpeter men from using an adequate amount of potash in their leaching.Perhaps if the price of saltpeter could be increased, they would be encouraged to usemore potash.On the other hand, the King's interest, regarding the monopoly on salt, seems to place an invincible obstacle to such an arrangement.The singular reflection presented by this discussion is whether it is more advantageous for the saltpeter men to use potash rather than ashes for the fabrication of saltpeter given thethe King's exclusive privilege of selling salt .
"This is so true that in the industrial arts, the physical questions are almost always complicated by political ones, and one must be slow to make a decision before all points of views have been envisaged."(Lavoisier, "Expériences sur la cendre qu'emploient les salpêtriers de Paris et sur son usage dans la fabrication du salpêtre,"
Mémoires de l'Académie des Sciences, 1777
, p. 123.)
Lavoisier succeeded, however, in bringing about a dramatic increase in gunpowder production.He constructed new factories, mills, refineries and warehouses, reinforced the methods for checking the quality of production and organized courses in physics, chemistry and mathematics for the personnel.The Administration employed 1,100 workersin forty workshops,gunpowder factories and refineries.The production of saltpeter rose from 1,700,000 pounds in 1775 to 2,000,000 in 1777.Ten years later the output had reached 3,500,000.The stocks of gunpowder rose to 5 million pounds, enough to provide for two or three campaigns.French gunpowder had become the best in Europe.Its range, which had been 150 meters in the Seven Years' War, was increased to 260 meters.The BrritishNavy began to complain that theirs did not carry as far.France realized savings estimated at 28 million livres, and a part of the production was exported to Holland and Spain, as well as to America, for use by the Revolutionaries. A new technology, gunpowder produced from superoxygenated potassium muriate (potassium chlorate), a substitute for saltpeter, was discovered by Claude Louis Berthollet (1748-1822)and resulted in a terrible accident at the gunpowder factory at Essone.One of the young employees, Eleuthère-Irénée Du Pont deNemours (1771-1834), son of Pierre -Samuel (1739-1817),who happened to be absent that day, would preserve the savoir-faire developed by Lavoisier and transport it to America.Arriving in New York on January 1, 1800, he soon afterwards purchased land on the banks of the Brandywine River near Wilmington, Delaware and began making gunpowder for the military and for hunters.He had wanted to call the installation "Lavoisier Mills.""I hope that Madame Lavoisier will not disapprove of my giving this name to an important and well-equipped factory, founded on her husband's principles and discoveries and which would not exist without all he did for me."(B.G. Du Pont,
Correspondence of Pierre and Irénée Du Pont,
University of Delawre Press, 1926.)
But the financial and sentimental disputes between Madame Lavoisier and Pierre-Samuel, the father of the young industrialist, made agreement impossible and the company would eventually be called "Du Pont de Nemours and Company."
Spinning Mills and BleachingWorkshops
At the Committee on Agriculture which he directed with Pierre-Samuel Du Pont, Lavoisier encouraged the creation of private enterprises.To slow down imports of English cotton fabrics, he encouraged the cultivation of flax, created model spinning mills throughout the country and improved the quality of French cloth.He installed on the rue du Montparnassea factory producing fine cloth and established norms to be respected regarding the thickness of thread.The initial results were encouraging, he declared: "The sieurLefebvre and his uncle have shown a special talent for creating from flax a large number of stolesthat have up to now been made from either cotton or silk, and have also produced from satin threadstwills,ras de Saint-Cyr, basinsand other fabrics thatare bound to have a large turnover.They have also been very successful in producing more ordinary cloths includinga sailcloth in twill that resists the wind much better than ordinary canvas."(H. Pigeonneau and A. de Foville,
L'Administration de l'Agriculture au Contrôle général des Finances
, 1785-1787, Paris, Guillaumin, 1882, p. 310.)
He developed an industrial plan for whitening unbleached cloth using a process perfected by Berthollet.Twenty stockholders divided the thirty shares issued at 300 livres each to form the new company.The necessary chlorine was provided by the Gunpowder Administration which extracted it from salt, a byproduct of the refining of saltpeter.It was sold at a preferential price: 12 sols per pound instead of 45.And in 1786, next to the workshop for fine cloth, there wasinstalled one for bleaching."This budding enterprise is all the more interesting," Lavoisier wrote, "since it substitutestheraw materials flax and hemp,produced in the kingdom, for cotton, which must be imported and which the State can obtain only at great expense."(H. Pigeonneau and A. de Foville,
L'Administration de l'Agriculture au Contrôle général des Finances,
1785-1787, Paris, Guillaumin, 1882, p. 310.) But it was only an e xperimental venture, and did not have the time to reach an industrial level.Its stockholders would lose their investment.
Aerostats, Montgolfieres and Charlieres
In August 1783,the Montgolfier brothers had their first aerostat, which was filled with hot air, fly over Paris.Ten days later, Jacques Alexandre César Charles (1746-1823) launched a balloon inflated with hydrogen.The two technologies as well as that of the production of hydrogen would benefit from Lavoisier's rapid reaction."Which is preferable - hot air or hydrogen?" he asked himself."The simplicity of the Montgolfières' operation gives them great advantages for civil uses; but inflammable air makes it possible to use smaller aerostats for an equivalent load, requires no effort from its passengers and seems muchbetter adapted to scientific tasks, such as meteorological observation."(Lavoisier, Oeuvres, vol. III, p. 734.)
The Royalty, envisaging military applications for the balloons, decided to take over the direction of operations and an Aerostat Commission was created.Its priorities, as defined by Lavoisier, were first of all to reduce the weight and permeability of the balloon's covering.Monge and Hollenveiger proposed parchment softened by soaking in soapy water and then scratched and greased with amixture of spermaceti and almond oil. Charles used a silk cloth coated with elastic gum dissolved in linseed oil.Fortin suggested lining the insides with a very thin sheet of tin.Lavoisier and Berthollet proposed a tightly stretched double thickness of woven silk coated with varnish.
"Birdlime used for catching birds has been successfully tested; this substance dissolves with effervescence in linseed oil, and the result is an excellent varnish, as flexible as elastic gum."(Lavoisier
, Part IV, p. 10.)
A way had to be found to control the rise and descent of the balloon, without having to dump ballast or waste gas.And, also, a means of steering, with the help of oars, sails or perhaps a steam motor had to be devised.Finally, it was essential to decidewhich gas was to be used and to perfect methods for its industrial production.Hydrogen was eventually chosen and it was not by chance that Lavoisier, assisted by Meusnier, carried out his great experiment on the analysis and synthesis ofwater.Fundamental and applied research,closely linked, led to a double success.
In 1778, Lavoisier became an important landowner.By successive acquisitions, he created in Beauce, near Blois, a property of 1, 129 hectares for a total cost of 389,000 livres.(Cf. G. Diot, "Lavoisier à Villefrancoeur, Champigny et Freschines," Bulletin de la section culturelle du syndicat d'initiative de la Vallée de la Cisse, 1974, no. 2, p. 52.) He wanted to make an investmentbut also to carry out an experiment in scientific agronomy and test his ideas as an economist."It is not just from an armchair that one can study economics," he wrote, "it is only by the well thought out investigation of a vast agricultural enterprise, by calculations - pursued over many years - of the distribution of recurring riches, that one can form valid ideas on what contributes to the prosperity of a large kingdom."(
Annales de Chimie,
Paris, rue Serpente, October 1792, vol. XV, p. 315.)
Following his contact with the Physiocrats, he was convinced that agriculture was the principal source of wealth and ought to be the main productive activity of the nation.But it was very backward in France.Tottering under the weight of expenses and taxes, paralyzed by the lack of capital, it remained hemmed in by archaic traditions.Several"grands seigneurs," the ducs de Choiseul, La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, Charost and Turbilly had set up model farmsto introduce new agricultural techniques and encourage the peasants to clear their abandoned lands and drain the marshes.Scientists readily contributed their knowledge to thisprocess of modernization.
Butthe peasants, already crushed by taxes, had little interest in increasing their income, and without a profound fiscal and administrative reform, all other incentives remained futile - a fact that Lavoisier was going to discover when he became a landowner.The local agricultural situation was disastrous: the average wheat yield was 10 hectoliters per hectare, or only5 times the seed used.The soil was of good quality, but the majority of farmers possessed only four or five cows and no more than eighty or so sheep.They could only barely manage to feed these animals during the winter and animal fertilizer, the only one known, was used sparingly.
Lavoisier applied a scientific approach.His habitual use of the balance sheet was perfectly suited to the situation.Everything was classified according to expenses and income.It was counted and weighed, just as for a laboratory experiment.He had very precise maps and plans showing the acreage and use of each parcel of land. Thus, he could compareyields. He checked the weight of ten or twenty sheafs from every cart and calculated an average.For experimental cultivation, each sheaf was weighed at threshing time, and the weights of the grain, chaff and straw were all recorded.This precise measurement allowed him to estimate the production of eachfield and to assess the effects of his improvements.
At the end ofeight years, he hadcreated fifteen hectares of meadows andone each for turnips or rutabagas, beets and potatoes."I have far more fodder than my barns and granaries can hold," hewrote with pride, "at last, my oat harvest surpasses considerably my consumption. But the success for wheat was less spectacular.Although the straw yield had doubled, that of grain had increased only slightly, because the seed were of poor quality.
His contemporaries, "armchair agronomists," looked especially at the scientific aspect of agricultural questions and sought to popularize the new cultivation methods.Lavoisier stood apart from them because he observedthings as an economist. As an orthodox Physiocrat, he determined the farmer's net income after deducting all his expenses: the salaries of the cutters, harvesters and threshers; the upkeep of livestock; the cost of seed, supplies and food needed by the farmer and his family; andthe rent paid to the landlord and the land and indirect taxes.
Once these accounts were made, he noted that "the landowner takes about a third of the harvest, taxes about as much, and there remains about a third for the farmer's upkeep, food, operating costs, interest paymentson loans and other expenses."(
Annales de chimie
,vol. XV, p. 316.)
Therefore, agriculture did not allow for the brilliant speculation of the stock market, Lavoisier concluded.Nevertheless, it did not entail the same risks and, furthermore, brought altruistic satisfaction."A wealthy landowner cannot cultivate and improve his farm without spreading comfort and well-being around him.Rich and abundant crops, a numerous population and a prosperous countryside are the rewards for his efforts."(
Annales de chimie,
vol. xv, p. 313.).