The Paris Academy

Académie royale des sciences de Paris, 1666-1793

Institut National des Sciences et des Arts, 1795-1816

Académie des Sciences (Institut de France), 1816-present

The Paris Academy (Académie royale des sciences de Paris) had its origins in the numerous scientific and philosophical circles that pervaded Parisian society in the 17th century. Before long, these intellectual circles were actively pursuing scientific experiments and sharing results with other interested parties. By the 1660s, the volume of scientific work had increased to the point that public financing became necessary. Sometime in 1664, Thévenot, Auzout, and Petit drew up a proposal for the creation of a Compagnie des Sciences et des Arts. Hahn describes this tract:

    Here, spelled out in twenty-six concise paragraphs, are the demands of the growing scientific community: laboratories, observatories, systematic data-gathering expeditions, permanent translators, foreign correspondents, etc. Here too is one of the earliest attempts to prescribe and limit the function of academic officers and to establish a system of subcommittees of experts. Pervading all these proposals was an implicit definition of professional activities and standards...

Realizing the potential benefits to the Crown, King Louis XIV's chief minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, formally created the Paris Academy in 1666. The model of the Academy was not identical to that proposed by Thévenot, et al.; for instance, a greater emphasis was placed on supporting technological specialists rather than the more general pursuits of natural scientists. Colbert was likely concerned with geopolitical matters as well, due to the fact that the Royal Society of London had been founded just six years earlier. Political ramifications aside, the new Academy held its first meeting in December of that year in the king's private library. Meetings continued on a biweekly basis, with mathematics being discussed on Wednesdays and the physical sciences on Saturdays.

The first years of the Academy were not without controversy. One major cause for difficulty was the fact that the Crown viewed all proceedings of Academy meetings as its own private property. This resulted in an atmosphere of secrecy that was frustrating to many members. One colorful description of this situation comes to us from Henri Justel: "Our Society is still meeting, but it has produced nothing as yet, which makes people talk who imagine that great discoveries are made while sleeping and without thinking." During the next year, members began publishing proceedings and experimental results in contravention of this policy. In 1699, a major reorganization instituted public meetings, proceeds of which were publication published in the Mémoires, which became the Academy's main journal.

For the next several decades, the Paris Academy flourished. It became a model for many other European academies, including those in St. Petersburg and Berlin. Several foreign scientists were attracted to Paris, including Huygens (a founding member) and Cassini, and the Mémoires was considered the preeminent academic publication in Europe. In 1720, the academy initiated its well-known prize competitions. Originally intended to be an annual competition, it was eventually reduced to a biennial event. The challenges put forth each year typically involved current open problems, including aberrations in the motions of Jupiter and Saturn, construction of winches, and the application of hydrodynamics to seafaring.

Euler was a frequent contributor to this competition, ultimately making 15 submissions during his career. However, beginning in the middle of the 18th century, the Academy entered a period of decline. The prize competition, already reduced to a biennial event, was discontinued altogether. Administrative controversy and budget cuts had plagued its membership, and by 1789 the Academy's standing had been greatly diminished. With the storming of the Bastille that summer came a period of political uncertainty, which the academicians managed to weather for some time. However, fortunes shifted in 1793. The newly-empowered Jacobin Convention saw the Academy as an appendage of the Crown, and it was promptly dissolved.

While the revolutionaries' dissolution of the Academy may seem counterintuitive today, it made more sense in the revolutionary setting of the time. One of the main functions (indeed, the raison d'être) of the Academy was to serve as a permanent collection of royal consultants. Consequently, a great deal of academicians' time was devoted to the development of new technologies for government use, and the Academy itself was trumpeted as a national institution in competition with other (especially Britain's Royal Society). While other pursuits were reduced in the late 18th century, the role of consultant remained prominent.

Before long, however, the new régime realized the importance of having an independent collection of scientists free to pursue new experiments and philosophical inquiries. Thus, the Academy was reborn as the Institut National des Sciences et des Arts in 1795. Yet another reorganization came in 1816 with the end of the Napoleonic era, at which point the Institut National was replaced by the Institut de France. The membership and resources of the old Academy were transferred to the Académie des Sciences, which became one of several schools in the Institut de France. Both the Académie and the Institut exist in this form today.


  • Hahn, Roger. The Anatomy of a Scientific Institution: The Paris Academy of Sciences, 1666-1803. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971.
  • The Académie des Sciences home page (French).
  • History of the Paris Academy, at the Académie des Sciences web page (French).