Horace-Bénédict de Saussure
Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (17 February 1740 – 22 January 1799)
was a Genevan geologist, meteorologist, physicist, mountaineer and
Alpine explorer, often called the founder of alpinism and modern
meteorology, and considered to be the first person to build a
successful solar oven.
Life and work
Christian von Mechel, Descent from Mont-Blanc in 1787 by H.B. de
Saussure, copper engraving; collection of Teylers Museum, Haarlem
Horace-Bénédict de Saussure
Horace-Bénédict de Saussure was born 17 February 1740, in Conches,
Geneva (today in Switzerland but then an independent republic),
and died in
Geneva 22 January 1799.
Saussure's family were Genevan patricians. His father, Nicolas de
Saussure, was an agriculturist and author who may have sparked
Horace-Bénédict's early interest in botany. After attending the
"Collège" of his hometown, he completed his studies at the Geneva
Academy in 1759 with a dissertation on heat (Dissertatio physica de
igne). In 1760, he made the first of numerous trips to Chamonix
Valley, at the foot of Mont Blanc, to collect plant specimens for the
noted Swiss anatomist, physiologist and botanist Albrecht von
Haller. In 1760, Saussure offered a reward to the first man to
reach the summit of Mont Blanc. Inspired by his uncle, the
naturalist Charles Bonnet, the young Saussure also did research on the
physiology of plants and published Observations sur l'écorce des
feuilles et des pétales (1762). The same year, at 22, he was elected
professor of philosophy at the Academy of Geneva, where he lectured on
physics one year, and on logic and metaphysics the next. He taught
there until 1786, occasionally also lecturing on geography, geology,
chemistry, and even astronomy.
His early interest in botanical studies and glaciers soon led
Saussure to undertake other journeys across the Alps. In 1767, he
completed his first tour of Mont-Blanc, a trip that did much to reveal
the topography of the snowy portions of the
Alps of Savoy. He also
carried out experiments on heat and cold, on the weight of the
atmosphere and on electricity and magnetism. For this, he devised what
became one of the first electrometers. Other trips led him to Italy,
where he studied Mt. Etna and other volcanoes (1772–73), and to
the extinct volcanoes of the Auvergne, in France.
Although a patrician, Saussure held liberal views that induced him to
present in 1774 a plan for the development of scientific education in
Geneva College, which would be open to all citizens, but this
attempt failed. He was more successful in advocating the creation of
the "Société des Arts" (1776), inspired by the London Society for
the Improvement of Arts.
Beginning in 1774 Saussure sought to reach the summit of Mont-Blanc on
the Italian side accompanied by the
Courmayeur alpine guide
Jean-Laurent Jordaney on the Miage glacier and on Mont Crammont. In
1776 he ascended the
Buet (3,096 m). He climbed the Crammont in 1774
and again in 1778, in which year he also explored the Valsorey
glacier, near the Great St Bernard. In 1780 he climbed the Roche
Michel, above the Mont Cenis Pass. In 1785, he made an unsuccessful
attempt on Mont-Blanc by the
Aiguille du Goûter
Aiguille du Goûter route. Two Chamonix
men, Michel Paccard and Jacques Balmat, attained the summit in 1786,
by way of the Grands Mulets, and in 1787 Saussure himself made the
third ascent of the mountain. His achievements did much to attract
tourists to places such as Chamonix.
Obsessed by the measurement of meteorological phenomena, Saussure
invented and improved many kinds of apparatus, including the
magnetometer, the cyanometer for estimating the blueness of the sky,
the diaphanometer for judging the clarity of the atmosphere, the
anemometer and the mountain eudiometer. Of particular importance was a
hair hygrometer that he devised and used for a series of
investigations on atmospheric humidity, evaporation, clouds, fogs and
rain (Essais sur l'Hygrométrie, 1783). This instrument sparked a
bitter controversy with Jean-André Deluc, who invented a whalebone
In 1788 Saussure spent 17 days making meteorological observations and
physical measurements on the Col du Géant (3,371 m).
Horace-Bénédict de Saussure
Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (a wood engraving by Edward
Whymper after the picture by St. Ours)
In 1789 Saussure climbed the
Pizzo Bianco near Macugnaga, to observe
the east wall of Monte Rosa, and crossed the
Theodulpass (3,322 m) to
Zermatt, which he was the first traveler to visit. On that occasion he
climbed from the pass up the
Klein Matterhorn (3,883 m), while in 1792
he spent three days making observations on the same pass without
Zermatt and then visited the
Theodulhorn (3,472 m).
All of Saussure's observations and experiments from seven Alpine
journeys were summed up and published in four quarto volumes, under
the general title of Voyages dans les Alpes (1779 – 1796 (There was
an octavo issue in eight volumes, issued from 1780 to 1796). The
non-scientific portions of the work were first published in 1834, and
often since, as Partie pittoresque des ouvrages de M. de Saussure.
Alps were the focus of Saussure's investigations. He saw them as
the grand key to the true theory of the earth, and they gave him the
opportunity to study geology in a manner never previously
attempted. Saussure closely examined the inclination of the strata,
the nature of the rocks, the fossils and the minerals.
Saussure had a thorough knowledge of the chemistry of the day and
applied it to the study of minerals, water and air. His geological
observations made him a firm believer in the Neptunian theory: He
regarded all rocks and minerals as deposited from aqueous solution or
suspension, and attached much importance to the study of
meteorological conditions. His work with rocks, erosion, and fossils
also led him to believe that the earth was much older than generally
thought and formed part of the basis of Darwin's Theory of
Saussure carried barometers and boiling-point thermometers to the
summits of the highest mountains, and estimated the relative humidity
of the atmosphere at different heights, its temperature, the strength
of solar radiation, the composition of air and its transparency. Then,
he investigated the temperature of the earth at all depths to which he
could drive his thermometer staves, and the course, conditions and
temperature of streams, rivers, glaciers and lakes, even of the sea.
Horace-Bénédict de Saussure
Horace-Bénédict de Saussure monument at Chamonix. Beside him is
Saussure adapted the thermometer to many purposes: for ascertaining
the temperature of the air he used one with a fine bulb hung in the
shade or whirled by a string, the latter form being converted into an
evaporimeter by inserting its bulb into a piece of wet sponge and
making it revolve in a circle of known radius, at a known rate; for
experiments on the earth and in deep water he employed large
thermometers wrapped in non-conducting coatings so as to render them
extremely sluggish, and capable of long retaining the temperature once
they had attained it.
With these instruments Saussure showed that the bottom water of deep
lakes is uniformly cold at all seasons, and that seasonal changes in
temperature take six months to penetrate to a depth of 30 ft. in
the earth. He recognized the immense advantages to meteorology of
high-level observation stations, and whenever it was practicable he
arranged for simultaneous observations to be made at different
altitudes for as long periods as possible.
Saussure was particularly influential as a geologist, and although
his ideas on the underlying principles were often erroneous, he was
instrumental in greatly advancing that science. He was an early user
of the term "geology"—see the "Discours préliminaire" to volume I
of his Voyages, published in 1779—though by no means its inventor as
some have claimed, the English word having been used in the 1680s and
its Latin counterpart "geologia" during the previous several
In 1767, Saussure constructed the first known Western solar oven,
trying several designs before determining that a well-insulated box
with three layers of glass to trap outgoing thermal radiation produced
the most heat. The highest temperature he reached was 230 °F
(110 °C), which he found did not vary significantly when the box
was carried from the top of Mt. Crammont in the Swiss
Alps down to the
Plains of Cournier, 4,852 feet lower in altitude and 34 °F
(1 °C) warmer in temperature, thereby establishing that the
external air temperature played no significant role in this solar
In 1784, Saussure was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish
Academy of Sciences; in 1788, a foreign member of the Royal Society of
London; in 1791, an associate foreign member of l'Académie des
sciences de Paris
Saussure died in 1799 in Geneva.
The standard author abbreviation Sauss. is used to indicate this
person as the author when citing a botanical name.
Saussurea pygmaea, from the genus named after Saussure
The genus of plants Saussurea, some adapted to growing in extreme
high-alpine climates, is named after him and his plant-physiologist
son Nicolas-Théodore de Saussure. The Alpine Botanical Garden
Saussurea, located at Pavillon du Mont Fréty, first station for the
Skyway Monte Bianco
Skyway Monte Bianco cable car, in Courmayeur, Aosta Valley, is named
His work as a mineralogist was also recognized.
Saussurite is named
Saussure was honoured by being depicted on the 20
Swiss franc banknote
of the sixth issue of
Swiss National Bank
Swiss National Bank notes (1979 to 1995, when
replaced by the eighth issue; the notes were recalled in 2000 and will
become valueless on 1 May 2020).
Nicolas-Théodore de Saussure
Nicolas-Théodore de Saussure was a noted specialist in
plant chemistry and an early pioneer in photosynthesis research.
Albertine Necker de Saussure
Albertine Necker de Saussure was a pioneer in the
education of women.
Ferdinand de Saussure
Ferdinand de Saussure was an important linguist and
In his On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason,
whilst discussing how reason affects our perception of distance,
Arthur Schopenhauer includes an anecdote that Saussure, "when on the
Mont Blanc,... saw so enormous a moon rise, that, not recognizing what
it was, he fainted with terror".
^ At his birth
Geneva was an independent republic, and at his death it
was the capital of the French department of Léman
^ a b Douglas W. Freshfield, Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, éd.
Slatkine, p. 60.
^ Douglas W. Freshfield, Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, éd. Slatkine,
^ Albert V. Carozzi & John K. Newman, "Horace-Bénédict de
Saussure: Forerunner in glaciology", Mémoires de la SPHN, vol. 48,
^ Daniela Vaj, "Saussure à la découverte de l'Italie (1772–1773)",
in René Sigrist (ed.), H.-B. de Saussure (1740–1799). Un regard sur
la Terre, Geneva, Georg, 2001, p. 269-299
^ Albert V.Carozzi, Manuscrits et publications de Horace-Bénédict de
Saussure sur l'origine du basalte (1772–1797), Geneva, Editions
^ Douglas W. Freshfield, Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, éd. Slatkine.
^ René Sigrist, "Scientific standards in the 1780s: A controversy
over hygrometers", in John Heilbron & René Sigrist (eds),
Jean-André Deluc. Historian of Earth and Man, Geneva, Slatkine, 2011,
^ Albert V. Carozzi, "Forty years of thinking in front of the Alps:
Saussure's (1796) unpublished theory of the Earth", Earth Sciences
History, 8/2, 1989, pp. 123–140
^ "Connections 2" with James Burke, Episode 4 "Whodunit".
^ Marguerite Carozzi, "H.-B. de Saussure: James Hutton's obsession»,
Archives des Sciences, 53/2, 2000, p. 77-158
^ René Sigrist, Le capteur solaire de Horace-Bénédict de Saussure.
Genèse d'une science empirique. Genève, Passé-Présent / Jullien,
^ Butti, Ken (1 December 2004). "Horace de Saussure and his Hot Boxes
of the 1700s". Solar Cooking Archive, Solar Cookers International
(Sacramento, California). Archived from the original on 22 January
2010. Retrieved 13 January 2010.
^ "Saussure, Horace Benedict de, 17 February 1740 – 22 January 1799"
(PDF). List of Fellows of the Royal Society, 1660–2007. Retrieved 13
^ "Saussure (Horace, Bénédict de)". Liste des membres depuis la
création de l'Académie des sciences. Retrieved 13 November
^ IPNI. Sauss.
^ Candolle, A.P. de, in Annales du Muséum National d'Histoire
^ Hunt, T. Sterry (1859). "Contributions to the history of Euphotide
and Saussurite". American Journal of Science. 27, second series (81):
337. Retrieved 8 November 2016.
^ Joseph, John E. (2012). Saussure. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University
Press. pp. 38–40. ISBN 9780199695652.
^ Schopenhauer, Arthur (1903). On the Fourfold Root of the Principle
of Sufficient Reason and on the Will in Nature, English translation by
Mme. Karl Hillebrand. London: George Bell and Sons. p. 82.
Lives by J Senebier (Geneva, 1801), by Cuvier in the Biographie
universelle, and by
A. P. de Candolle
A. P. de Candolle in Décade philosophique
DeCandolle, A.P. (1799). "XVII. Biographical memoirs of M. de
Saussure". Philosophical Magazine. Series 1. 4 (13): 96–102.
articles by E. Naville in the Bibliothèque universelle (March, April,
chaps. v.-viii. of Ch. Durier's Le Mont-Blanc (Paris, various editions
between 1877 and 1897).
This article incorporates text from a publication now in
the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Saussure, Horace
Bénédict de". Encyclopædia Britannica. 24 (11th ed.). Cambridge
University Press. p. 238.
René Sigrist, Le capteur solaire de Horace-Bénédict de Saussure.
Genèse d'une science empirique. Geneva, Passé-Présent / Jullien,
Albert V. Carozzi & Gerda Bouvier, The scientific library of
Horace-Bénédict de Saussure
Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (1797): annotated catalog of an
18th-century bibliographic and historic treasure, Geneva, 1994
(Mémoires de la SPHN, t. 46).
René Sigrist (ed.), H.-B. de Saussure (1740–1799): un regard sur la
terre. Geneva, Georg, 2001.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Horace-Bénédict de Saussure.
Pictures and texts of "Les Voyages dans les Alpes" by H. B. de
Saussure can be found in the database VIATIMAGES.
Horace-Benedict de Saussure and his Hot Boxes of the 1700s
Horace-Bénédict de Saussure
Horace-Bénédict de Saussure works available online
(1796–1808) Voyages dans les Alpes, précédés d'un essai sur
l'histoire naturelle des environs le Genève, 4 vol. – Linda Hall
(1796) "Agenda, Ou tableau général des observations et des
recherches dont les résultats doivent servir de base à la théorie
de la terre." Journal des mines, no. 20. Paris, an. 4 (1796);
p. 1–70. – Linda Hall Library
ISNI: 0000 0001 2128 0601
BNF: cb119237943 (data)