Math in Engineering

Basics of Engineering

What are some details of Jean Baptiste Fourier’s life?

The accomplishments of French mathematician and physicist Baron Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier (1768–1830) prove that not all famous mathematicians did just math. Fourier was a teacher, became involved in the messy French Revolution, and was arrested for his views and imprisoned in 1794. For a time, he even feared the guillotine, but political changes resulted in Fourier being freed. By 1798 Fourier joined Napoleon’s army in its invasion of Egypt as a scientific adviser. After Napoleon lost the Battle of the Nile to Nelson and was confined to Malta, Fourier continued his work in Egypt, establishing educational facilities there and carrying out archeological explorations. Back in France with Napoleon in 1801, he supervised the draining of the swamps of Bourgoin and the construction of a highway from Grenoble to Turin. He also spent time writing Description of Egypt, a book that Napoleon edited, and included some historical rewrites (by the second edition of the book, Napoleon himself would be completely edited out of the text).

As if he wasn’t busy enough, during this time Fourier wrote his now-famous 1807 paper, On the Propagation of Heat in Solid Bodies, a mathematical work on the theory of heat that presented one of his major contributions: the Fourier series. But it was an uphill battle to get approval from his peers. In 1811 he submitted his 1807 ideas for a mathematics prize, along with additional work on the cooling of infinite solids and on terrestrial and radiant heat. Only one other entry was received, making Fourier’s work the obvious winner. Finally, by 1822, he published his 1811 essay, making the techniques of Fourier analysis available to everyone. To this day, the functions that he worked out have a multitude of applications in engineering, science, and mathematics.


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