Plumier Publishes

Charles Plumier’s L’Art de tourner provided the basis for advances in manufacturing at the beginning of the eighteenth century. It cataloged every significant development in the history of lathes and prepared the way for further advances in the art of turning wood, that is, making objects from wood using a lathe.

Summary of Event

Charles Plumier was born in Marseilles, a port in southern France, on April 20, 1646. Little is known of his parents or his childhood, other than that his father was a carpenter and woodturner. When he was sixteen, Plumier entered the Marseilles monastery of the Minims, an order founded by Saint Francis of Paola in 1469. The monks of this order, which had grown to more than four hundred cloisters, practiced extreme asceticism, abstaining from all meat and dairy products while engaging in arduous manual and intellectual work. Plumier dedicated himself to the study of the sciences, particularly physics and mathematics, showing such promise that soon after his arrival at the monastery he was sent to Toulouse to study under Father Emmanuel Maignan, a famous Minim mathematician and turner. Though the two skills seem unrelated today, mathematics lay at the heart of wood turning, Wood turning
Art;wood turning both in the construction of the lathes Lathes and in the design and execution of the items to be turned. [kw]Plumier Publishes L’Art de tourner (1701)
[kw]Tourner, Plumier Publishes L’Art de (1701)
[kw]Art de tourner, Plumier Publishes L’ (1701)
[kw]Publishes L’Art de tourner, Plumier (1701)
Art de tourner, L’ (Plumier)
[g]France;1701: Plumier Publishes L’Art de tourner[0030]
[c]Science and technology;1701: Plumier Publishes L’Art de tourner[0030]
[c]Art;1701: Plumier Publishes L’Art de tourner[0030]
[c]Manufacturing;1701: Plumier Publishes L’Art de tourner[0030]
Plumier, Charles
Louis XIV
Peter the Great

Saint Francis of Paola had spent many years of his life in France during the reign of Charles VIII, who built two cloisters in France and one in Rome to be used only by French monks. For seven years (from 1643 to 1650), Emmanuel Maigan had been a resident at the Roman monastery, Trinita dei Monti, and had built a wood shop where he had practiced turning. It was there that Maigan sent his young student to further his education. Plumier was inspired by his teacher’s accomplishments, and during his free time he used Maigan’s tools to make the turnings for the choir stalls in the monastery’s church.

Turning and mathematics did not consume all of Plumier’s time; while in Rome, he studied botany Botany with Paolo Boccone, an Italian botanist, and Philippe Sergeant and Pierre-Joseph Garidel, two botanists from Provence, the region surrounding Marseilles. Returning to France, he continued studying botany, becoming so well known in the field that he was chosen by Louis XIV to accompany the king’s botanist, Joseph Donat Surian, to the French Antilles in 1689. On his return, Plumier wrote his first book, Description des plantes de l’Amérique (1693; description of the plants of America). The volume impressed Louis XIV sufficiently that he appointed Plumier royal botanist and sent him back to the Antilles two more times, in 1693 and 1695, to continue cataloging the native flora and evaluating the economic and medicinal properties they might have. By the time of his death, Plumier had published fifteen volumes of plants illustrated with six thousand drawings.

Though Plumier continued to work on the data he had acquired in America, publishing Nova plantarum americanarum genera (1703-1704; new genera of American plants) and Traité des fougères de l’Amérique (1705; treatise on the ferns of America), increasingly his attention focused on his old hobby of turning. In 1689, the year Plumier first was sent to the New World, France’s most celebrated turner, Nicolas Grollier de Servière, Grollier de Servière, Nicolas had died. His work—both the lathes that he used and the intricate objects that he produced—had attracted national attention; King Louis XIV had visited his shop and marveled at what he saw. After Grollier’s death, his son kept the shop intact. Plumier, visiting this shrine to machine Machines;craftwork precision, was inspired to write a treatise on the state of lathes and turning. He illustrated his book with some of Grollier’s art pieces made on the lathe.

Approaching his project with the precision and order of his botanical studies, between 1695 and 1701 Plumier began visiting turners all over Europe, making detailed drawings of every type of lathe he saw. In France, he met M. de Maubois, who was the turner for the king in the Louvre. He studied art pieces made by Faucher Poitevin, Poitevin, Faucher like himself born in Marseilles, who was the most celebrated turner at the time. When not searching out contemporary turners, he researched the history of the craft, tracing it back to its mythical origins under the reign of King Solomon.

The culmination of Plumier’s research was his treatise L’Art de tourner (1701; the art of turning). The text detailed the progress made from antiquity to modern times, describing, explaining, and diagramming every type of lathe. Plumier’s book made its way to Russia, where Peter the Great, himself an accomplished turner, had it translated into Russian. It became the standard source in Europe for information on the technical basis for turning as the eighteenth century began its accelerating march into industrial production.

Charles Plumier did not live to see his work gain the wide popularity that it ultimately enjoyed. Pleurisy caused his untimely death in 1704 in Santa Maria, near Cadiz, Spain, where he was preparing for his fourth expedition to America.


Charles Plumier was both a scientist and an artisan, whose life illustrated the integration of those endeavors that laid the foundation for the intellectual and industrial revolutions of the eighteenth century’s Enlightenment. For him, as for many of his peers, there was no natural boundary between mathematics and its application in turning, no difference in the precise order of numbers and the systematic categorization of the plant world, no difference in the rigorous methodologies that allowed him to see the range of plants that inhabited the Antilles and to comprehend the variety of lathes in use in Europe. His great skill was to assemble the bodies of information that would allow his readers, both in biology and in turning, to see what was known and to use that knowledge as the basis for building a better future. He was a part of the great intellectual excitement of the seventeenth century that provided the systematic foundation for the spectacular advances of the century to follow.

Further Reading

  • Bunch, Brian, and Alexander Hellemans. The History of Science and Technology: A Browser’s Guide to the Great Discoveries, Inventions, and the People Who Made Them from the Dawn of Time to Today. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004. Provides a wealth of information on the history of science, technology, and invention. Readers will appreciate the clarity of the text.
  • Gribbin, John. The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors. New York: Random House, 2004. This book is easy to read and describes the evolution of science in the last five hundred years.
  • Porter, Roy. Eighteenth-Century Science. Vol. 4 in The Cambridge History of Science. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Offers a comprehensive survey of the revolution of the sciences during the Enlightenment.

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