1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Foucault, Jean Bernard Léon

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FOUCAULT, JEAN BERNARD LEON (1819–1868), French physicist, was the son of a publisher at Paris, where he was born on the 18th of September 1819. After an education received chiefly at home, he studied medicine, which, however, he speedily abandoned for physical science, the improvement of L. J. M. Daguerre’s photographic processes being the object to which he first directed his attention. During three years he was experimental assistant to Alfred Donné (1801–1878) in his course of lectures on microscopic anatomy. With A. H. L. Fizeau he carried on a series of investigations on the intensity of the light of the sun, as compared with that of carbon in the electric arc, and of lime in the flame of the oxyhydrogen blowpipe; on the interference of heat rays, and of light rays differing greatly in lengths of path; and on the chromatic polarization of light. In 1849 he contributed to the Comptes Rendus a description of an electromagnetic regulator for the electric arc lamp, and, in conjunction with H. V. Regnault, a paper on binocular vision. By the use of a revolving mirror similar to that used by Sir Charles Wheatstone for measuring the rapidity of electric currents, he was enabled in 1850 to demonstrate the greater velocity of light in air than in water, and to establish that the velocity of light in different media is inversely as the refractive indices of the media. For his demonstration in 1851 of the diurnal motion of the earth by the rotation of the plane of oscillation of a freely suspended, long and heavy pendulum exhibited by him at the Pantheon in Paris, and again in the following year by means of his invention the gyroscope, he received the Copley medal of the Royal Society in 1855, and in the same year he was made physical assistant in the imperial observatory at Paris. In September of that year he discovered that the force required for the rotation of a copper disk becomes greater when it is made to rotate with its rim between the poles of a magnet, the disk at the same time becoming heated by the eddy or “Foucault currents” induced in its metal. Foucault invented in 1857 the polarizer which bears his name, and in the succeeding year devised a method of giving to the speculum of reflecting telescopes the form of a spheroid or a paraboloid of revolution. With Wheatstone’s revolving mirror he in 1862 determined the absolute velocity of light to be 298,000 kilometres (about 185,000 m.) a second, or 10,000 kilom. less than that obtained by previous experimenters. He was created in that year a member of the Bureau des Longitudes and an officer of the Legion of Honour, in 1864 a foreign member of the Royal Society of London, and next year a member of the mechanical section of the Institute. In 1865 appeared his papers on a modification of Watt’s governor, upon which he had for some time been experimenting with a view to making its period of revolution constant, and on a new apparatus for regulating the electric light; and in the following year (Compt. Rend. lxiii.) he showed how, by the deposition of a transparently thin film of silver on the outer side of the object glass of a telescope, the sun could be viewed without injuring the eye by excess of light. Foucault died of paralysis on the 11th of February 1868 at Paris. From the year 1845 he edited the scientific portion of the Journal des Débats. His chief scientific papers are to be found in the Comptes Rendus, 1847–1869.

See Revue cours scient. vi. (1869), pp. 484-489; Proc. Roy. Soc. xvii. (1869), pp. lxxxiii.-lxxxiv.; Lissajous, Notice historique sur la vie et les travaux de Léon Foucault (Paris, 1875).