Childhood & Early Life
Charles Coulomb was born on 14 June 1736, in Angouleme, France, to aristocratic parents. His father, Henri Coulomb worked as a lawyer, while his mother Catherine Bajet hailed from a well-established family.
He received good education from the Collège Mazarin and the college de France where he attended lectures in the subjects of philosophy, language, literature, mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, etc.
In 1758, he went to Paris to study to acquire admission into the prestigious the École du Genie at Mézières. He was able to pass the entrance exam after some months to secure admission into the college.
He graduated with the rank of lieutenant en premier in the Corps du Génie in 1761.
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Coulomb began his career as an engineer with the post of ‘Lieutenant’ in the Corps du Génie. During this time he worked in the fields of structural design, soil mechanics and so on.
He was posted to Brest at first. But later on, in February 1764 he was sent to Martinique in the West Indies. There he was made in charge of building the new Fort Bourbon which took him many years to complete.
The total cost of constructing Fort Bourbon was six million livres, a huge amount in those times. Hundreds of laborers were employed at the construction site and Coulomb directed them through the various phases of construction. This work was very hectic and took a toll on Coulomb’s health and he became very ill.
The practical engineering skills that he acquired during his army construction projects proved quite useful in his later theoretical endeavors in mechanics. He returned to France in 1772 and was posted to Bouchain. By now he also got involved in research and had begun to write his own papers.
In 1773, he presented his first work to the Académie des Sciences in Paris. His first work titled, ‘Sur une application des règles, de maximis et minimis à quelque problèmes de statique, relatifs à l'architecture’, was written to determine the influence of friction and cohesion in some statistical problems.
His use of calculus to overcome various discrepancies in engineering issues highly impressed the Académie des Sciences and thus, he was appointed as the Bossut's correspondent on 6 July, 1774.
In 1777, while posted at Cherbourg, he wrote and submitted his most famous memoir on the workings of a magnetic compass for the Grand Prix of the Académie des Sciences. The paper won him a share of the Grand Prix prize money and also featured his earliest work on the torsion balance.
In 1779, he was posted to Rochefort in France to supervise the construction of a fort made entirely of wood. Here he started performing experiments on friction in the shipyards.
Based on these experiments, he wrote the paper, ‘Theorie des Machines Simples ("Theory of Simple Machines"), in 1781, for which he won the Grand Prix of the Académie des Sciences.
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In 1781, his life took a turn for the better and he was elected by the Académie des Sciences as the member of its mechanics section. He relocated to Paris and became an engineering consultant and devoted rest of his life to physics.
He published a paper on the elasticity of wires under twisting stress in 1784 which led to the study of torsion balance. This study would eventually be used to determine the density of earth and also for measuring the forces of frictional electricity and magnetism.
Between 1785 and 1791, he wrote seven crucial memoirs that dealt with various aspects of electricity and magnetism.
The French Revolution began in 1789 when Coulomb was deeply involved with his scientific research. Many institutions were reorganized and abolished. Uncomfortable with the situation, Coulomb retired from Corps du Génie in 1791 and in 1793, he moved to his house near Blois, where continued his scientific research.
Académie des Sciences was abolished in 1793 and was replaced by the Institut de France. In December 1795, Coulomb once again returned to Paris, as he was elected as the member of the Institut de France.
He largely remained engrossed in education related service between 1802 and 1806, while he served at the post of inspector general of public instruction.
Personal Life & Legacy
Charles Coulomb started a relationship with Louise Francoise LeProust Desormeaux with whom he had two sons. He married her in 1802 after the birth of their second son.
He had always been of a delicate health. His later years were marked by ill health and he died on 23 August 1806.
A lunar feature, ‘Crater Coulomb’ is named after him to honor his contributions to the world.
His name is included among the 72 names inscribed on the Eiffel Tower.
The SI unit of electric charge, the coulomb, was named after him.
The theory of earth pressure and the generalized wedge theory, related to soil mechanics propounded by him still form the basis of engineering practice.
He is credited with the invention of the torsion balance.