Childhood & Early Life
Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier was born on 21 March 1768 in Auxerre, now the capital of Yonne department, France. His father, a tailor by profession, married his mother after the death of his first wife. Joseph was born ninth of his parents’ twelve children. He also had three siblings from his father’s previous marriage.
Joseph began his education at Pallais's school, run by the music master from the cathedral at Auxerre. By the age of ten, he lost both his parents. In spite of that, he showed great promise and was duly recommended to the Bishop of Auxerre.
In 1780, he entered École Royale Militaire of Auxerre, a military school, run by the Benedictine Order of the Convent of St. Mark on the bishop’s recommendation. Initially, he showed great talent in literature but by 1781, he developed a keen interest in mathematics.
It is said that he saved wax from the candle ends so that he could study at night. Thus working relentlessly, he completed the six volumes of Bézout's Cours de mathématiques by 1782. The following year, he received the first prize for his study of Bossut's Mécanique en général.
In 1787, after passing out from school, he entered the Benedictine abbey of St Benoit-sur-Loire with the intention of becoming a priest. However, he was not sure if he actually wanted to become a priest.
In 1789, he left the abbey without taking the vow and went to Paris to read a paper on algebraic equations at the Académie Royale des Sciences. He was looking for a commission in the scientific corps; but found that he was ineligible for it because of his humble birth.
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Joseph Fourier began his career in 1790 as a teacher of mathematics at his alma mater École Royale Militaire of Auxerre. Sometime now, he slowly became involved in politics and began to dream of a “free government exempt from kings and priests”.
In 1793, he joined the local Revolutionary Committee; but when the Reign of Terror started in September all over France, he tried to disassociate himself from it, but could not. He was sent to Orléans, where he defended one faction against the other.
Thereafter, he returned to Auxerre and continued teaching, not realizing that he had made many enemies. In July 1794, he was arrested and it was certain that he would undergo the guillotine.
But on 28 July, 1794, Maximilien Robespierre, who was best known for his defense of the Reign of Terror, was himself guillotined and with that political environment of the country began to change. Soon Fourier was set free.
Later in 1794, Fourier was nominated for admission into the École Normale, a teachers’ training institute, which was to be opened in January 1795. Fourier joined the first batch of students and received lessons from eminent teachers like Lagrange, Laplace and Monge.
After the completion of the course, he first joined École Normale as a teacher but soon switched to the École Centrale des Travaux Publics, which was later renamed as École Polytechnique. He now began working closely with eminent mathematicians such as Gaspard Monge.
Sometime now, Fourier was arrested one again and this was related to his earlier arrest. Fortunately, by that time the political climate of the country had changed and eminent scholars as well as his pupils pleaded for his release. As a result, he was released in September 1795.
He then went back to teaching at the École Polytechnique. In 1797 he was appointed to the chair of analysis and mechanics, succeeding Lagrange in the post. He soon became famous as an outstanding lecturer.
In May 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte sailed to Egypt with the aim of containing British influence in that region and took eminent scholars with him. Fourier accompanied him as a scientific adviser. As Egypt was taken, he was appointed secretary of the Institut d'Égypte.
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Early in August, after their defeat in the Battle of the Nile, the French found themselves contained within Egypt. Fourier used the time to organize workshops for the French troops. He also helped set up a number of educational facilities in the country and carried out archaeological explorations
Later as Cairo Institute was established, Fourier was elected its secretary, a position he held till he left Egypt. It was his duty to collect all the scientific and literary discoveries made during this period and arrange them. Alongside, he also continued working on mathematics.
In 1799, Napoleon returned to France, leaving a large part of his force in Egypt. Fourier followed him in 1801 and resumed his post as Professor of Analysis at the École Polytechnique.
Concurrently, he was also put in charge of publishing the enormous volume of papers, collected in Egypt. The work later became known as ‘Description de l’Égypte’, to which Fourier added a lengthy historical preface on the ancient Egyptian civilization.
In 1802, Napoleon appointed Fourier as the prefect of the Isère department. Although he was not keen to take up the job, he could not refuse Napoleon and therefore, shifted to Grenoble to take up the office of prefect, a post he held until 1814.
At Grenoble, Fourier showed great administrative ability. Two of his greatest achievements of this period were the drainage of the swamps of Bourgoin and construction of a new highway from Grenoble to Turin.
At the same time, he continued working on Egyptology and mathematics. In 1804, he started experimenting on the propagation of heat and published the first paper, titled ‘On the Propagation of Heat in Solid Bodies’ on December 21, 1807 at the Paris Institute.
Napoleon lost power in 1815 and with that Fourier was brought back to Paris as the Director of the Statistical Bureau of the Seine. At last he got the chance to lead a quiet academic life.
In 1817, Fourier was elected to the Académie des Sciences and became its secretary in 1822. For the remaining eight years of his life, he lived in Paris, and published a number of papers, some of which were on pure mathematics while others were on applied mathematical topics.
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Joseph Fourier is best remembered for his work on the flow of heat. Although he first submitted the paper in 1810, but due to objections raised by many well-known scholars, it could not be published. However, he kept working on it and in 1822 published it as ‘Théorieanalytique de la chaleur’.
In his paper, he expressed the conduction of heat in two-dimensional objects in terms of the differential equations, basing his reasoning on Newton’s law of cooling. The work later became the basis of another of his well-known work, ‘Fourier series’.
Although he never used the term, Fourier was the first person to work on ‘greenhouse effect’. In early 1820s, he concluded that the earth should have been colder had it been heated only by radiation. In 1827, he suggested that the Earth's atmosphere might act as an insulator and retain the heat.
Personal Life & Legacy
Fourier developed aneurism of the heart while he was in Egypt. Later in Paris he began to suffer from frequent suffocations. The malady was further aggravated when on the 4th of May 1830 he had a fall while climbing down the stairs. After suffering for around twelve days he died in bed on 16 May.
Fourier was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. In recognition of his work on Egypt, his tomb was decorated with Egyptian motif. Later, his name was inscribed on the North-East side of the Eiffel Tower.
In mathematics, ‘Fourier's theorem’, ‘Fourier–Motzkin elimination’, ‘Fourier algebra’ and ‘Fourier division’ still carry his legacy. Besides, there are ‘Fourier's law of heat conduction’, ‘Fourier number’, ‘Fourier optics’ and ‘Fourier transform spectroscopy’ that remind us of his immense contribution to physics and engineering.