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The Life and Work of Joseph Plateau: Father of Film and Discoverer of Surface Tension

Abstract

In 1835 Joseph Plateau (1801–1883) was appointed Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Ghent University, Belgium. By then he was well known for his groundbreaking work on the aftereffect of light on the human retina, and he would go on to become the first person to produce moving images, for which he is considered to be the Father of Film. His greatest scientific achievement, however, was his discovery of surface tension.

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Notes

  1. The International Film Festival of Ghent began in 1974 as a local initiative called the Filmgebeuren van Gent to promote the alternative film genre. In the late 1970s and early 1980s this became an international event, attracting foreign movie makers. In 1984 the first Night of the Film was organized, marking the establishment of the Joseph Plateau Film Prize; see website <http://www.filmfestival.be>.

  2. The Museum for the History of Sciences is located on the main campus of the Faculty of Science of Ghent University. It holds an extensive historical collection of scientific instruments mainly originating from the university’s research laboratories, with which the Museum aims to illustrate the history of the different scientific disciplines through their successive technological advances.

  3. Although little can be found about Antoine Plateau in standard histories of art, he was highly esteemed by his colleagues, and recent archival research has revealed that his work spanned several European countries, appearing in high-society estates in Belgium and the Netherlands, and even in Vienna, Austria, where his decorative wall panels can be found in the renowned Albertina.

  4. The original watercolor painting is preserved in the Musée du Dernier Quartier Général de Napoléon in Genappe, Belgium.

  5. Adolphe Quetelet was born in Ghent and received his doctorate in mathematics at Ghent University in 1819. On his initiative an astronomical observatory was built in Brussels, which was later moved to Ukkel and became the Royal Observatory of Belgium. His research focused mainly on statistics; he was among the first mathematicians to apply statistical methods in the social sciences.

  6. General Liagre spent a large part of his career at the Royal Military Academy in Brussels. He specialized in statistics and error theory. He was appointed Minister of War in 1879, but resigned one year later owing to political turmoil involving the bridges and fortresses along the Meuse river.

  7. The physicist and mathematician Richard Van Rees (1797–1875) was Rector of the University of Liège in 1826–1827.

  8. For his doctoral research, Plateau studied the latency of the human eye, which involved experiments with arcs of circles made of paper and painted with the primary colors of blue, red, or yellow. He also used discs divided into sectors and painted in different combinations of colors and gradients. He used his apparatus to make these arcs and discs rotate, allowing him to determine the duration of the latency of the human eye by knowing their angular velocities.

  9. Among the many foreign honors Plateau received later was election as a Foreign Member of the Royal Society of London in 1870.

References

  1. Elienne Langendries and Anne-Marie Simon-Van Der Meersch, 175 jaar Universiteit Gent/Ghent University1817-1992: Een verhaal in beeld/A Story in Pictures (Universiteit Gent/Ghent University: Stichting Mens en Kultuur, 1992), p. 22.

  2. R.L. Plancke, ed., Rijksuniversiteit Gent 1817-1967 (Gent: Rijksuniversiteit, 1967), p. 16.

  3. Theo Luykx, “De eerste organieke wet op het Hoger Onderwijs in België (1835),” in T.L. [Theo Luykx], ed., Hoofdmomenten uit de ontwikkeling van de Gentse Rijksuniversiteit (1817-1967) (Gent: N.V. Drukkerij Erasmus Ledeberg, 1967), pp. 28-48.

  4. Plancke, Rijksuniversiteit Gent 1817-1967 (ref. 2), p. 17; M. Nothomb, État de l’instruction supérieure en Belgique. Rapport présenté aux chambers legislatives, le 6 Avril 1843. Tome Premier (Bruxelles: Em. Devroye et Ce, 1844), pp. 681-682.

  5. Université de Gand, Liber Memorialis: Notices Biographiques. Tome II. Faculté des Sciences et Écoles spéciales du génie civil et des arts et manufactures. Faculté de Médecine (Gand: Maison d’édition I. Vanderpoorten, 1913), pp. 54-71, on p. 54; Maurice Dorikens, Joseph Plateau 1801-1883: Leven tussen Kunst en Wetenschap (Gent: Provincie Oost-Vlaanderen, 2001), p. 19; Elaine Koppelman,”Plateau, Joseph Antoine Ferdinand,” in Charles Coulston Gillispie, Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Vol. XI (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975), pp. 20-22, on p. 20.

  6. Dorikens, Joseph Plateau 1801-1883 (ref. 5), p. 21.

  7. Ibid.

  8. J.P. Nuel, “Notice sur J. Plateau,” Annales d’oculistique 90 (1883), 150-160, on 152.

  9. A.J.J. Van De Velde, “Joseph Plateau 1801-1883, Briefwisseling met Adolphe Quetelet, chronologie en genealogie,” Mededelingen van de Koninklijke Vlaamse Academie voor Wetenschappen, Letteren en Schone Kunsten van België. Klasse der Wetenschappen 10, No. 8 (1948), 5-56.

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  10. Dorikens, Joseph Plateau 1801-1883 (ref. 5), p. 23.

  11. [Gustav Van der Mensbrugghe,] “Joseph-Antoine-Ferdinand Plateau,” Annuaire de l’Académie Royale des Sciences, des Lettres et des Beaux-Arts de Belgique 51 (1885), 389-486, on 396.

  12. Nuel, “Notice sur J. Plateau” (ref. 8), p. 151.

  13. Van De Velde, “Joseph Plateau 1801-1883″ (ref. 9), p. 9.

  14. Joseph Plateau, Dissertation sur quelques propriétés des impressions produites par la lumière sur l’organe de vue (Liége: H. Dessain, 1829).

  15. Dorikens, Joseph Plateau 1801-1883 (ref. 5), p. 27.

  16. J.J. De Laey, “De Blindheid van Joseph Plateau. Mythe en Realiteit,” Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde 58, Nr. 13 (2002), 915-920, on 915-916.

  17. Van De Velde, “Joseph Plateau 1801-1883″ (ref. 9), pp. 19-20.

  18. [Van der Mensbrugghe,] “Joseph-Antoine-Ferdinand Plateau” (ref. 11), p. 397.

  19. Ibid., pp. 397-398.

  20. Van De Velde, “Joseph Plateau 1801-1883″ (ref. 9), p. 20.

  21. M. [Général] Liagre, “Discours pronouncé, au nom des anciens amis de Plateau,” Bulletins de l’Académie Royale des Sciences, des Lettres et des Beaux-Arts de Belgique 6 (1883), 218-219.

  22. M. [Joseph] Plateau, “Construire un triangle équilatéral qui ait ses sommets sur trois circonférences données,” in A. Quetelet, ed., Correspondance mathématique et physique. Tome III (Bruxelles: M. Hayez, 1827), pp. 1-2.

  23. Plateau, quoted in Van De Velde, “Joseph Plateau 1801-1883″ (ref. 9), p. 9.

  24. M. [Joseph] Plateau, “Sur les sensations produites dans l’œil par les différentes couleurs,” in A. Quetelet, ed., Correspondance mathématique et physique. Tome IV (Bruxelles: M. Hayez, 1828), pp. 51-52.

  25. M. [Joseph] Plateau, “Sur les apparences que présentent deux lignes qui tournent autour d’un point, avec un mouvement angulaire uniforme,” ibid., pp. 393-396.

  26. Dorikens, Joseph Plateau 1801-1883 (ref. 5), p. 27.

  27. Van De Velde, “Joseph Plateau 1801-1883″ (ref. 9), p. 18.

  28. Dorikens, Joseph Plateau 1801-1883 (ref. 5), p. 27.

  29. M. [Joseph] Plateau, “Sur un nouveau genre d’illusions d’optique,” in A. Quetelet, ed., Correspondance mathématique et physique. Tome VII (Bruxelles: M. Hayez, 1832), pp. 365-368.

  30. M. [Joseph] Plateau, “Des Illusions d’optique sur lesquelles se fonde le petit appareil appelé récemment Phénakistiscope,” Annales de Chimie et de Physique 53 (1833), 304-308.

  31. Dorikens, Joseph Plateau 1801-1883 (ref. 5), p. 39.

  32. M. [Joseph] Plateau, “Sur l’anorthoscope, instrument de son invention,” Bulletin de l’Académie Royale des Sciences et Belles-Lettres de Bruxelles 3 (1836), 7-10; Erratum, 65.

  33. M. Faraday, “On a Peculiar Class of Optical Deceptions,” The Journal of the Royal Institution of Great Britain 1 (1831), 205-223.

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  34. Dorikens, Joseph Plateau 1801-1883 (ref. 5), p. 37-39.

  35. James L. Hunt, “The Roget illusion, the anorthoscope and the persistence of vision,” American Journal of Physics 71 (2003), 774-777, esp. 776-777.

  36. Kristel Wautier and Danny Segers, ed., Oog & Blik: een andere kijk op gezichtsbedrog en het werk van kunstschilder Jos de Mey (Gent: Museum voor de Geschiedenis van de Wetenschappen – Universiteit Gent, 2008), pp. 34-35.

  37. A.M. Simon-Van Der Meersch, “De academische loopbaan van Prof. Dr. Joseph Plateau,” in K. de Clerck, ed., Uit het verleden van de RUG Nr. 35 (Gent: Archief RUG, 1993), pp. 1-69, on p. 11.

  38. Ibid., p. 31.

  39. Ibid.; Dorikens, Joseph Plateau 1801-1883 (ref. 5), p. 49.

  40. Simon-Van Der Meersch, “De academische loopbaan van Prof. Dr. Joseph Plateau” (ref. 37), p. 33.

  41. Van De Velde, “Joseph Plateau 1801-1883″ (ref. 9), p. 22.

  42. Ibid., p. 23.

  43. Dorikens, Joseph Plateau 1801-1883 (ref. 5), p. 51.

  44. Valeruis, quoted in “Nécrologie,” Le Moniteur Belge, Journal Officiel (September 24, 1883), 3691-3692, on 3692.

  45. Ibid.

  46. Dorikens, Joseph Plateau 1801-1883 (ref. 5), p. 59.

  47. Quoted in ibid.

  48. Ibid., p. 49.

  49. Roland Glaser, Biophysics (Berlin and Heidelberg: Springer Verlag, 2001), pp. 1, 3.

  50. Karl Pearson, The Grammar of Science (London: Walter Scott Publishing Co. and New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1892), p. 470.

  51. [Van der Mensbrugghe,] “Joseph-Antoine-Ferdinand Plateau” (ref. 11), p. 422.

  52. J. Plateau, Statique expérimentale et théorique des liquides soumis aux seules forces moléculaires. Tome Premier (Gand et Leipzig: F. Clemm, 1873); Tome Second (Gand et Leipzig: F. Clemm, 1873). For English translations of his earliest papers, with commentary by Joseph Henry, Secretary of The Smithsonian Institution, see J. Plateau, “Experimental and Theoretical Researches on the Figures of Equilibrium of a Liquid Mass Withdrawn from the Action of Gravity, etc.,” Annual Report of The Board of Regents of The Smithsonian Institution (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1864), 207-285; idem (1865), 307-369; idem (1866), 411-435; idem (1872), 255-289.

  53. Dorikens, Joseph Plateau 1801-1883 (ref. 5), p. 101.

  54. Ibid., p. 103; Van De Velde, “Joseph Plateau 1801-1883″ (ref. 9), p. 29.

  55. Dorikens, Joseph Plateau 1801-1883 (ref. 5), p. 103.

  56. Ibid., p. 104.

  57. Ibid., p. 109-110.

  58. De Laey, “De blindheid van Joseph Plateau” (ref. 16), p. 917.

  59. [Van der Mensbrugghe,] “Joseph-Antoine-Ferdinand Plateau” (ref. 11), pp. 400-401.

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Acknowledgment

We thank Roger H. Stuewer for his careful and knowledgeable editorial work on our paper.

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Correspondence to Kristel Wautier.

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Kristel Wautier (corresponding author) is curator of the Museum for the History of Sciences at Ghent University; her research focuses mainly on the history of biology. Alexander Jonckheere is Master in the Audiovisual Arts and works on the origin and history of film and moving images. Danny Segers is Director of the Museum for the History of Sciences; his research focuses on the history of physics, in particular of nuclear physics.

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Wautier, K., Jonckheere, A. & Segers, D. The Life and Work of Joseph Plateau: Father of Film and Discoverer of Surface Tension. Phys. Perspect. 14, 258–278 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00016-012-0087-8

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Keywords

  • Joseph Plateau
  • Adolphe Quetelet
  • Gustave Van der Mensbrugghe
  • Simon Stampfer
  • Hubert Valerius
  • Brussels Athenaeum
  • Institut Gaggia
  • University of Liège
  • Ghent University
  • human vision
  • moving images
  • phenakistiscope
  • film
  • surface tension
  • history of physics