Sciences at Versailles part 8: mechanics, automatons and hot-air balloons

Royal passions at Versailles

Geometrical lathe (1773) by Antoine WolffPalace of Versailles


Mechanics is a practical science that imitates the effects of nature. Emerging from the disdain to which they had been subjected, the mechanical arts came back into fashion at Versailles. Diderot and d'Alembert devoted no fewer than ten volumes of The Encyclopaedia to them in the form of plates and articles. Thus, as d’Alembert says in The Preliminary Discourse: "We took the trouble of going into their shops, of questioning them, of writing at their dictation, of developing their thoughts and of drawing therefrom the terms peculiar to their professions." Louis XVI was unquestionably the sovereign with the greatest passion for the mechanical arts. Mechanics came into its own in Versailles.

Geometrical lathe

Practiced since the Renaissance by princes all over Europe, the art of lathe turning was a favourite pastime of Louis XV and Louis XVI.

This geometrical lathe was made by Antoine Wolff in 1733 for the count of Artois, the brother of the king and future Charles (1757-1836). In 1781, this lathe was presented provisionally in the Cabinet of the Dauphin then exhibited in Louis XVI's Cabinet of the Forge, the mechanical workshop in the King's private apartments.

Ostrich egg (1767/1774) by Jean-Étienne Lebel the Elder (painter) and Adélaïde de France (turner)Palace of Versailles

Ostrich egg

This artefact is an Easter egg on a pedestal lathed by one of Louis XV’s daughter, Madame Adélaïde.

Bit brace, probably belonging to Louis XVI (1776/1800)Palace of Versailles

Bite brace and vice

These bit brace and vice were in Louis XV's locksmithing workshop in Versailles, on the fourth floor of the Stags Courtyard. The bit brace was in all probability forged turned and polished by the king himself.

Semi-circular staircase in the palace of Versailles (2015) by AnonymousPalace of Versailles

Mechanics in the King’s cabinets

The cabinets of the first floor that made up the King's private Apartment are a perfect testimony to Louis XV's interest in the mechanical arts in the form of clock-making, locksmithing and the bite brace job.

The king's scientific cabinets were spread over four floors around the Stags Courtyard, south of the semi-circular staircase: they include the king's forge, preceded by the locksmith's workshop and, on the other side, to the north, the joinery cabinet.

Louise Françoise de Bourbon, Duchess of Bourbon (1701/1800) by Anonymous France 18th century (painter), from Gobert, Pierre (painter), and sometines attributed to Silvestre (de), Louis (painter)Palace of Versailles

The Flying Chair

Jean-Jacques Renouard, Count of Villayer (1605-1691), is reported to have invented this mechanism. He perfected this system in Paris and, thanks to his ties with the House of Condé, installed it at Chantilly and at Versailles, in the prince's own mansion.

Saint-Simon comments on the invention of these flying chairs, "which by counterweights rise and descend alone between two walls to the floor we wish to access by sitting in it by the sole weight of the body and stopping where we wish". The memoir writer also mentions the amusing adventure of the Duchess of Bourbon who remained locked in for nearly three hours between two floors of her Versailles hotel, before they freed her by demolishing the walls.

Marie-Anne de Nesle, Marchioness of La Tournelle, Duchess of Châteauroux (1740) by Jean-Marc NattierPalace of Versailles

The only known flying chair at the palace was the one Louis XV had installed in 1743 for his mistress the Duchess of Châteauroux, in the north side of the king's small courtyard, in order to enable her reach his third floor apartment more conveniently. Perfected by Blaise-Henri Arnoult, the talented mechanic, it was used by Mme de Pompadour between 1745 and 1750 and remained in service until 1754. When dismantled it was transported to Fontainebleau to enable the marchioness to reach her theatre box in the Belle Cheminée wing.

The Dulcimer Player (1780) by Peter Kinzing (clockmaker), David Roentgen (the Queen's cabinetmaker)Palace of Versailles


The dulcimer is a spectacular illustration of the quest and focus of the 18th century, a great century for automation, driven by a profound desire to succeed in creating an artificial man with mechanical reproductions of anatomical movements: these androids are a testament to the fascination exerted by these animated creatures, and to the inventiveness of mechanics who were virtuosos in the art of reproducing human movements and vital functions.

The Dulcimer player was made by the Germans Pierre Kintzing (1745-1816), clockmaker who made the mechanism, and cabinetmaker David Roentgen (1743-1807), who made the furniture; the dress dates from the 19th century. Automats move and thus attract a lot of curiosity. The Dulcimer is believed to have been sent to the French court by Roentgen and purchased in 1784 by Marie-Antoinette. Aware of its scientific interest and perfection, the queen had it placed in the cabinet of the Academy of Sciences in 1785.

Marie-Antoinette's android (2010) by Palace of VersaillesPalace of Versailles

Credits: Story

Catherine Pégard, President of the Palace of Versailles

Laurent Salomé, Director of the museum

Thierry Gausseron, General administrator

Hélène Delalex, curator at the furniture and art object department

Géraldine Bidault, in charge of the photography library and the digitization of the collections, curator of the digital exhibition

Ariane de Lestrange, Head of communication

Paul Chaine, Head of digital service

Gaëlle Bertho, coordinator of the digital exhibition

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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