Horace-B?n?dict de Saussure, 1740–1799

18 February 2008
Horace-B?n?dict de Saussure, 1740–1799

The young Horace-B?n?dict de Saussure visited Chamonix in 1760 and developed the ambition to stand on top of Mont Blanc or at least to be responsible for it being climbed.

For this purpose he posted notices in all the surrounding villages offering a reward to the first person to reach the summit of the “Great White Mountain” at 4,807 metres, but it would be twenty-six years before anyone claimed the prize. In 1785 he had a small hut built high on the mountain as a refuge and made an attempt on the summit himself, but had to turn back due to bad weather.

Finally, in 1786 a mountain guide called Jacques Balmat found a viable route to the summit. He shared his discovery with a Chamonix doctor—Michel-Gabriel Paccard—and some weeks later the two men succeeded in reaching the top of the mountain. Four days later Balmat set out for Geneva to find Saussure and claim the reward. Saussure was now determined to reach the summit himself, but it was not until 1 August of the following year that the weather conditions were right. Balmat led the team of seventeen guides carrying a ladder to cross the crevasses, taking with them Saussure’s son, tent and scientific instruments. Saussure was as much interested in making geological and meteorological observations as in reaching the summit.

Five days later an Englishman, Colonel Mark Beaufroy, accompanied by ten guides, followed Saussure’s route to the top. Beaufroy wrote an account of his ascent in wonderful copperplate handwriting. As a result of this both Beaufroy and Saussure were made honorary members of the Royal Society in London. Those who took part in these early expeditions were ill equipped and suffered severely from fatigue, sunburn, sun-blindness, nausea and thirst.

Saussure’s family formed part of the wave of Protestant refugees that had moved from Lorraine to Geneva in the sixteenth century. His family was rich and formed part of the nobility. As a young man Saussure exchanged numerous letters with Albrecht de Haller, a famous Swiss doctor, botanist and naturalist living in Berne, who encouraged him to study the plant-life of the Alps. At the age of 22 Saussure became professor of philosophy at the Academy of Geneva, a post he held for twenty-four years. His early interest in botany led him to carry out solitary expeditions to the Sal?ve and the Alps looking for plants, but he soon began to focus on the structure of the mountains. As a practical and theoretical geologist, he turned out to be enthusiastic, persevering and brilliant. On every trip he filled notebooks with observations: the actual date, time, place, height, longitude/latitude, temperature, air pressure, humidity—sometimes even his expenditure. His elegant writing often includes descriptions of the way of life, customs and well-being of the people living in the high mountains. He paid the closest attention to the geology in a way that had never been done before: the strata, the type of rock, the fossils and minerals they contained. He measured the temperature, course and flow of rivers, glaciers and lakes.

How exactly were the Alps created? How did the rocks come to be folded? Why are the glaciers there? The fact that glaciers existed in the high mountains came as a revelation to many people. Nobody had ever asked these questions before and Saussure was determined to find the scientific answer (see box).

He invented and perfected many early forms of scientific instruments, such as the hygrometer for the humidity of the air and the anemometer for the wind speed. He created all sorts of thermometers, particularly one that could be lowered to the bottom of deep lakes but would maintain its reading while being hauled to the surface. Saussure visited England in 1768 and, after meeting Benjamin Franklin in London, introduced the lightening conductor to Geneva—regarded with great alarm by the local population.

Horace-B?n?dict’s wife, Albertine Boissier, came from a distinguished family of Genevan bankers. They and their children lived in a town house in Geneva and an elegant villa bordering the lake at Genthod, which can still be seen today. The letters that Saussure wrote to his wife while exploring the Alps are masterpieces of charm and tenderness.
Between the 1760s and the 1790s Saussure crossed the Alps on fourteen geological expeditions. He published the findings from some of his trips in a series of volumes entitled Voyages dans les Alpes. He was in no way a mountain climber and only went where he could walk or ride. We owe to him the words “geology”, “mineralogy”, “serac” [ice pinnacle] and “moraine”, first appearing in his books in the 1780s. He was the first person to observe that Alpine valleys were U-shaped, although he never realized that they had been carved by glaciers. He also believed wrongly that the centre of the Earth was cold.

Saussure was active in the political sphere too. He vainly put forward a proposal making education available to the lower classes. In 1772 he founded the Soci?t? pour l’Avancement des Arts et de l’Agriculture dedicated to promoting the Geneva economy. As a highly respected public figure with a strong sense of duty, in the Genevan Revolution of 1782 Saussure found himself reluctantly thrust into the limelight as a spokesman for the aristocracy. Subsequently, he had to barricade himself in his house and probably owed his life to the fact that 12,000 troops outside the city’s gates were ready to intervene on his behalf.

Since his early 30s Saussure had suffered from sore throats and chronic digestive problems. By the 1790s both his health and his finances began to fail seriously. He died in Geneva in January 1799 and was buried at Plainpalais. In those days it was forbidden to erect gravestones, so his grave, like that of Jean Calvin, is lost.


• chem..ch.huji.ac.il/ eugeniik/history/saussure.html


When he first saw the rocks at the Nant d’Arpenaz in the Arve Valley, Saussure was completely baffled. He could not explain how rock could be bent into an S-shape. If you drive from Geneva to Chamonix on the autoroute and look at the waterfall on your left when you are level with the exit for Sallanches, you will see the famous S-fold of the Nant d’Arpenaz.
During a trip to Italy, he came to understand that limestone is an ancient marine sediment laid down in horizontal layers, subsequently transformed into rock.
At Vallorcine, on the Swiss/French border, he found conglomerate rock. The explanation he gave—now known to be true—is that during a series of violent earthquakes loose rocks were swept into the sea. First large rocks settled, then smaller ones, followed by gravel, sand and finally mud. They must have settled on a horizontal surface—and yet he observed that these strata have now been moved by an unknown force into a vertical position.
Halfway between Annecy and Aix-les-Bains lies the village of Alby-sur-Ch?ran where there is a long series of sediments now lying vertically. By 1780 Saussure felt that the uplift of Mont Blanc had been the force that had formed all the other mountains. Because Alby-sur-Ch?ran is so far from Mt Blanc, he realised that the forces creating the Alps were far more powerful and far more remote than he had imagined.