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7 scientific breakthroughs that resulted from Napoleon's invasion of Egypt

A still from the movie shows Joaquim Pheonix portraying Napoleon looking away from the camera as troops move through the desert in the background.
Joaquin Phoenix played "Napoleon" in Ridley Scott's latest biopic.Apple TV+
  • When Napoleon invaded Egypt, he brought dozens of scientists with him.

  • Astronomers, mathematicians, and naturalists spent three years studying the country.

  • Napoleon's invasion failed, but it led to some groundbreaking scientific work.

When General Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in July 1798, he didn't just bring tens of thousands of soldiers, he also recruited over 150 scientists, known as savants, to accompany him.

They arrived "with the aim of both study and exploitation," according to an archaeologist.

A little over a month later, on August 23, 1798, the scientific society called the Institut d'Égypte, which still exists today, held its first meeting in a lavish palace in Cairo and appointed Napoleon as its first vice president.

Napoleon wanted to use the country's natural resources, history, and culture for the benefit of France. He urged the savants to focus on projects, like improving bread ovens, purifying the Nile's water, and brewing beer without hops.

The scientists' tasks were made more difficult because the ship carrying much of their surveying and scientific equipment had sunk. Then, after a series of defeats in Egypt, Napoleon returned to France in 1799 and left many of the scientists stranded.

Despite setbacks, the engineers, mathematicians, naturalists, and others spent nearly three years surveying, documenting, and collecting everything from antiquities to mummified remains to animals largely unknown to the West.

Their work led to some novel discoveries, helped formalize sciences like archaeology, and spurred an infatuation with Egypt that's continued ever since.

1. The discovery that chemical reactions are reversible

Before chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet's realization, the concept that chemical reactions could be reversible wasn't universally accepted.

However, Berthollet found strong evidence to support the concept while studying the salt deposits in the lakes of the Natron Valley.

Limestone in the lakes was covered in a naturally occurring salt called natron, which Egyptians used to preserve mummified bodies because it absorbed moisture and dissolved fat.

Crumbling Graeco-Roman remains at Wadi Natron, with only a single wall standing made of tan bricks
Graeco-Roman remains near Wadi El Natrun, the area where Berthollet saw natron.Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Berthollet observed that the limestone, which contained calcium carbonate, chemically reacted with salt, aka sodium chloride, to produce natron, made of sodium carbonate.

In laboratory conditions, chemists knew that the exact opposite reaction was possible, which led Berthollet to reasonably conclude that chemical reactions were reversible and that heat and different amounts of a substance could determine which way the reaction went.

2. A more formal approach to archaeology

In Napoleon's time, archaeology wasn't yet a formal science. Most savants had little experience with artifacts. Sand still buried some temples that had yet to be excavated.

Dominique-Vivant Denon, an artist and writer, was awed by the ancient monuments he saw. He went back to France with Napoleon and quickly published a book with his descriptions and drawings, "Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt."

At the time of Napoleon's invasion, travelers had long known of Alexandria, Cairo, and other parts of Lower Egypt. The Great Pyramids and Sphinx were famous. But Upper Egypt wasn't as well known.

That changed when the savants arrived. "The whole army, suddenly and with one accord, stood in amazement...and clapped their hands with delight," Denon later wrote.

Drawing of the Edfu Temple in Egypt by Vivant Denon showing cracks in the structure and larger towers in the background
Denon's drawing of the Edfu Temple. The people give a sense of the huge scale of the monuments.Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

His drawings and descriptions of the temples and ruins at Thebes, Esna, Edfu, and Karnak proved immensely popular. Many were depicted in fashionable paintings and inspired decor trends.

Since he'd had to capture everything in short bursts of time, Denon had pushed for two commissions of savants to return and better document the monuments.

Napoleon's architects and engineers made careful drawings and took measurements of a large number of monuments. Others attempted to measure the pyramids. (Napoleon never shot them with cannons, in case you were wondering.)

3. Savigny discovered a new way to classify insects

When he was back in France, Jules-César Savigny needed to organize the 1,500 species of insects he'd brought back. There didn't yet exist a systematic way to distinguish one species of moth or butterfly from another. So Savigny invented one.

It turned out, the mouth parts had sufficient differences to allow Savigny to separate the bugs into species. He pored over the tiny jaws of the insects. He drew over 1,000 images of specimens, some of which were only a centimeter long.

Just 21 and a botanist by training when he arrived in Egypt, Savigny collected invertebrates like worms, bees, spiders, snails, and flies. He also took specimens of starfish, coral, and sea urchins.

A number of drawings of arachnids of different types with different parts drawn separately, like eyes and jaws
Savigny's intricate drawings of arachnids from the from Description de l'Egypte.De Agostini Editorial via Getty Images

Savigny applied the same rigor to arachnids, worms, and other animals that lacked backbones. Some of his classification methods are still in use today.

4. The discovery of a new species of crocodile that took 200 years to confirm

Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire was convinced there were two species of crocodiles in the Nile.

Like Savigny, Geoffroy was a prolific collector. While in Egypt, he studied bats, mongooses, tortoises, and more.

One reason Geoffroy was able to dissect and stuff so many specimens was he had purchased an 11-year-old enslaved boy, whom he trained to help with his work.

Geoffroy dissected so many different kinds of animals that he started to see patterns between even very different species. It led to his theory of a "unity of plan" or "unity of composition" a kind of quasi-evolutionary idea that Charles Darwin would reference decades later.

Geoffroy's theories often irritated his fellow naturalists. That includes when he attempted to demonstrate a mummified crocodile he'd taken from Egypt represented a separate species.

A drawing of two crocodiles, one full size and smaller one in front
Geoffroy's depiction of the Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) from the Description de l'Egypte.De Agostini Editorial via Getty Images

Its jaw was completely different from the Nile crocodile, Geoffroy said. Plus, it was less aggressive. One had been on display in Paris. "It took pleasure in being patted; and anyone might, without the least danger, open its mouth, and place his hand between its teeth," according to one account.

His colleagues said he was wrong about there being a separate species of crocodile. However, over 200 years later, biologist Evon Hekkala and a team of researchers analyzed the DNA of modern crocodiles and some of Geoffroy's mummies to confirm his suspicions, and show two separate species swam in the Nile: Crocodylus niloticus and Crocodylus suchus.

5. The advent of ophthalmology

An engraving of the house of Osman Bey with elaborate columns, several levels, a brick wall, and people and a camel and horses in the courtyard
An engraving from the Description de l'Egypte showing the interior courtyard of a house.Science & Society Picture Library via Getty Images

The French physicians who accompanied Napoleon encountered unfamiliar diseases in Egpyt. One disease they brought back with them to Europe was something they called Egyptian ophthalmia, which is now known as trachoma and can cause itchy, swollen eyes and lead to blindness.

It became so prevalent that physicians all over Europe started studying the disease. Geoffroy, who contracted it, was "totally blind" for weeks, he wrote.

Up to that point, ophthalmology wasn't a formalized branch of scientific research, but the race to find the origin of this disease laid the groundwork for its creation.

Eventually, British physician John Vetch realized the pus from the infected eye could spread the disease. Knowing it was contagious, Vetch developed methods of prevention and treatment that are considered milestones in the history of ophthalmology.

6. The Rosetta Stone helped Champollion discover how to decipher hieroglyphs

For centuries, no one could read hieroglyphs, the pictorial writing that covered many Egyptian monuments.

When the French found the Rosetta Stone during their invasion, they knew it could serve as a kind of translation key.

Deciphering hieroglyphs would allow scholars to read the writing on scores of other Ancient Egyptian texts and monuments.

In 1801, the British were negotiating for France's surrender. One stipulation was that the British would take the antiquities and the savants' collections, which included the Rosetta Stone.

Geoffroy told the British that the savants would "destroy our property, we will disperse it in the Libyan sands, or we will throw it into the sea" before they handed it over. They were allowed to keep their notes and collections.

A man and woman in 1930s clothing stand in front of and behind the Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone is housed at the British Museum.Fox Photos/Getty Images

Three texts were inscribed on the stone, in Egyptian hieroglyphs, an Egyptian cursive script derived from hieroglyphs, and Ancient Greek. Since the three were identical, the Greek writing could help researchers decipher the hieroglyphs.

It took two decades for French scholar Jean-François Champollion to translate them. Champollion made use of a copy the French savants had taken of the slab and published.

The Rosetta Stone is currently in the British Museum. Egypt has been trying to get it back, calling it a "spoil of war."

7. The invention of an engraving machine that sped up the printing process

When the savants returned to France, many worked on compiling the multi-volume book "Description de l'Égypte," which amounted to 7,000 pages encompassing what they'd seen and studied in Egypt.

To save some of the laborious work of engraving, engineer Nicolas-Jacques Conté created a machine that automated part of the process.

To print the hundreds of illustrations, engravers first had to transfer them to copper plates.

A drawing of a domed mosque and tall tower in Cairo circa 1798
Just one of the many detailed engravings added to the Description de l'Egypte, this one of a mosque in Cairo.Science & Society Picture Library via Getty Images

For plates with monuments, Conté's machine could engrave the sky in the background. The engraver could program it to create clouds as well.

What originally would've taken six to eight months could be completed in just a few days.

It was still a massive undertaking and considered to be the most ambitious work of France in the early 19th Century. The first volume wasn't printed until 1809. The final volume came out in the late 1820s, nearly a decade after Napoloen's death.

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