François de la Chaise, S.J., 1624 – 1709: Requiscat in Pace

For a certain kind of tourist, one major draw to Paris is  Jim Morrison’s grave at Père Lachaise cemetery.

Well, we all have our slightly ghoulish sides, I suppose, and graveyards are generally peaceful places, even those with lizard kings and other assorted hell-raisers.

The cemetery itself was a creation of the First French Republic, Bonaparte declaring that even the non-Catholics of the world had the right to be buried somewhere.   Not that France at the time was overflowing with non-Catholics.   1804 being one of those Age of Reason years, the authorities felt no need to consecrate the place, and so good Catholics (and presumably even bad Catholics hedging their bets) stayed away in droves.

Faced with this clear and utter flop, the Public Relations folk stepped in. How to make the neighborhood desirable?  You bring the artists in, of course.  Officials dug up  Molière (a comic playwright – fitting, no?) and re-potted him on the hillside.  Still nothing. Okay, let’s go the romantic route, make a memorial for Abelard and Hèloise.

It appears to have done the trick – we are talking France, after all, and who better to combine religion and l’amour than those two?  The place hasn’t looked back since. You want in? Take a number. Continue reading

Denis Papin, 1647-1712: Letting Off Some Steam

The  steam boat, that was Robert Fulton’s baby, right?  Good old 19th century American know-how.  No? Not him?

Okay, James Watt, then.  Just the sort of thing a clever Scottish engineer would come up with.

The French beat them both to the punch.  Denis Pepin built the first steam driven paddle boat – in 1704.

The fellow wasn’t even a mechanic.  Not by training at least,  His university degree was in medicine, and even at an advanced point in his non-medical career he was referred to as le medecin Papin. Continue reading