The inauguration of the statue of Philip Lebon, the inventor of lighting by gas, occurred on the 26th of June, at Chaumont, under the auspices of the Technical Gas Society of France. The statue, which we illustrate herewith, is due to the practiced chisel of the young sculptor Antide Pechine, who has perfectly understood his work, and has represented the inventor at the moment at which he observes a flame start from a glass balloon in which he had heated some sawdust. The attitude is graceful and the expression of the face is meditative and intelligent. The statue, which is ten feet in height, was exhibited at the last Salon. It was cast at the Barbedienne works.
It would be impossible to applaud too much the homage that has just been rendered to the inventor of gas lighting, for Philip Lebon, like so many other benefactors of humanity, has not by far the celebrity that ought to belong to him. When we study the documents that relate to his existence, when we follow the flashes of genius that darted through his brain, when we see the obstacles that he had to conquer, and when we thoroughly examine his great character and the lofty sentiments that animated him, we are seized with admiration for the humble worker who endowed his country with so great a benefit.
Lebon was born at Brachay on the 29th of May, 1767. At the age of twenty, he was admitted to the School of Bridges and Roads, where he soon distinguished himself by his ingenious and investigating turn of mind. His first labors were in connection with the steam engine, then in its infancy, and on April 18, 1792, the young engineer obtained a national award of $400 to continue the experiments that he had begun on the improvement of this apparatus.
It was at about the same epoch that Lebon was put upon the track of lighting by gas, during a sojourn at Brachay. He one day threw a handful of sawdust into a glass vial that he heated over a fire. He observed issuing from the bottle a dense smoke which suddenly caught fire and produced a beautiful luminous flame. The inventor understood the importance of the experiment that he had just performed, and resolved to work it further. He had just found that wood and other combustibles were, under the action of heat, capable of disengaging a gas fit for lighting and heating. He had seen that the gas which is disengaged from wood is accompanied with blackish vapors of an acrid and empyreumatic odor. In order that it might serve for the production of light, it was necessary to free it from these foreign products.
Lebon passed the vapor through a tube into a flask of water, which condensed the tarry and acid substances, and the gas escaped in a state of purity. This modest apparatus was the first image of the gas works; and it comprised the three essential parts thereof - the generating apparatus, the purifying apparatus, and the receiver for collecting the gas.
One year afterward, the inventor had seen Fourcroy, Prony, and the great scientists of his epoch. On the 28th of September, 1799, he took out a patent in which he gives a complete description of his thermo lamp, by means of which he produced a luminous gas, while at the same time manufacturing wood tar and pyroligneous or acetic acid. In this patent he mentions coal as proper to replace wood, and he explains his system with a visible emotion and singular ardor. In reading what he has written we are struck with that form of persuasion that does not permit of doubting that he foresaw the future in reserve for his system.
Unfortunately, Lebon could not devote all his time to his discovery. Being a government engineer, without money and fortune, he had to attend to his duties. He went as an ordinary engineer to Angouleme, but he did not forget his illuminating gas, and he strongly regretted Paris, which he termed "an incomparable focus of study." He devoted himself to mathematics and science, he made himself beloved by all, and his mind wandered far from his daily occupation. The engineer in chief soon complained of him, but a committee appointed to investigate the charges that had been made against him affirmed that he was free from any reproach. He was sent back to his post, but war was decimating the resources of France, and the republic, while Bonaparte was in Italy, no longer had any time to pay its engineers. Lebon wrote some pressing letters to the minister, asking for the sums due on his work, but all of them remained without reply. His wife went to Paris, but her applications were fruitless. She wrote herself to the minister the following letter, which exists in the archives of the School of Bridges and Roads:
"Liberty, equality, fraternity - Paris. 22 Messidor, year VII. of the French Republic, one and indivisible - the wife of Citizen Lebon to Citizen Minister of the Interior:
"It is neither alms nor a favor that I ask of you, it is justice. I have for two months been languishing at 120 leagues from my household. Do not, by further delay, force the father of a family, for want of means, to leave a state for which he has sacrificed everything. ... Have regard for our position, citizen. It is oppressive, and my demand is just. There is more than one motive to persuade me that my application will not be fruitless with a minister who makes it a law and duty for himself to be just.
"Greeting and esteem. Your devoted fellow-citizen,
"Madame Lebon, nee De Brambille."
In 1801, Lebon was called to Paris, as attache in the service of Blin, engineer in chief of pavements. He took a second patent - a true scientific memoir full of facts and ideas. It speaks of the numerous applications of illuminating gas and its mode of production, lays down the basis of the entire manufacture - furnaces, condensers, purifiers, gas burners. Nothing is forgotten, not even the steam engine and balloon. Lebon proposed to the government to construct an apparatus for heating and lighting the public buildings, but the offer was rejected. It was then that the unfortunate inventor, wearied by all his tentatives, fatigued by his thousands of vexations, made up his mind to have recourse to the public in order to convince it of the utility of his invention. He rented the hotel Seignelay, St. Dominique-St. Germain St., and invited the public thither. Here he arranged a gas apparatus, which distributed light and heat to all the rooms. He lighted the gardens with thousands of gas jets in the form of rosettes and flowers. A fountain was illuminated with the new gas, and the water that flowed from it seemed to be luminous. The crowd hastened from all parts and came to salute the new invention.
Lebon, excited by this success, published a prospectus, a sort of profession of faith, a model of grandeur and sincerity, a true monument of astonishing foresight. He followed his gas into the future and saw it circulating through pipes, whence it threw light into all the streets of future capitals. We reproduce a few passages from this remarkable production:
"It is painful," says he, "and I experience the fact at this moment, to have extraordinary effects to announce. Those who have not seen cry out against the possibility, and those who have seen often judge of the facility of a discovery by what they have to conceive of its demonstration. If the difficulty is conquered, the merit of the inventor vanishes with it. I would rather destroy every idea of merit than allow the slightest appearance of mystery or charlatanism to exist.
"This aeriform principle is freed from those humid vapors that are so injurious and disagreeable to the organs of sight and smell, and of the soot which soils apartments. Purified to perfect transparency, it travels in the state of cold air, and is led by the smallest as well as frailest pipes, by conduits an inch square, formed in the plaster of ceilings or walls, and even tubes of gummed taffety would perfectly answer the purpose. Only the extremity of the tube, which puts the inflammable gas in contact with the air, and upon which the flame rests, should be of metal."STATUE OF PHILIP LEBON.
Every one finally paid homage to the illustrious inventor, and a committee appointed in the name of the minister affirmed that "the advantageous results given by the experiments of Citizen Lebon have met and even exceeded the hopes of the friends of the sciences and arts." Napoleon I. soon granted Lebon a concession in the forest of Rouvray for the organization of an industry of wood distillation and gas making. Unfortunately, Lebon was obliged to undertake too many things at once. He prepared the gas, and produced acetic acid and tar that he had to send to Harve for the use of the navy. Despite all his trouble and fatigue, he had something like a ray of hope. He believed that he saw the day of fortune dawning. His works were visited by numerous scientists, and among others the Russian princes Galitzin and Dolgorouki, who, in the name of their government, proposed to the inventor to transfer his plant to Russia, he to be free to set forth the conditions. Lebon refused this splendid offer, and, in an outburst of patriotism, answered that his discovery belonged to his country, and that no other nation should before his own have the benefit of his labors.
The hopes of Lebon were of short duration. Enemies and competitors caused him a thousand troubles, and the elements themselves seemed to turn against him. During a hurricane, the humble house in which he dwelt was destroyed, and a fire shortly afterward consumed a portion of his works. Fatality, like the genius of old, seemed to be following up the unfortunate inventor; but sorrows and reverses could not have any hold on this invincible spirit, who was so well seconded by a wife of lofty character. Lebon, always at work, was seemingly about to triumph over all obstacles, and the hour of the realization of his project of lighting on a large scale was near, when a death as tragic as it was mysterious snatched him from his labors. On the very day of the crowning of the emperor, December 2, 1804, the body of Philip Lebon was found lying inert and lifeless in the Champs Elysees, exhibiting thirteen deep wounds made by a dagger. - La Nature.