Of Spirit Levels & Breaststrokes: The Life of Melchisédech Thévenot

Seventeenth century Frenchman Melchisédech “Big Mel” Thévenot was the very definition of a polymath. At various times in his roughly 72 years (circa 1620-1692 CE), Thévenot worked as an author, cartographer, diplomat, and scientist; he was also known as an extensive traveler and an “orientalist”—that is, someone who is knowledgeable about Asia (referred to in Thévenot’s day as “the Orient”). Though not a well-known name, Thévenot is credited with numerous significant discoveries and inventions.

Started Near the Top, Stayed There

Thévenot was born into a family of royal office holders—not royalty, exactly, but highly-ranking elected officials that were pretty darn close to royalty. Growing up in a wealthy household gave young Big Mel educational opportunities most of his peers would never have. He took to languages easily, and was soon a polyglot, fluent in French (naturally), English, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish, among others.

He quickly made a name for himself as an amateur scientist, studying astronomy, magnetism, medicine, and physics. Thévenot was one of the first to suggest the use of lemon juice as a potential remedy for stomach ailments, and ipecac to cure dysentery.

In the 1660s, Thévenot and two of his protégé’s Jan “Big Jan” Swammerdam of the Netherlands and Niels “Big Niels” Stenson of Denmark, began a scientific study in which they ultimately discovered the nature and mechanism by which embryo fertilization occurs in humans and animals.

Title Recall

Thévenot’s most famous contributions include the granddaddy of all level measurement gizmos and a now-common form of aquatic locomotion.

It’s called a “spirit level” because the bubble is actually a ghost.

Big Mel invented the spirit level (a.k.a. the bubble level) in 1661, almost filling* a small vessel with alcohol and mounting it on a ruler with a small viewing lens fitted into it. Though Thévenot did everything he could to spread the word on his wacky new invention, the spirit level did not come into widespread use until the early 18th century.

Though he didn’t actually invent the breaststroke, Thévenot’s book The Art of Swimming helped popularize the motion by bringing it to the attention of swimmers all over the world. Good ol’ Benjamin Franklin, when he was good young Benjamin Franklin, is known to have read the book and subsequently became a talented swimmer as a youth.

Oh yeah, Thévenot was also one of the founders of the French Academy of Sciences, which is kind of a big deal, I guess.

* If it were completely full, it wouldn’t work.

Photo credit: Heartlover1717 via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND