Nicolas-Jacques Conté, one of the greatest inventive minds of the eighteenth century, was born in the little village of Saint-Cénery near Sées in Normandy on the fourth of August, 1755. One of six children, he was the descendent of a family of farmers who had cultivated the same fields for over two hundred years. His two brothers and three sisters showed no exceptional talents which have been recorded but Nicolas-Jacques was destined for greatness. His career would ultimately bridge the arts and the physical sciences and gain for him the praise of Napoleon who called him “a universal man with taste, understanding and genius, capable of creating the arts of France in the middle of the Arabian Desert.”
Of his family we know little except that one of his brothers took over the responsibilities of the estate after the death of his father, while the other left the household to establish his own farm. Two of his sisters became nuns at the Hotel Dieu de Sées, a fact which had some influence on his development. His mother, widowed at an early age, has been described by E. F. Jommard, Conté's biographer, as a kindly woman who counseled and ministered to the poor. As a child, the young Conté received his earliest education at the band of an aunt with whom he had gone to live.
It is related that, at the age of nine, Conté fashioned a violin with a knife as his sole tool and that the instrument was actually used in concerts. If the story is true, it reoords the earliest indication of his later accomplishments. One of his distinctive traits was the ability to imagine, design, and fabricate beyond the normal limitations of the equipment available to him. When barely in his teens, he was given a job as assistant to the gardener at the Hotel Dieu de Sées. At about this time he was often observed drawing and making designs with chalk on the walls of the convent buildings. The Mother Superior had contracted with a painter named Couin to decorate the chapel of the convent with a series of panels and because of the young assistant gardener's obvious interest; he was given the task of aiding the master. He worked at grinding pigment and cleaning brushes and began to learn about painting by observation. Couin fell ill and was unable to continue the project, so Conté asked if he might try his hand. He argued that he should be allowed to do one panel which, if considered unsuccessful, could be painted over. Needless to say, the trial was acceptable and he completed the decoration of the chapel. The beginning of his career as an artist was assured.
Conté married and, in 1776, left Sées to study with Jean Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805), one of the most popular painters of genre and sentimental subjects of his time. He also studied with Peter Adolphe Hall (1729-1793) and he specialized as a portrait painter. As a young man in his early twenties he began to develop a reputation and the demand for his services grew. He returned to Sées in 1779 as a practicing artist but the scientific side of his interests by this time was becoming more important to him. By 1785, when he moved his small family to Paris, he was already more interested in physics and chemistry-than painting, but he was never to completely desert his first profession.
His career as an inventor (no other term more properly describes Conté) was allowed to flower by the events of the revolution. The political situation gave him ample opportunity to develop his talents in this direction. In the intellectual atmosphere which existed, men of talent were called on to perform to the full extent of their capacities. A New calendar was established, a new and more logical system of weights and measures was invented, and committees were set up to order and modernize every aspect of life in the infant republic. Even Jacques Louis David, who had been patronized by the king and owed much of his artistic influence to royal protection, was elected to the Convention by the Section du Muséum where he turned his art to the cause of the Revolution.
Conté’s first success was in giving aid to the Comité des monnaies in the production of a commemorative medal. He was called in through the advice of a friend who knew of his inventive talents to determine the problems which prevented the proper striking of the medal. He realized that the tools used were inadequate; retired to his workshop, and overnight produced the proper device which enabled the medal to be produced to perfection. He experimented with hydraulic systems as well, but it was one remarkable invention in another field which brought him to the attention of the authorities and made him a degree of fame.France was completely dependent on the English graphite deposits at Cumberland for the material necessary in the manufacture of pencils, a situation untenable to the French. Conté devised a method whereby graphite and clay could be mixed together as a substitute. His name lives on in the Conté crayon used by artists to the present, but the development he made was to become the basis for the production of .all so-called lead pencils. He was awarded a patent for his discovery which proved lucrative to his descendents, but he felt that he had only done a necessary service for his country.
One of his early interests while still at Sées was in the newly developing science of aeronautics. He made at least one hot air balloon which he flew in the public square, but it was not a great success. On the basis of the recognition he was beginning to receive as an inventor, he was appointed to the aerostatic corps at Meudon where he was among the first to understand the military possibilities of the captive balloon for observation purposes. He contributed to the improvement of the production of hydrogen gas, as well as the treatment of the gas bag of the balloon itself. Partially due to his efforts the new device was used successfully for the first time in a military campaign at the battle of Fleurus where it contributed to the French victory in 1794. Conté organized the first airborne battalion and he even envisioned an air invasion of the British Isles but this was never eriously undertaken. In his experiments with gases at this time he had a serious accident. In a laboratory explosion he suffered the loss of an eye but this did not seem to hinder him in his later activities.
Conté was appointed one of the directors of the department of Conservation des arts et metiers where he concerned himself with experiments on colors and pigments and, at the same time, developed the first practical aneroid barometer. The first preoccupation perhaps reflected his early interest in the visual arts, and the second was an outgrowth of his experience with balloons, for such a device would be useful in the determination of altitude.
A man of such varied talents was a natural choice to be included in the expedition to Egypt. The background of the invasion of Egypt is well documented but it is necessary to stress the importance Napoleon put on the involvement of men in the arts and sciences. French designs on that country were not a novelty. As early as the 1770s a small party had been sent to Egypt with the intention of evaluating the possibilities of creating a French colony. Napoleon's motives were mixed, he considered the conquest of Egypt a first step toward India and a strike at the British from that quarter, but he also had dreams of empire. To complement the military forces, he assembled a corps of French savants to study the history, customs, and the natural resources of the country which was unparalleled in the history of warfare. Some of the most important talents of the eighteenth century-in France were chosen to accompany the troops including Monge, Fourier, Berthollet, Dolomieu, Rigel, Norry, Denon, Dutertre, Redoute and, of course, Conté. He was selected by Napoleon to head the aerostatic division but he was to make himself indispensable in more ways than anyone could have imagined. As a part of the group of experts, Conte became far more than the staff authority on observation balloons. It is interesting to remember that, at the commencement of the campaign, Conté was 43 years old, Bonaparte was 30 and Vivant Denon was the ripe old age of 51.
The first test of his genius presented itself almost immediately after the landing at Alexandria. He was presented with the problem of what could be done to protect the cannon from rust. In the coastal climate of the Nile delta, the weapons began to show the effects of the damp sea air literally overnight. Conté's solution was simplicity itself; he gave a protective coating to the ferrous metal by having the cannon bronzed. Not all of his suggestions were acted on, however. He proposed a telegraph (actually a mechanical semaphore) warning system for the fleet which, it has been argued, might have averted the French disaster at Aboukir Bay. In any case, Conté was kept occupied with other projects including the fabrication of an oven in the Light House of Alexandria for the heating of cannon balls. At Aboukir the French lost not only a decisive battle to the English fleet but also lost most of the tools, equipment, and instruments which were to have been used in the study of the life and history of the country. Conté was sufficient to the enormous task of replacing what had been lost. He not only made tools but the tools to make tools.
He was able to design and supervise the production of everything from surveying equipment to surgical instruments. In the rebellion at Cairo later in the same year, he was forced to repeat many of the same operations for much was lost again to looters. In the course of his stay in Egypt, Conté built windmills for the production of flour, made the dies for the coining of money and the replacement of uniform buttons, fabricated sabers and bugles, and created a factory for the making of telescopic and microscopic lenses. It is no wonder that Gaspard Monge, president of the commission of scholars on the expedition, said that Conte had all the sciences in his head and all the arts in his hands. He was the perfect mixture of the theoretical scientist, master craftsman, and inventive genius. No army in the field was ever better served by one man.
Conte was called on to exercise his expertise in ballooning and was asked to prepare an ascension for the celebration of the French New Year on September 22, 1798. He was not sufficiently prepared so the event was postponed to December 1st. On that occasion his efforts met with a near disaster. The balloon caught fire and the Egyptians received the impression that what had been demonstrated was a machine of war for setting fire to the enemy encampments. At a second attempt with a larger balloon, it is said that the ascension was witnessed in Esbekia square by 100,000. It is probable that the use of the balloon in Egypt was limited to impressing the local population and was never found suitable for military purposes. Al Jabarti (‘Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti al-Misri) in his account of the ascension said “Their claim that this apparatus is like a vessel in which people sit and travel to other countries in order to discover news and other falsifications did not appear to be true.”
When not otherwise occupied, Conté found time to app1y his knowledge to a wide variety of problems. He measured the height of the great pyramid at Giza with his barometer and determined it to be 428 feet. The actual height, found with modern surveying instruments is close to 450 feet, but his measurement was the most accurate to his time. Called on to solve many problems, he invented water tanks which were an improvement over the casks then in use. He also projected a telegraphic communication system which would have kept the different sections of the army in touch with each other but this was not fully developed. Conté created a gunpowder factory and a sophisticated method for testing the product. Napoleon is quoted as saying, "We have no lack of munitions, if necessary, Champy and Conte will manufacture more of them. Conté also invented a technique for the fabrication of cloth for uniforms which adapted course material made locally, he was even responsible for the arrangements for the funeral of General Kléber.
Conté tried to cope with the problem of transporting cannon across the desert sand. He suggested a wider wheel surface for the gun carriages on the analogy of the wide hoof of the camel but this was not acted on. If French artillery could have been easily transported to Acre, the result of the siege of that walled city might have been different.
His prime responsibility as one of the scholars of the expedition and member of the newly-formed French Institute in Egypt was to study and record the arts, crafts, and sciences of the country in his own time. In this his early training stood him in good stead. In the Description de l' egypte, the monumental multi-volumned work which was published after the Egyptian campaign, the plates which illustrate these aspects of Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century are engraved after his drawings. They exemplify his rare combination of talents, in that they are not only artfully drawn, but exactly descriptive of each craft or trade. In them Conté illustrated the making of pottery, the twisting of rope, the production of glass and even the techniques of the Egyptian barber. The Description de l' egypte must stand, not only as a record of the French interest in ancient and modern Egypt at the beginning of the nineteenth century, but also a memorial to Conté. He helped to organize the work of collecting the material and, after his return to France, he was also given the task of overseeing the publication through the press. In order to facilitate the production of the great number of large plates, Conté invented a precise machine which simplified the task of the engravers. It provided the mechanical means for the drawing of the countless parallel lines which were necessary to create -the tones of sky and architecture. The time for the completion of an engraved plate was reduced from months to days. Unfortunately, Conté did not live to see the work of twenty-two volumes completed.
On his return to France, Conté was asked what reward he wanted for all of his services in the field. He requested only that all of his subordinates be promoted, however, he was among the first group to be elevated to the Legion of Honor. He occupied his last years with the publication of the Description de l’egypte but even that momentous task did not consume all of his energies. At the time of his death, December 6, 1805, Conté was engaged in further study of the permanence of pigments for the artist's palette. His thoughts were about the necessity of creating colors which would endure and, in enduring, transmit, the artistic products of his own time unchanged. Conté died at the age of 50, for fully thirty years he had labored as an inventor and he had served mankind well.