glory and setbacks of a chemical giant

By Aureliano Tonet

Posted today at 8:00 p.m.

A strange bird, a little perched, whistling green ritornelles before the hour. For a long time, it was in this stereotype that the memory of Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours (1739-1817) was encased. Stendhal himself refers to him as a man “Who heard the language of birds”. “The beasts speak; and du Pont de Nemours / Understands them, songs and cries, gaiety, anger, love “, adds Victor Hugo. To deserve such praise, the French economist has worked hard. From memoir to treatise, he looked at an entire cosmos: the “Mighty genius” oysters, the sociability of foxes and ants, “Chemical causes of rain” Even translating the language of the birds that populated his estate in Bois-des-Fossés, south of Paris. It is this avian grammar, established in 1807, that posterity will remember.

“Pierre Samuel compares agriculture to the sun of tomorrow, and coal to the sun of yesterday”, notes economist Jean-Marc Daniel

“Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed …” Du Pont adopted the maxim attributed to his chemist friend Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794). Like him, he defends the idea of ​​a chain of beings and a cycle of living things. Did he not baptize his school of thought physiocracy, from Greek words physis (“Nature”) and kratos (” strength “) ? At Versailles, where he has his tickets, Madame de Pompadour nicknames him “Our young farmer”. It must be said that his vocabulary is flamboyant: “Pierre Samuel compares agriculture to the sun of tomorrow, and coal to the sun of yesterday”, notes economist Jean-Marc Daniel. “The very idea of ​​pollution is inconceivable to him, as the economy proceeds, in his eyes, from nature”, insists historian Julien Vincent. This fiber, du Pont is working to pass it on to future generations. Its education books are full of bucolic injunctions: “Remember that the shepherds were the first astronomers, the first botanists, the first philosophers, the first poets. “ Children should be made to recite prayers with accents new age : “Extend our charity to animals and plants”, preach one of them.

Lavoisier’s lessons

How far will prayer be heard? In 1800, the Pont clan emigrated to the United States. Two years later, Eleuthère Irénée, the youngest son of Pierre Samuel, founded a gunpowder factory in the state of Delaware. If he established himself in this verdant region in the north-east of the country, along the Brandywine River, it was because he found everything his business needed there: water, wood, stones. There, he applied the lessons of Lavoisier, in whose blowing snow he had studied ten years earlier. With success: the mills of the family firm – spelled DuPont, without space – soon turned at full speed, to the point of supplying the US military.

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