Nicolas Fatio de Duillier

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Nicolas Fatio de Duillier
Nicolas Fatio
Born (1664-02-26)February 26, 1664
Basel, Swiss Confederacy
Died May 12, 1753(1753-05-12) (aged 89)
Maddersfield near Worcester, England,
Great Britain
Nationality Swiss
Fields Mathematics
Known for The study of Zodiacal light
Influences Isaac Newton

Nicolas Fatio de Duillier (alternative names are Facio or Faccio; 26 February 1664 – 12 May 1753) was a Swiss mathematician known for his work on the zodiacal light problem, for his very close relationship with Isaac Newton, for his role in the Newton v. Leibniz calculus controversy, and for originating the "push" or "shadow" theory of gravitation. He also developed and patented a method of perforating jewels for use in clocks.


Fatio was born in Basel, Switzerland, in 1664, the seventh of fourteen children of Jean-Baptiste and Cathérine Fatio. The family moved in 1672 to Duillier. In 1682 Fatio began astronomical studies under the astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini at the Parisian observatory. In 1686, Fatio by chance became a witness to a conspiracy aimed at William of Orange, which he helped to foil. In the same year he made the acquaintance of Jakob Bernoulli and Christiaan Huygens, with whom he developed a particularly close cooperation, working together especially on the calculus. In London in 1687 he made the acquaintance of John Wallis and Edward Bernard (1638-1697) and worked out a solution of the inverse tangent problem. He also was on friendly terms with Gilbert Burnet, John Locke, Richard Hampden and his son John Hampden. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1688 on the recommendation of John Hoskyns.

He was a close friend of Isaac Newton, and from the beginning was impressed by Newton's gravitational theory. In 1691, he planned but never completed a new edition of Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. In 1694, their relationship dissipated. At this time, he also corresponded with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

In 1707, Fatio came under the influence of a fanatical religious sect, the Camisards, which ruined his reputation. He left England and took part in pilgrim journeys across Europe. After his return only a few scientific documents by him appeared. He died in 1753 in Maddersfield near Worcester, England. After his death his Geneva compatriot Georges-Louis Le Sage tried to purchase his scientific papers which, together with those of Le Sage, are now in the Library of the University of Geneva.

He retired to Worcester, where he formed some congenial friendships and busied himself with scientific pursuits, alchemy, and the mysteries of the cabbala. In 1732, through the influence of John Conduitt, Newton's nephew, he endeavoured without success to obtain some reward for having saved the life of the Prince of Orange. He assisted Conduitt in planning the design and writing the inscription for Newton's monument in Westminster Abbey. He died on 28 April or 12 May 1753, [1] and was buried at the church of St. Nicholas, Worcester.[2]

Professional career[edit]

Work in Paris[edit]

Before he was eighteen Fatio wrote to Domenico Cassini suggesting a new method of determining the sun's distance from the earth, and an explanation of the form of Saturn's ring. Encouraged by Cassini's reply, he went to Paris in the spring of 1682, and was kindly received.[3] In 1683 Cassini presented his theory of the zodiacal light. Fatio followed his observations, repeated them at Geneva in 1684, and gave in 1685 new and important developments of this theory.[4] They were published in his Lettre à M. Cassini … touchant une lumière extraordinaire qui paroît dans le ciel depuis quelques années.[5] Fatio also invented some useful machines. He studied the dilatation and contraction of the pupil of the eye, and described the fibres of the anterior uvea and the choroid in a letter to Mariotte dated 13 April 1684.

He introduced improvements in telescope glasses; showed how to take advantage of a ship's motion through the water to grind corn, to saw, to raise anchors, and to hoist rigging; contrived a ship's observatory; was the first to discover the art of piercing rubies to receive the pivots of the balance-wheel of watches; and measured the height of the mountains surrounding Geneva, planning, but never completing, a map of the lake.

Return to Geneva[edit]

Fatio returned to Geneva in October 1683. During the following year he became acquainted with Fenil, a Piedmontese count, who, after offending the Duke of Savoy and the King of France, took refuge in the house of Fatio's maternal grandfather in Alsace, and then at Duillier. Fenil confided to Fatio a plan for kidnapping the Prince of Orange at Scheveling, and produced a letter from Louvois offering the king's pardon, approving of the plan, and enclosing an order for money. Fatio revealed the plot to his friend Gilbert Burnet, whom he accompanied to Holland in 1686 in order to explain it to the prince. It was decided to reward Fatio, whose abilities were certified by Huygens, with a mathematical professorship, with a house and a commencing salary of twelve hundred florins. The prince also promised him a private pension. While these plans were delayed, Fatio received permission to visit England in the spring of 1687, where, he wrote, "being mightily pleased with this nation, and with the English language, and having been ill at Oxford, I did not care to return to the Hague; where, by the imprudence of others, I might have become too much exposed to the resentment of two kings and of the count at once; but stayed in England till the Prince of Orange was in full possession of these kingdoms." He was admitted a fellow of the Royal Society on 2 May 1688.[6] Having obtained posts for some of his countrymen in the English and Dutch service, Fatio "found it necessary for his own rest" to leave England for a while. He became travelling tutor to the eldest son of Sir William Ellis and a Mr. Thornton, and resided in Utrecht during part of 1690. There he met Edmund Calamy, according to whom Fatio at that time he was generally esteemed to be a Spinozist. In the autumn of 1691 Fatio returned to England. He was in Switzerland in 1699, 1700, and 1701.[7]

Role in Newton/Leibniz quarrel[edit]

Fatio was involved in the quarrel between Newton and Leibniz. He had visited Newton at Cambridge in November 1692. Newton gave him money and offered him a regular allowance if he would reside permanently at Cambridge.[8] Hearne says that Fatio was "a sceptick in religion, a person of no virtue, but a mere debauchee", and he relates how Fatio "got by his insinuation and cunning a vast sum of money" from his pupil the Duke of Bedford .[9] Fatio alleged that he had convinced Newton of certain mistakes in the Principia.[10] He puts himself on a par with Newton, and in a letter to Huygens, dated 1691, wrote that it was really unnecessary to ask Newton to prepare a new edition. "However," he adds, "I may possibly undertake it myself, as I know no one who so well and thoroughly understands a good part of this book as I do." Huygens wrote on the margin of this letter ‘"appy Newton".[11] When Leibniz sent a set of problems for solution to England he mentioned Newton and failed to mention Fatio among those probably capable of solving them.[12] Fatio retorted by sneering at Leibniz as the "second inventor" of the calculus in a tract entitled Lineæ brevissimæ descensus investigatio geometrica duplex, cui addita est investigatio geometrica solidi rotundi in quo minima fiat resistentia.[13] In replying to Fatio, Leibniz appealed to Newton himself as having admitted the independent discovery.[14] Fatio sent a reply to the editors of the Acta Eruditorum, but they refused to print it citing their aversion to controversy.[15] Finally he stirred up the whole Royal Society to take a part in the dispute.[16]

Work in London[edit]

Fatio continued to reside in London as a teacher of mathematics. He entered into partnership with the brothers Peter and Jacob de Beaufré, French watchmakers there, and obtained a fourteen-year patent for the sole use in England of his invention relating to rubies.[17] In March 1705 he exhibited specimens of watches thus jewelled to the Royal Society.[18] About this time Fatio associated himself with the Camisards, or "French prophets", became their leader, and committed their warnings to writing. The government suspected him of contriving a political scheme and prosecuted Fatio and two of his brethren on charges brought by the French churches in London. They were condemned by the queen's bench to the pillory as common cheats and impostors. On 2 Dec. 1707 Fatio stood on a scaffold at Charing Cross, with an inscription on his hat describing him as an accomplice in spreading "wicked and counterfeit prophecies". By the influence of the Duke of Ormonde, to whose brother, Lord Arran, Fatio had been tutor, he was saved from the violence of the mob.[19] He next launched an expedition to convert the world, wandered through Germany, went into Asia, and then drifted back to England. He was in London in May 1712.

Papers and manuscripts[edit]

Fatio left a number of manuscripts, some of which passed into the hands of Dr. Johnstone of Kidderminster; others were acquired by Professor Le Sage of Geneva, who also possessed a large collection of his letters. A few of his papers and letters are in the British Museum. Among them is a Latin poem entitled "N. Facii Duellerii Auriacus Throno-servatus" (Addit. MS. 4163), containing a curious narrative of Fenil's plot and a not inelegant description of the jewelled watches. A series of letters to Sir Hans Sloane (ib. 4044) extend from 1714 to 1736. Other letters of his are in fasciculus 2 of C. Hugenii aliorumque seculi xvii. virorum celebrium Exercitationes Mathematicæ et Philosophicæ, 4to, the Hague, 1833. To vol. v. of Le Clerc's ‘Bibliothèque Universelle,’ 1687, Faccio contributed Réflexions sur une méthode de trouver les tangentes de certaines lignes courbes, qui vient d'être publiée dans un livre intitulé: Medicina Mentis. The Acta Lipsiensia for 1700 contains Excerpta ex suâ responsione ad excerpta ex litteris J. Bernouilly. Besides a paper in the Philosophical Transactions, xxviii. 172–6, entitled "Epistola ad fratrem Joh. Christoph. Facium, qua vindicat Solutionem suam Problematis de inveniendo solido rotundo seu tereti in quo minima fiat resistentia", Fatio contributed articles on astronomy and Hebrew metres in nearly every number of the Gentleman's Magazine for 1737 and 1738. In addition to the works already mentioned he was author of:

  • "Epistola … de mari æneo Salomonis ad E. Bernardum" in the latter's De Mensuris et Ponderibus antiquis Libri tres, 8vo, Oxford, 1688.
  • Fruit-walls improved by inclining them to the horizon, by a member of the Royal Society (signed N. F. D., i.e. N. Faccio de Duillier), 4to, London, 1699.
  • N. Facii Duillerii Neutonus. Ecloga, 8vo (Ghent?), 1728.
  • Navigation improv'd: being chiefly the method for finding the latitude at sea as well as by land, fol., London, 1728).

With Jean Allut, Elie Marion, and other zealots, he issued an unfulfilled prophecy with the title Plan de la Justice de Dieu sur la terre dans ces derniers jours et du relévement de la chûte de l'homme par son péché, 2 parts, 8vo, 1714, of which a Latin version appeared during the same year.

A younger brother, Jean Christophe Faccio, possessed much of Nicolas's learning, but none of his genius. He was elected F.R.S. on 3 April 1706,[20] and published in the Philosophical Transactions[21] a description of an eclipse of the sun which he had observed at Geneva on 12 May of that year. He died at Geneva in October 1720.[22] By his wife Catherine, daughter of Jean Gassand of Forealquiere in Provence, to whom he was married in 1709, he left no issue. Her will was proved at London in March 1752,[23]


In 1688 he gave an account on the mechanical explanation of gravitation of Huygens before the Royal Society, in which he tried to connect Huygens' theory with that of Newton. In 1690 he wrote a letter to Huygens, in which he outlined his own gravitational theory, which later became known as Le Sage's theory of gravitation. Soon after that he read its content before the Royal Society. This theory, on which he worked until his death, is based on minute particles which push gross matter to each other.[24]


To optimize the capture of solar energy, and thereby plant productivity, Fatio in 1699 suggested using a tracking mechanism which could pivot to follow the Sun. Around 1700 he and Pierre de Baufre tried to use jewels as wheel bearings in mechanical clocks. In 1705 both received a patent for that still-common technology.

Popular culture[edit]

Fatio appears as a supporting character in Michael White's novel Equinox (2006), Neal Stephenson's novel series, The Baroque Cycle (2003–04), and in Gregory Keyes's novel series, The Age of Unreason (1998-2001).


  1. ^ Gent. Mag. xxiii. 248
  2. ^ Green, Worcester, ii. 93–4; cf. Nash, Worcestershire, vol. ii. supplement, p. 101
  3. ^ Gent. Mag. viii. 95
  4. ^ CHOUëT in Les Nouvelles de la République des Lettres, March 1685, pp. 260–7
  5. ^ 12mo, Amsterdam, 1686
  6. ^ Thomson, Hist. of Roy. Soc. appendix iv. p. xxviii
  7. ^ See his letter in William Seward, Anecdotes of Distinguished Persons, 4th edit. ii. 190–215.
  8. ^ letter of Newton, dated 14 March 1692–3, in Nichols, Illustr. of Lit. iv. 58
  9. ^ Collections, Oxf. Hist. Soc., ii. 244)
  10. ^ Rigaud, Historical Essay, p. 100; Edinburgh Transactions, 1829, xii. 71
  11. ^ Kemble, State Papers and Correspondence, pp. 426–7
  12. ^ ib. p. 428
  13. ^ 4to, London, 1699 (p. 18
  14. ^ Acta Eruditorum, 1700, p. 203
  15. ^ ib. 1701, p. 134
  16. ^ Brewster, Memoirs of Sir I. Newton, 2nd edit. ii. 1–5
  17. ^ London Gazette, 11 May 1704
  18. ^ Original Letters of Eminent Literary Men, Camd. Soc. xxiii. 317–18
  19. ^ Luttrell, Relation of State Affairs, 1857, vi. 240
  20. ^ Thomson, Hist. of Roy. Soc. appendix iv. p. xxxi
  21. ^ xxv. 2241–6
  22. ^ will registered in P. C. C. 5, Buckingham
  23. ^ registered in P. C. C. 64, Bettesworth
  24. ^ Zehe, H. (1980), Die Gravitationstheorie des Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, Hildesheim: Gerstenberg Verlag, ISBN 3-8067-0862-2 
  • Wolf, R. (1862), "Nicholas Fatio van Basel", Biographien zur Kulturgeschichte der Schweiz, 4: 67–86  |contribution= ignored (help)
  • Domson, C. (1972), Nicolas Fatio de Duillier and the Prophets of London, Ayer Publishing, ISBN 0-405-13852-0 

External links[edit]