Biography of Agustín Betancourt y Molina (1758-1824)

Spanish engineer, born in Puerto de la Cruz (Tenerife) February 1, 1758 and died Petersburgo July 14, 1824.


Betancourt came from a wealthy family of the insular nobility. His father was a Knight of the order of Calatrava and provincial militia captain, and his mother was the daughter of the Marquis de Villafuerte, José Alonso de Molina Ponte and Castilla. From a very young manifests a powerful inventiveness and a clear penchant for experimental science. 18 built, together with her sister, a sewing machine for silk, which is filed with the economic society of La Laguna. He/She made his early studies in his hometown with tutors and, as it was common in the families of the nobility, joined in 1777 as a cadet in the regiment of provincial militia, reaching the rank of Lieutenant in 1778. Last year he/she moved to Madrid to continue his studies, thanks to a pension got probably by influence of his cousin, Stanislas de Lugo and Molina, director of the real studies of San Isidro. Betancourt studied mathematics (algebra, geometry and trigonometry) and physics in this institution during the period 1779-1780, counting among his teachers to Vicente Durán Sacristán, Antonio Rosell Viciano and, probably, to Antonio Fernández Solano. He/She also studied at the Academy of fine arts of San Fernando. He/She studied mathematical analysis, differential and integral calculus, theory of mechanical analytical and curves.

In 1783, commissioned by the Secretary of State, José Moñino, count of Floridablanca; Betancourt made his first Commission official, consisting of a visit of inspection of works and State of the Canal of Aragón. After this visit, he/she wrote a memoir of a technical nature, in collaboration with his countryman Grimon Nava Alonso. This year it was also commissioned to inspect the mines of Almadén, writing three memoirs on the subject that constitute an interesting monograph of the status of these mines at the end of the 18th century. He/She directed them to the Minister of the Indies; two of them dealt with the machines and another envelope works in the smelting area (the manuscripts are preserved in the National Library of Madrid).

Back in Madrid, in 1783, he/she carried out the launch of a hot-air balloon, made under his direction, "varnished taffeta" and "seven feet in diameter", in the presence of the Court, in El Escorial, first experience ballooning in our country.

The quality of his Studio earned him a scholarship of 1,500 reais a month, to study chemistry and geology, and expand their knowledge in metallurgy and physics, in Paris. In 1784, being recommended by Floridablanca Indias Minister, José Gálvez, as a technician for the American mines, moved to the capital of the Seine to expand knowledge of geometry, and underground architecture. The following year, Betancourt suggested him to Floridablanca a plan to create a school of roads and canals, in Spain, taking as a model the École des Ponts et chaussées in Paris. The plan, which was approved by the Secretary of State, implied the permanence of the Canarian engineer in France for several years, in order to devote himself to hydraulic and mechanical studies and direct the formation of a group of pensioners from the Spanish Government.

The stay in Paris, then scientific capital of Europe, was of the greatest importance in the intellectual biography of Betancourt. He/She attended, with its partners, the courses of the École des Ponts et chaussées, working in laboratories and centres of experimentation of this institution, and related scientists, technicians and musicians as prominent as F.C.M.-Gaspard Riche de Prony; Jean-Rodolphe Perronet, director of the Ecole; Jean-Charles de Borda; Mathurin Jacques Brisson; Louis François Clement Breguet; and the industrial Jean-Jacques Périer. One of the tasks assumed by Betancourt and his collaborators was the design drawings and build small models of how many machines could be useful and helpful for waterworks, or any technical advancement related to public works or metallurgical and textile industries.

In 1788, Floridablanca approved the project to create a Cabinet of machines, in the Palacio del Retiro, on the basis of the material produced by Betancourt and his collaborators, by naming the same director Canarian engineer. The installation and opening of the Royal Cabinet of machines was carried out in the years 1791 and 1792. The catalog written by the own Betancourt we know that it consisted of 210 models or models, 359 planes and 99 memories. Cabinet led a life dead and languid until becoming, in 1802, to the school of roads and canals. In 1788, and the main purpose of learn about progress on the steam engine, moved to England, where he/she remained for a period of three weeks. Although he/she could not access the details of the new machines, Watt and Boulton, exploiting them, signature was not willing to share his secret with strangers, observed in London, in a flour-milling industry, one of these, protected by their outer coverings; Betancourt saw the essence of its mechanisms and functioning.

Back in Paris, he/she designed a counterblow machine model and wrote a mémoire sur une machine vapeur to double effet who presented to the École des Ponts et chaussées and the Académie Royale des Sciences. Gaspard Monge, Borda and Brisson issued in the Académie, in 1790, an opinion on the memory. Thus, Betancourt told Europe the basis of the double-acting steam engine.

Back in Spain, at the end of 1791, to take charge of the Organization of the machines Cabinet, Betancourt also regularly attended meetings of the Royal Academy of fine arts of San Fernando, and was elected a member of the Commission responsible for proposing improvements to the teachings. In 1792 he/she was commissioned of collating the second edition of the elements of mathematics of Benito tricks, then confined in Granada by the Inquisition. Betancourt reported that the work, which was used as a text at the Academy of fine arts, had not undergone any alteration.

In 1793 he/she travelled to England, where he/she remained until 1796, commissioned by the Spanish Government. He/She toured factories, manufacturing and public works, taking specific note of how many machines and Mills could interest you. During this period he/she completed projects and studies on excavators, dredgers and transmissions for windmills and began its work of optical telegraphy. In 1795 obtained, in tender, an award organized by the Society for the Encouregement of Arts Manufactures and Commerce for a machine for cutting grass in rivers and canals. He/She won also two awards, given by the Royal Society of Agriculture in London, who appointed him member of merit. He/She also studied the application of the steam engine to the sugar mills and acquired a large number of scientific instruments, with a view to the frustrated expedition to Cuba organized by Joaquín de Santa Cruz y Cárdenas, conde de Mopox, which had been invited to participate, along with José María de Lanz.

Ahead in the field of telegraphy, it has been argued that Betancourt built an electric telegraph from Madrid to Aranjuez to transmit signals through electric shock of a bottle of Leyden. This episode remains undocumented, and only known about the same indirect testimonies. However, his work on optical telegraphy are well known. He/She should begin such work in London, to continue them afterwards in Paris in collaboration with Abraham Louis-Bréguet, who had been the author of the construction of the optical Telegraph of Claude Chappe. At the end of 1796, Betancourt and Breguet presented to the Executive Board of the Republic of France memory and the planes of the ingenuity that had been built. The Telegraph Betancourt-Breguet prompted a bitter polemic with Chappe, who accused the perpetrators of plagiarism by pointing out that it was nothing more than a misguided variant and no practical value of his. Finally, the Academy of Sciences issued a report, drafted by Jean-Baptiste Joseph Delambre, stressing the merits and advantages of the Telegraph invented by Breguet and Betancourt and indicating that this "differs essentially from all other machines of this type that we know". Nevertheless, and despite the advantages of the new optical Telegraph, this failed to impose themselves on the Chappe.

In 1798, Betancourt returned to Madrid. The Spanish Government had decided in Spain to install optical telegraphy; in fact, a line linking Madrid with Cadiz, which dealt with the own Betancourt was built between that year and 1800. Upon the creation in 1799 the General inspection of roads and canals as a technical body of leadership on public works, technicians integrated in it were optional "herself", and the first appointed Commissioner was Agustín de Betancourt. The coaching staff also entered three engineers cosmographers: José Chaix, José Agustín de Larramendi and Francisco Javier van Baumberghen. In 1801, Betancourt was appointed Inspector General of roads and canals, and year and a half later wrote a story of the State of the roads and channels in Spain. Because of its arrears and defects, and means of remedy them onwards. To 1802 machines Cabinet, joined the inspection, and this year were founded the studies of the inspection General of roads which, in 1803, by decision of Betancourt, passed to be called School of roads and canals. Betancourt took over the management of the school from 1802 until 1807, and drafted its curriculum. The school had among his teachers, in addition to Betancourt, José María de Lanz, Juan de Peñalver and José Chaix, who translated and edited (in 1803) descriptive geometry, Gaspard Monge and the Treaty of elementary mechanics, of Louis B. f. Francoeur. The school was closed in 1808, upon the outbreak of the war of independence.

In 1808 he/she moved to Russia, where he/she worked in the service of the Tsar and joined the army with the rank of major general; He/She was appointed to the Department of communication routes. The following year he/she was promoted to lieutenant general and was appointed head of the newly created Institute of the body of engineers way of communication, a Polytechnic similar in concept to which he/she had founded in Madrid. Betancourt set the bases of operation of the new Institute, taking advantage of the experience acquired in the school of Madrid and University of Paris. In addition to his work in the Department of roads of communication and as organizer and director of the Institute, he/she worked these years in the modernization of the Tula arms factory and a dredge project shovel the port of Kronstadt. Betancourt had occupied already, in England and in Spain, in projects of dredgers, but of them the most important and famous was rosario for the port of Kronstadt dredger. The Kronstadt dredger, which came into operation in 1812, was the first steam engine installed on river boats in Russia.

Between 1810 and 1812, the Canarian engineer designed several bridges, notably the first permanent bridge of arch built in Russia: the Kamennoostrovski, on the Málaia Nevka. In 1816 he/she was commissioned to design a paper currency mill and three years later was appointed general director of the Department's way of communication of the Russian Empire, in quality which was dedicated to improve the canals and the river navigation, and to promote the construction of roads and bridges. He/She was also responsible for organizing the Committee's structures and hydraulic works to urbanize Petersburgo, and projected the permanent pavilions for trade fairs of Nizhni Novgorod and access to the same routes. The most important work of Betancourt in Russia was the fair's Macarief, built at the confluence of the rivers Volga and Oca, comprising thousands of buildings.

From 1822, and until his death, due to a series of intrigues and rivalries, his career in Russia was declining. Posthumous work of Betancourt in this country must include the journal of routes of communication, appeared in 1825 as the idea and program conceived by him of a "scientific literary journal of the Russian Empire on roads. Published by the Directorate-General".

Agustín de Betancourt was married to Ana Jourdain, of English nationality, with whom he/she had four children. He/She was Knight of the order of Santiago and the San Alejandro, and member of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris. Died July 14, 1824 in Petersburgo, at the age of 66.

Scientific work

In his Mémoire sur une machine vapeur to double effet, Betancourt designed a counterblow machine model and, based on this work, the Périer brothers built the first machine of its kind in France.

Another product of their research on the mechanical steam power was his Mémoire sur the force man of the vapeur de l'eau, which showed that the steam has the same temperature as the water of which is, that the air pressure and the vapor pressure influence in the same way the water temperature, and the ratio between the pressure and the temperature is a constantregardless of the capacity of the container where the steam is made. In addition, using the interpolation of Prony method, determined the efficiency of the machine at different times of the year, as well as in different weather conditions and temperatures. The own Prony said other two applications of the work of Betancourt: the possibility of measuring the height of a mountain by the temperature of boiling water and a system of graduate thermometers.

The most important and widespread Betancourt's written work is the Essai sur the composition des machines (1808), made in collaboration with his colleague José María Lanz. The Essai was drafted by Lanz and Betancourt in the period which elapses between 1802 and 1807, from theoretical principles and the pedagogical ideas of Monge about the distinction between the engine, the transmission mechanisms and their movements, and the classification of transmission mechanisms according to the kind of transformations of the movements that produce. In 1806, Jean-Nicolas Hachette, disciple of Gaspar Monge, began a course of mechanical components in the École Polytechnique, and in 1807 also developed a program and a few tables to classify the "basic machines", and to have knowledge of the work of Lanz and Betancourt, Monge and Hachette proposed Essai together with the program of Hachette publishing. This work was the first manual machines and mechanisms in the history of the European engineering, and served during half century textbook in many colleges and Sourcebook for designers.




Mémoire sur l'eau vapeur man force. (Paris: Laurent, 1790). Essai sur the composition des machines ([in collaboration with Lanz, published together with the Programme du cours élémentaire des machines pour l'an l808, Hachette] Paris: Imprimerie Impérial, 1808).


CIORANESCU, Alejandro: Agustín de Betancourt. His technical and scientific work. (The lagoon: Instituto de Estudios Canarios, 1965).RUMEU DE ARMAS, Antonio: Science and technology in Spain shown. The school of roads and canals. (Madrid: Turner, 1980).PAYEN, Jacques: Betancourt et l'introduction in France of the machine à vapeur to double effet. Revue d' Histoire des Sciences, no. 20 (1967).Garcia-Diego, José A.: Footprint of Agustín de Betancourt in the Breguet files. Anuario de Estudios Atlantic, no. 21 (1975).--farewell to Betancourt, Ibid. 24 (1978).BOGOLJUBOV, Aleksei: A Spanish hero of progress: Agustín de Betancourt. (Madrid: seminars and editions, 1973).