François Arago was a French mathematician, physicist, astronomer, and ardent republican who grew up during the French Revolution. In 1806, at the age of 20, he set out to measure the arc of the Earth’s meridian, or north-south axis, through France. Another goal of his expedition was to determine, by natural law, the exact length of a meter.
Arago succeeded in these as well as a lifetime of scientific endeavors, after an eventful return to Paris: While measuring the meridian on the Spanish border, he was suspected of spying for Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. He managed a heroic escape in a Catalan fishing boat that took him to Algiers in Northern Africa. There, he was captured by Corsairs and held for three months. Upon gaining his freedom, he set sail for Marseilles, but a tempestuous northerly wind blew him back to Africa. He finally made it to Marseilles on 21 June 1809, but was forced to endure a lengthy quarantine before embarking for Paris.
Arago’s adventure and achievements are remembered in a 1994 public art installation by Dutch artist, Jan Dibbets. With Hommage à Arago, Dibbets set 135 bronze medallions bearing Arago’s name along the Paris meridian for a distance of 9.2 kms (5.7 miles).
You can still find many of them in Paris today.
Make a day (or a few) hunting for Arago Medallions. Just follow the North-South meridian in the 1st, 2nd, 6th, 9th, 14th and 18th arrondisements.
From Time Traveler Paris Tours: Beware Madame La Guillotine! Coming Soon!
Portrait of Francois Arago, engraving by Alexandre Vincent Sixdenier (1795-1846) from a painting by Henry Scheffer (1798-1862), c. 1846. Source: The Warner Library (1917) and the Edgar Fahs Smith collection, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Arago Medallion located near the Louvre pyramid, 2005, by Poulpy, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.