Charles Marie de la Condamine studied mathematics at the Jesuit
College of Louis-le-Grand in Paris. On leaving the College he
joined the French army when war broke out. Although he was recognised
for his bravery, he soon decided that army life did not suit him.
In 1730 la Condamine joined the Académie Royale des Sciences
and sailed to Algiers, Alexandria, Palestine, Cyprus and Constantinople
where he spent five months. On his return to Paris he published
mathematical and physical observations of his voyage.
In 1735 he joined an expedition Peru to measure the length of
a degree of meridian at the equator. The expedition was led by
Louis Godin and the third scientist was Bouguer. The three arrived
by different routes, La Condamine going overland from Manta, the
other two sailing to Quito where they joined up.
Soon after his arrival in Quito, in 1736, la Condamine sent a
package of rubber to the Académie with a long memoir describing
many aspects of its origins and production. These included the
words "Hévé" as the name of the tree from
which the milk or "latex" flowed and the name given
to the material by the Maninas Indians :"cahuchu" or
"caoutchouc". He later described the smoking procedure
by which the natives made the rubber stable and the wide range
of goods which were produced, including the following: "They
(the natives on the banks of the Amazon) make bottles of it in
the shape of a pear, to the neck of which they attach a fluted
piece of wood. By pressing them, the liquid they contain is made
to flow out through the flutes and, by this means, they become
real syringes." From this the Portuguese called the tree
"pao de Xiringa" (syringe wood) and the rubber tappers
or harvesters "Seringueiros". The tree which la Condamine
called “Hévé” was "Castilloa elastica",
but he did not realise that the one he described a decade later,
the "pao de Xiringa" or Seringa tree, was different,
"Latex", the word used by la Condamine to describe the
juice of the tree, was derived from the Spanish word for milk
and remains in use to this day. the perceived source of the material,
soon became shortened.
Godin, Bouguer and la Condamine were soon involved in arguments
which resulted in them all making (different) independent measurements.
The work was completed in 1743 and the three began their returns
by different routes.
La Condamine’s began with a four month journey down the
Amazon river. His was the first scientific account of the Amazon
which he published as Journal du voyage fait par ordre du roi
a l'équateur (1751). Before returning to France, la Condamine
met Fresneau who was a trained engineer
and amateur botanist. Fresneau became
infected with la Condamine's enthusiasm for rubber and was the
first western person to consider it as a potential industrial
By February 1745 La Condamine was back in Paris after his ten
year journey. He returned with many notes, 200 natural history
specimens and works of art. Fresneau
remained in Guiana, detailing all aspects of rubber production,
treatment and usage and forwarding his reports to his friend for
publication. In 1751 la Condamine presented a paper by
Fresneau to the Académie (eventually published in 1755) which
described many of the latter’s findings and this can truly be
called the first scientific paper on rubber.
One of Fresneau's drawings from the 1751
paper, showing the hevea tree, seeds and tapping cuts
is illustrated here. (click on the picture for a larger
La Condamine was a close friend of Maupertuis for many years.
He spent much effort in the last part of his life campaigning
for inoculation against smallpox. His passion on this topic was
partly due to the fact that he had suffered from smallpox as a