Mathematician of the Week: Théodore Olivier


Théodore Olivier was born January 21, 1793, and died on August 5, 1853.  He was a student of Gaspard Monge, and indeed Monge’s influence seems apparent in Olivier’s most famous work: his models of the intersections of  three dimensional surfaces.  Olivier used strings arranged on a metal framework to model each individual surface.  As the surfaces move relative to one another, the strings allow one to study the curve where the two surfaces intersect.  (Monge had constructed static models depicting such intersections; by changing materials Olivier had a pedagogic breakthrough.)

Union College has a large collection of these models, and has created a web page devoted to their collection and its history.  One of their computer science students [now alumnus], Mike Pinch, created software to simulate the models, and give the user the opportunity to manipulate the models.  Union also has posted several .avi videos of this software in action.

4 Responses to “Mathematician of the Week: Théodore Olivier”

  1. samjshah Says:

    When I was in Paris for spring break, I went to the Musee des Arts et Metiers and saw a bunch of wonderful things, but among my absolute favorites were these string-models. I thought they were awesome! I took the most photos of them than anything else. Huzzah!
    Sam Shah

  2. Patrícia Costa Says:

    I´am curator of a museum of science in Portugal, which has in its collection 27 models, Maison Secretan, bought in 1868, similar to those of Theodore Olivier. More information –

  3. david press Says:

    Hi Sam – Check out my web site – I’m looking for photographs of Olivier’s models to include on the site. I only have non-digital photos I took at Union College in the 1970’s. Let me know if you want to share any photos – thanks – David Press

  4. Fred Rickey Says:

    The model pictured is not an Olivier model. The Olivieer models are articulated; you can move them to form different shapes. With a few exceptions all of them have weights at the ends of the strings which are hidden in wooden boxes. Olivier’s own models are at Union College, a collection is at West Point, and a few are at Harvard, as well as several collections in Europe. Cornell University has a set of Olivier models that were made by a local model maker.

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