Léonce Reynaud

Published on 18 February 2008
Léonce Reynaud (1803-1880)
Léonce Reynaud (1803-1880)
(Photo : ENPC Collection)

One needs only travel up and down the coasts of France in order to measure the scale of Léonce Reynaud’s task; the man who was in charge of the Lighthouses and Beacons Service from 1846 to 1877, well after his retirement date. He lit and defined the territory’s marine frontiers over thirty-two years, executing half of the 116 lighthouses built, nearly 200 lanterns and floating marks and the installation of some 3000 towers, turrets, buoys and seamarks. He also equipped several lighthouses with “electric light” and substituted mineral oil with rapeseed soil in certain fixtures. An innovation which was straightaway taken up by other countries.

The Héaux Lighthouse at Bréhat
The Héaux Lighthouse at Bréhat
(Photo : Plisson-Damgm)

Most of his innumerable works were of technical and aesthetic interest. One of these was his first lighthouse at Héaux, which he erected at Bréhat in 1834, or the one at New Caledonia, a tall metal shaft bulging out at the base in order to house the lighthouse-keeper. This was constructed in France, then transported and re-assembled on site in 1865, whilst its replica stood on the Champ-de-Mars, two years later.

The cylindrical tower of the Ar-Men lighthouse, out at sea off the Chaussée de Sein swept by violent currents, is witness to the difficulties encountered by the workers in 1867 who could only work there eighteen hours, lying down and chained to rocks battered by the waves. Reynaud would never see it finished.
As with other engineers of his time, his private and professional life were joined together and roles and responsibilities superimposed themselves on it for the whole of his career.

Expelled from the Polytechnique in 1822, one year after his entry, because of his liberal ideas, he nevertheless taught architecture there for thirty years, as well as at the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées (Bridges and Highways College). Of particular interest is his model gallery, which he created there and managed from 1869 to 1873. During this period, he was particularly entrusted, under the direction of Camille Onfroy de Bréville, with the construction of the Gare du Nord in Paris between 1842 and 1847. He was also alternately or simultaneously the Inspector General of Diocesan Buildings, Member of the Council of the Polytechnique, Civic Buildings, the Beaux-Arts, of the Central Rescue Committee and President of the Arbitration Commission for the repurchase of the south-western railways and those of the Atlas of marine ports.
He was an architect, engineer, organiser, administrator and a humanist and knew how to draw out people’s best qualities and stimulate their abilities.

Amongst his numerous publications on lighthouses, lighting and signalisation, his architectural treatise on the art of building, the behaviour of buildings and their properties and strengths of materials was based on the thinking of Vitruve and the Greeks. Being both doctrine and collection of examples, it has often been translated and even copied! Between 1876 and 1883, he also published five remarkable volumes, illustrated with photographs, of roads and bridges, railways, rivers and canals, seaports and lighthouses and beacons, in order to increase the prestige of the great works of the time, the virtuosity of which he believed exceeded those of the past. The whole of these volumes constituted the prestigious publication The Public Works of France. In spite of illness, he died “standing”, with “the peace of a wise man and the resignation of a believer”.

Source : 250 years of Ecole des Ponts in one hundred portraits (Presse des Ponts et Chaussées)