Helice Sauvage Print E-mail
Monday, 24 January 2005

In Boulogne-sur-Mer, there’s a statute of a man, with its back to the port, holding a small boat. The simple inscription says ‘Frederic Sauvage 1786 - 1857’. That lack of information made me curious, for not far away General San Martin rides above a plinth telling of his military exploits in South America and other Boulogne statues recount the exploits of those depicted. So who was Sauvage and what did he do to deserve to be perpetuated in bronze?

The clue was the model boat in his hands, so I quizzed some fishermen who said, “Sauvage? He was the first to put a propeller on a boat.”

That surprised me because I’d always thought that was an English invention. I wanted to find out more so I poured over old documents and this is what I found.

Pierre Louis Frederic Sauvage was born in Boulogne, son of one of the port’s most able boatbuilders. He left school and joined his father in 1801, when every yard was pressed into building Napoleon’s fleet. His ability to read, write and calculate soon resulted in a transfer to Navy Offices, but once Napoleon gave up his invasion plans he returned to building fishing boats.

Eventually, Sauvage gave up boatbuilding and bought a marble factory. Windmills were the source of power and, in strong winds, their output became too great and machines overran. Within 24 hours of taking over, Sauvage had solved this problem and worked out how to make a horizontal mill. The factory thrived, but Sauvage’s real love was boats and when he read of government plans to build another fleet of paddle-wheelers he was incensed and told any-one who would listen. “They look like donkeys loaded with religious relics.”


That night, musing about an alternative, he saw the movement of his goldfish’s tail and remembered working a small boat by sculling an oar off the stern. Soon he had traced a propeller, covering the path of the blade.

To test his theory, Sauvage built a model boat 10.1/2 long by 4.1/4 ins wide with a 2.1/2 ins draught (271 X 108 X 63 mm). It had pulleys on its mast, on which an 0.7oz (19g) weight descended, turning a propeller or paddlewheels. On January 15 1832, at a public trial for engineers, paddle-wheels drove the model 7ft 9in (2.36m) in one minute; when the propeller was fitted the boat traveled an incredible 23ft 9in (7.24m) in the same time. The audience was amazed.

Sauvage sold his factory to finance his work and soon had another model with contra rotating propellers to aid maneuvering.

He filed a French patent and in England, where foreigners couldn’t hold patents, he obtained a caveat.

Before long word reached Paris and Admiral de Rigny told Sauvage to build a 15-foot (4.6m) vessel. It tested well but the approval committee seemed somewhat disinterested, perhaps because the taciturn Sauvage didn’t make much attempt to explain his design. Eventually, the Navy sent more observers and, this time, Sauvage did make an effort to discuss his work. This new committee was most impressed and it looked as though they would recommend that the Government change over to propellers, until someone asked why they weren’t at the front of the boat. Sauvage – never noted for tact – snapped, “For the same reason fish don’t have tails on their heads.” and the offended officials departed.

Undeterred he continued his development work, buying a larger boat and fitting a hand capstan to rotate the propeller. Amazed onlookers saw it speed down the Canal de la Villette, passing fit young men in their skiffs, and several pleasure boat owners asked Sauvage to fit his device to their boats. Still hoping for a Navy contract, he refused, until shaken by an official letter that said ‘We do not believe your propeller would be of practical use for large vessels.’

Sauvage then decided to exploit his invention, for news of it had spread through France and, as well as the Parisien plaisanciers, he had enquiries for fishing boat installations from Bordeaux. A capitalist group offered 200,000 francs for the French rights but, just as the contract was ready to sign, Sauvage had a visit from a court official who told him he had to have government authority to sell his idea.

This authority was not given and Sauvage took his boat and dwindling funds to Le Havre where a Niort constructor ordered propellers for five ships building at Rouen. As soon as the first were ready the constructor took them, and by the time Sauvage got to Rouen with the rest of the order, they were fitted at the front of the boat and driven by 4.3m shafts with several power-consuming joints. Horrified, Sauvage tried to delay trials, but the ship put to sea in foul weather. With only 1hp carrying seven people and 4,000 kilos of cargo, it punched into wind and tide for an hour covering, in spite of the poor installation, nearly 11 kms.

Soon after his two sons came up from Boulogne to help him and they bought a dismasted fishing boat and fitted it with propellers and capstan. Unable to afford steam, Sauvage invented a rotating step for the capstan and, under foot power alone, the old boat traveled at a speed which rivaled many steamships. The river transporters enthused, but only one placed an order.

In 1833 Sauvage approached the British government to renew his caveat. It said it would approve renewal, waive unpaid caveat fees and give Sauvage a large sum, in exchange for exclusive use of the device. Patriotically, he refused this offer, stating he would never deprive his country of the benefits of a French invention. His caveat was cancelled forthwith.

Six months later, a well-dressed Englishman came to the Abbeville yard where Sauvage was now working. Believing that he was a very serious potential customer, Sauvage showed him drawings and working models and answered questions for four hours. Next day he took the man on the river and replied to more questions.

Sauvage never heard from him again but three months later an English engineer, Andrew Smith, filed a patent propeller. Dimensionally, it was identical to the one Sauvage had shown to his Abbeville visitor, except for an effective angle of 50 degrees instead of 45 degrees.

When Smith tried to obtain a French patent it was refused as being a copy of Sauvage’s work.

Smith’s application also woke up French government officials and the navigation director for the Haute-Seine contacted Sauvage with a view to fitting propellers on tugs. Again a 15-foot test boat was made, then boats of 35ft and 60 ft were tested, all at Sauvage’s expense. As usual everyone eulogised and again Sauvage waited and hoped. It was a vain hope for, six weeks later the admiral again decided against propellers – apparently, the paddle wheel lobby was very powerful.

Sauvage continued his work, fitting propellers to several ships, including the Le Havre ferry Honfleur, but still the Government didn’t take up his invention. Then, in April 1840, the newly-built English 200-ton steamer Archimedes, fitted with propellers by Francis Pettit Smith, left Dover in company with Britannia, long regarded as a fast ship. Archimedes reached Calais 21 minutes ahead of Britannia and the Boulogne newspaper said, “There! They proved what our citizen Frederic Sauvage told us eight years ago.”

The publicity forced the French Government to recognize the revolutionary effect of the propeller and they sent Labrousse to England to examine Smith’s work. His subsequent report barely stopped short of accusing Smith of stealing Sauvage’s work and produced a new fact: Smith had once lived in Boulogne! Labrousse ended by saying “I hope that, when the true facts become generally known, the propeller will be known worldwide as ‘Helice Sauvage’.”

Marian Martin

Last Updated ( Monday, 24 January 2005 )
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