Blaise Pascal’s Omnibus: The First Mass Transport System in Paris

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Blaise Pascal’s Omnibus: The First Mass Transport System in Paris
Before the 19th century, getting around Paris was a dirty and messy business. Picture the scene in the 1660s: many streets were unpaved, hardly any had sidewalks. Two centuries before Haussmann opened up the city with his wide boulevards, even the principal thoroughfares were narrow and congested. In the summer the roads threw up clouds of dust; in winter they were muddy quagmires. Add to that the piles of garbage from businesses and private dwellings, primitive drainage and the excrement from hundreds of horses and stray animals and — well — you can imagine what the streets were like. Not a place where you would want to walk if you could avoid it. The problem was, the vast majority of people had no choice but to walk. If you were very rich you would have a carriage. Other carriages, known as fiacres, were available for private hire or “coach-sharing” but were expensive. If you wanted to get from A to B quickly you could use a sedan chair – a single-person covered box that was carried in front and behind by manservants. But even these were mainly the preserve of wealthy people. Everyone else walked. Women wore pattens – platform-soled wooden mules that fitted over their normal shoes and lifted their feet and skirts slightly above the ground in an attempt to keep them clean. Le Fiacre, Luna, Charles de (Chalon-sur-Saône, 1812), peintre. 1845. Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris In a city of half a million people, what Parisians needed was a system of getting around that was affordable and clean. In the 1660s the inventor, mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal designed just that: the world’s first public transportation system. Pascal already had a bit of a reputation as an innovator. In 1642, inspired by his father’s work as a supervisor of taxes, he invented his Arithmetic Machine. This was a mechanical calculator that added, subtracted, multiplied and divided numbers to help people employed in making laborious calculations. Although Louis XIV granted Pascal a royal privilege (an early form of patent), Pascal failed to capitalize on his advantage and the Arithmetic Machine was not a commercial success. A marble sculpture of Blaise Pascal by Augustin Pajou (1785), musée du Louvre. Wikimedia commons/ public domain The public transport scheme was a completely different proposition. It was underwritten by the Duc de Roannez — sword-carrier at Louis XIV’s coronation and already a friend and business partner of Pascal: together they had been involved in a marsh-draining scheme in Poitou. A third partner in this enterprise had been the Marquis de Crenan and he came on board again. The Duc de Roannez held half the shares, with Pascal, Crenan and a fourth partner, the Marquis de Sourches, sharing the remaining 50 percent. This hugely spread the financial risk as far as Pascal was concerned. From the start, the group had two clear ideas about the new scheme: as far as was practicable it would transpose to an urban setting the already-established network of coaches that crossed the French countryside, and it would be aimed at the upper middle class. The first tactic had the advantage of promoting a service that Parisians could already visualize and therefore not be scared off by its innovation. The second ensured that a profitable fare could be charged.
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Lead photo credit : The Paris network map of the carrosses à cinq sols by Jouvin de Rochefort from 1672 description of the première route: Les Ancêtres de l'Omnibus (Le Petit Journal. Supplément illustré), 6 October 1912

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Pat Hallam fell in love with Paris when she was an adolescent. After many years of visiting, in 2020 she finally moved from the UK to live here and pursue her passion for the city. A freelance writer and history lover, she can spend hours walking the streets of this wonderful city finding hidden courtyards, bizarre and unusual landmarks and uncovering the centuries of history that exist on every street corner (well, almost). You can find the results of her explorations on Instagram @littleparismoments.

Comments

  • Marilyn Brouwer
    2022-10-06 01:32:11
    Marilyn Brouwer
    Fascinating article Pat! Something I knew nothing about. Thank you

    REPLY

    • Pat Hallam
      2022-10-07 07:12:06
      Pat Hallam
      Thanks Marilyn. Glad you liked it. It's a snippet of Paris history that's not well known.

      REPLY