Un great alsacian inventor : Charles-Xavier Thomas
* Translation by Serge Roube
Thomas de Colmar
Excerpts from “La vie en Alsace, 1932”
“Charles-Xavier Thomas, also known as de Colmar, was born on 5 May 1785 at number 8 Kapp Street in the quiet and peaceful town of Colmar. He was to become one of the most active and entrepreneurial men of his time.
An innovator in many diverse fields, his ground-breaking initiatives helped modernize the insurance industry and he rekindled the French genius with his superb invention that was to be the first industrial calculator: the Thomas arithmometer.
His family, originally from Burgundy, moved to Guebwiller in the Alsace region during the 30 year war, around 1634.
His father, Sir Thomas, practiced medicine in Colmar and then at the Hospice in the town of Rouffach where he died in 1831. He was a member of Rouffach's town counsel.
Supply of the armies was always assured, even in the most difficult moments, thanks to his untiring and intelligent actions displayed in all of his functional responsibilities.
It was during his lengthy stay with the armies of Marchall Soult where he needed to perform a great deal of calculations, that he conceived the idea of the arithmometer.
He refined it after his return to France. He was the first to create a system of stepped drums that was the basis for a true multiplying machine. He received a patent for this system in 1820.
We find a lengthy description of the Thomas arithmometer and ample details about its inner workings, in the annals of the “Société d’encouragement pour l’industrie nationale”. Here are some excerpts of the most important quotations from this report which was addressed to that society in December of 1821 by one of its vice presidents Mr. Francoeur a professor at the “ Faculté des Sciences”. This was inserted in the bulletin of February 1822.
“Dear Sirs, you asked Mr. Bréguet and I to examine a machine that Mr. Thomas de Colmar presented you and that he calls the arithmometer.
The first machine of this kind that we know of was invented by Pascal when he was 19 years old. it was very complex. Since then a few more models based on a similar design have appeared : One from Lépine and one from Boistissandeau which had the distinction of being approved by the “ l’Académie des Sciences “. We find another one from Diderot in an early encyclopedia. The limitation of all these machines is that they can only be used for very simple calculations. They have now all been forgotten and are regarded as not very ingenious.
The machine from Mr. Thomas de Colmar doesn't look anything like the previous ones. It gives results right away, without fumbling and wasn't designed as a copy of the others. It is certain that Mr. Thomas de Colmar did not have any prior knowledge of them when he created his own design, he did not use the work of his predecessors. However he successively used and abandoned many mechanisms that didn't perform as expected before using the one that we can see in the machine for which he seeks the support of the “Société d’Encouragement”.
Mr. Thomas de Colmar's machine is not only useful to perform all additions and subtractions, it can also be used for multiplying and dividing integer and even decimal fractions. It is really not possible to combine the parts of this instrument any better than he has done in order to overcome the predicament of the subject. And so in judging this machine, on one hand regarding the merit of the invention itself and on the other hand the way he conquered the difficulty, you won’t hesitate to give it your vote”.
A second report, delivered in November 1822 by Mr. Hoyau, ends by:
“The invention of Mr. le Chevalier Thomas de Colmar ought to be classified with the discoveries that honor their designers and glorify the era that created them.”
The “Société d’encouragement pour l’industrie nationale” supported the conclusions of its investigators without reservation and awarded its gold medal to Mr. De Colmar. Finally, in 1920, a hundred years later, based on a proposal by Mr. Malassis, who was a simple amateur in the world of calculating machines but considered one of the most competent experts in the workings of mechanical calculators, decided to formally commemorate the anniversary of this memorable day when, according to the statement in its bulletin, “The first industrial calculating machine” had been presented for its vote”.
During the party that was thrown for this event, Mr. Maurice d’Ocagne, a knowledgeable professor of “Ecole Polytechnique”, said:
“Without contest, the highest merit for having created, in 1820, the first machine of its kind for truly reliable multiplication that is both practical and of sturdy design, goes to the financier Thomas de Colmar. One can even say that his great invention is the starting point of the rapid development of calculating machines that until then had only been objects of curiosity. It is in fact to Thomas de Colmar that we owe the general use of practical calculating machines, taking them out of scientific laboratories”.
The inventor of the Thomas arithmometer had the satisfaction of seeing it used not only in most insurance companies but also by the artillery services at the ministry of defense, by the ministry of Navy, by the railroad companies and by most financial institutions, This invention brought him the most flattering votes and distinctions.
Made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor in 1821, he was promoted to the rank of Officer by imperial decree (The journal “Moniteur universel” of 15 August 1857, mentions that this nomination was bestowed on him as inventor of the arithmometer).
It would take too long to list here all the foreign orders and testimonials of admiration which he received from everywhere for his brilliant invention.
In 1852, the Prince-President of the French Republic offered him a gold box with his monogram; the same year the Duke of Nassau made him a gift of a diamond ring with his monogram and crown.
In 1854, the French Academy of Science gave its approval to the arithmometer. The following year, Mr. Le Verrier director of the Observatory wrote a letter of congratulations to CH-X. Thomas.
Ch-X Thomas was endowed with clairvoyant judgment and a powerful work ethic and his invention was far from having absorbed all his time. As he was re-entering civilian life he realized the future potential of the insurance industry, so he went to England to study how they had functioned there since 1765. He was one of the first in France to explain some of their principles and to highlight the benefits.
In 1819, he was named General Manager of the insurance company "Phoenix", a role from which he shortly resigned with the aim of founding another company where he could freely apply his own ideas and concepts of the insurance world.
It took ten years before he could realize his goal of creating a fire insurance company, "Le Soleil" which was registered on 16 December 1829; it was immediately a model of organization and with time developed some positive outcomes which we will briefly outline later.
Meanwhile, in 1823, he was named as a member of the Accounting Audit Committee in the company known as “Agence générale des placements temporaires et viagers sur les fonds Publics”.
In order to eliminate the disadvantages of the mutual fire insurance systems and to give the insured the advantages of this system as well as the advantage of the insurance companies with exclusive fixed premium, he recommended participatory insurance policies.
Since his company lacked all statistical data related to the risk to be guaranteed and it had to figure out, by trail and error, the premiums to be charged, he fixed a higher than usual premium but compensated his customers by sharing part of the profit with them.
Furthermore the bylaws of his company stipulated that half of the Board of Directors and all of the members of the Audit Committee had to be selected from the “participating insured”.
Finally, in one of the first Board of Directors' meetings of his new company, he had the Board approve the creation of insurance committees in each locality where it seemed appropriate, staffed by local stock holders and the “participating insured”.
The “participating insured” were truly collaborating in spreading the benefit of this insurance company through participating in organizing fire fighting responses with the help of local fire fighting authorities, helping make the company known and contributing to its growth.
These innovative measures were striking at a time when insurance policies were barely known or even completely ignored in some parts of France and especially if one considers the poor conditions of the properties to be insured.
The insurance industry was still in its embryonic stages in the north and east of France as well as in Alsace and in the Lyonnais. In the countryside most buildings were covered with thatch roofs.
The Fire fighting capabilities of the time were extremely precarious.
Ever since the XVIIth century there had been some fire fighting stations in a few big cities, some staffed by professionals and paid by the city, however the majority were staffed with volunteers, their equipment was notoriously insufficient.
In Paris for instance, the fire brigade created at the end of the reign of Louis the XIV, was reorganized for the first time as a part of the French army in September of 1811, following a fire at the Austrian embassy during a ball that almost killed the Emperor. It was then reinforced in 1822 but still only had 14 officers and 662 men, while today it is has 52 officers and 1803 men and their equipment is extremely powerful.
In 1822 Parisians, including the ones living in luxurious homes, were still dependent on water-carriers. As a precaution against potential night fires, they were required by a law, going back as far as the “Consulat”, to fill their water barrels every evening. As a consequence of these circumstances it wasn't rare to see entire villages destroyed by fire and their inhabitants having no other recourse to rebuild their homes than the proceeds of collections organized by the government or the clergy.
All the obstacles to providing the guarantee of risk were overcome and the company “Le Soleil” started by Ch.-X. Thomas developed rapidly throughout France.
It was once again Ch.-X. Thomas who was the first to extend the coverage from his company to fires caused by war or riots or by the explosion of powder magazines. As it was during a period just following a long period of war, the recollection of the invasion of France and the troubles of the revolution were still fresh in everybody's memory.
From the inception of his company “Le Soleil”, he also included in his policies an automatic renewal clause that protects the insured from their own negligence and permanently removed the worry and expense of renewing their policies. This has been adopted ever since by all other insurance companies.
As early as 1847, in spite of the initial uneasiness that had arisen about the fire insurance company “Le Soleil” and only twenty years after it was created, it definitively gained the stature that this powerful organization deserved, with its constant prudence and its loyalty.
In 1848, the company “Le Soleil” was ready to reap the benefit of its efforts. It was the main share holder of the company “L'aigle”, whose General Manager was the oldest son of Ch.-X. Thomas, when it concluded a reciprocal treaty of reinsurance consolidating the alliance between the two companies. At the end of 1854 it absorbed the portfolio of the companies “Le Globe”, “La Lyonnaise”, “La Palladium” and of the mutual “La Nivernaise”.
This rapid prosperity lead to the expansion of the corporate headquarters, that was temporarily located in the estate of Ch.-X. Thomas and resulted in the construction of a beautiful building located at 51, 53 and 53 bis Châteaudun street.
One should note that this building is partially located where the gardens of the house of Joséphine de Beauharnais once stood and at the end of the French Directoire where Bonaparte lived when he returned from Egypt and where the day of “18 Brumaire” was devised. The first consul had bought the property in 1799.
Ch.-X. Thomas was looking into adding life insurance coverage to the offerings of his company when he died in March 1870, he was 84 years old. He had performed the role of General Manager as an extremely intelligent leader, always willing and energetic, who until the last day held a strong and firm grip on all the parts of the organization that he had created.