Resident of pottery village develops reinforced concrete
Joseph Monier (Saint-Quentin-la-Poterie, November 8, 1823 – Paris, March 12, 1906)
Anyone who loves pottery and knows the south of France a bit has certainly heard of the town of Saint-Quentin-la-Poterie, just north of Nîmes. Today it still has twelve pottery kilns, but in the middle of the nineteenth century there were sixty.
They also baked stone tobacco pipes for half of France. Joseph Monier was born in 1823 between all those ovens, the man who, curiously enough, would go down in history as the inventor of reinforced concrete.
Little is known about Monier's youth. In 1849 he owns a horticultural business in Paris. He is then 26 years old. His specialty is the production of concrete flower boxes.
This concrete, made with what was then called Portland cement, had been developed in Britain a few years earlier using a mixture of clay, slaked lime, gravel and sand. In those years, flower boxes were usually still made of wood.
Monier presented containers with its new material that were more durable and stable. But also very heavy, which slowed down the success.
In the following years, Monier experimented with new cement mixtures to make his bins a lot lighter. At first that yielded nothing. To keep the wet cement mass together, he one day put iron wire in it.
According to some sources, he made a kind of corset out of ordinary chicken wire. The two materials together showed great strength and had a much smaller weight. You needed less cement, less concrete. The cement could withstand enormous pressure and the iron wire could withstand great tensile forces.
It was also striking that the two materials showed the same coefficient of thermal expansion. A dream combination.
Monier himself was most surprised by the result. He intuitively sensed the possibilities and began to test his material in new forms like a man possessed.
His compatriot Joseph Louis Lambot presented a concrete rowing boat, also reinforced with iron wire, at the Paris World Exhibition of 1855, but Monier was not dissuaded.
On July 16, 1867, he finally received a patent on what was then literally called: 'Moveable containers and reservoirs made of iron and cement intended for horticulture.'
In the twenty years that followed, he patented eleven other uses: beams and pipes, road surfaces and bridges, slabs and stairs, even railway sleepers. Normally this would have made Monier a fortune.
Privately, however, things did not go well for him. His wife had a whole series of children, but except for one son, all of them died in infancy. When this only adult son and Monier's wife also died, the widower had to take care of his grandchildren himself.
Monier married again and had another son and, in 1890, a daughter. However, the girl was paralyzed from birth and required permanent care.
According to some sources, ongoing family tragedies hindered Monier's business talent. According to others, he saw himself primarily as an inventor and was hardly interested in money.
He sold his patents all over the world, but far below the price, so that his company had to go out of business.
In 1903 - when he was eighty - the magazine Cement en Bouw made a dramatic appeal to its readers to help the elderly man financially. Three years later he died at his home in Paris, according to his biographer: lonely, physically a wreck, and totally ruined.
Monier fell into oblivion, especially in his home town of Saint-Quentin-la-Poterie. What were those potters in the south of France supposed to do with one of their fellow townspeople who had been busy with cement and iron wire as a gardener in distant Paris?
However, in 1999, to celebrate Monier's 150th anniversary of founding his company, Saint Quentin repented. They held a big party, gave the inventor a place in the local museum and hung a plaque on his birthplace.