On the 11th of Fructidor, year 8 of the Revolution, Noël came before the Academy of Science and demanded a hearing for a unique invention–the secret of shaving oneself without a razor. Money was involved, big money for anyone who could come up with an invention that would be useful and help revive the economy. To achieve this end, Napoleon Bonaparte had put himself in charge of the Academy of Science, and he had decided to use its services to vet new inventions and improvements in agriculture (to say nothing of improvements in gunpowder and devices to store provisions for troops, such as tin cans). He sat at the head table, which on alternate meeting days held the cadavers cut open by the medical men, and deferred the young artist’s petition to two new Academy members, Lassus and Deyeux.
Rather than divulge his secret recipe in an open meeting, Noël made the men come out to the little shop on the Rue du Foin where he sold his paintings. On the 11th of Fructidor, the men issued their report. Napoleon didn’t show up for that meeting, but Delambre and Messier and Monge and Jussieu and Lamarck responded to the recording Secretary’s roll call.
And what did Lassus and Deyeux report? That the invention amounted to nothing more than common household ingredients, available to anyone. They concluded that the caustic, the main ingredient, would harm men’s skin and that they could not condone the use of such a cream and would write a letter to the Minister of the Police saying so.
I had guessed that Noël had been arrested and that his desperation came from a policeman standing just outside the Academy’s door. That year, 1800, Noël exhibited paintings in the big, yearly art show–what had once been called the Royal Salon. Previously, the Salon had been held on the King’s birthday, but since the King had been beheaded, that was no longer appropriate. Noël had a lot of paintings in the 1800 Salon. Clearly, he hoped to have an impact. Lots of paintings meant he needed paint and canvas. Whether arrested or not, he must have extended himself to put his work out where buyers could judge his talent.
I still wasn’t sure about Noël’s character. Because he’d presented an idea so preposterous, I thought there might be a bit of the charlatan about him, so I went to the Police Archives in the 5th Arrondissement, and once again, I found myself signing in to an Archive, being given a place to sit and instantly being handed ancient volumes to examine. I spent three hours at a square table in a utilitarian room that looked like any modern office space, but with enough old books and files to fill times its square footage. As I thumbed through the handwritten, chronological entries–“watch for the night had nothing to report;” “man 47 and boy 15 apprehended on the Champs Elysees,” “woman reports urine thrown on her from above”–I thought, this is the place to get a sense of what it was like to live in Paris with its watch thieves, public women, abandoned children, and dead babies. If I had found a record in that logbook, a red-faced man in a blue lab coat, huffing up from his basement with an armload of ancient documents, would have put it down in front of me. Instead, I found nothing even remotely suggesting that Noël had tried out his invention on anyone but himself, though there was, at the time, a barber by the name of Noël (a newcomer from Lille) living a few doors down.
And why did he go to the Academy of Sciences with his idea? Why did he dare? Well, desperate for money, I suppose. But, also, he must have seen how Chappe’s mind worked…on fifty ideas at once, a scatter-shot approach based on hypothesis and observation, not necessarily on coming up with the right idea the first time. Noël might even had thought someone would remember him as the artist who went on Chappe’s journey to Baja. Lavoisier might have remembered him, had he not gone to the guillotine in 1794, but Napoleon had packed the Academy with practical men.
Frustrated by meeting a dead end, I sought advice. A sharp-eyed archivist noticed that the article from the Academy’s published proceedings said they’d sent a letter to the “Ministre de Police.” This crowded room with its dusty volumes and researcher camaraderie was the PREFECTURE of Police, he told me. If I wanted the Ministry of Police, I must return to the Archives Nationales and look through the index for F7. Then he stretched his arms. “It is boxes and boxes,” he said. “You may never find it.”
I won’t tell you I gave up, because I know the document is there. Somewhere. It’s silly of me to want to see the original because it must say exactly the same thing the Academy’s report says, that a young artist tried to pass off lye as a beard remover, and the Ministry should not give his idea any credence.