Remember “The Most Interesting Man In The World” (otherwise known as the single greatest act of advertising in recent memory)? He could go anywhere, do anything, and be anything he wanted to be. Yes, the Dos Equis guy was a fictional character created to sell beer. But the subject of this article was indeed a renaissance man, a jack of all trades (a master of them too), and the most interesting man in the world.
We give you Pierre Beaumarchais.
Beaumarchais: Son of a Watchmaker
Born in January of 1732, Beaumarchais grew up in the home of a watchmaker, and this occupation started his journey towards becoming the premier renaissance man of the 18th century. His childhood was middle class, idyllic and comfortable, and he took to playing many differing musical instruments. His music was a prominent part of his life. He even taught music lessons to the royal family.
But believe it or not, a stolen idea, not his many musical skills, catapulted him to national fame.
While apprenticing for his watchmaker father, Pierre invented a new and improved version of an escapement (we didn’t know what that was either); an escapement is the device in a mechanical watch that transfers energy to the timekeeping element and allows the number of oscillations to be counted.
Here is the layman’s version that we could understand: it’s the thing that makes the ticking sound.
Clocks in the 18th century were notoriously unreliable with the time—Pierre, who must have been tired of pupils being late to lessons because of faulty watches, invented a new escapement that made watches both smaller and more accurate.
From Victim to Victor
Beaumarchais just so happened to make the acquaintance of the king’s own clockmaker, Jean Andre Lepaute, and Lepaute immediately took an interest in young Pierre and encouraged him to perfect his invention.
ou can probably see where this is going—the king’s clockmaker stole Beaumarchais’ idea. Naturally Beaumarchais was furious, and he wrote a letter to the Royal Academy relating the story:
“In the interests of truth and my reputation, I cannot let such an infidelity go by in silence and must claim as mine the invention of this device,” he wrote. The Academy eventually ruled in his favor.
Remember that Beaumarchais came from a middle class family; Lepaute, the scandalous watchmaker, was an important figure in the king’s court. As you can imagine, the public loved the narrative of a middle class man upheaving the established upper class, and Beaumarchais was propelled to instant celebrity status. King Louis the XV even hired him as the court’s new watchmaker.If you’ve already listened to Episode 1: “The Backstabber of Seville,” you may have spotted the irony: Beaumarchais, while still young, endured watching his work (the escapement) be stolen and used by someone else. Later in his life, his Figaro plays would be set, if not appropriated, by Mozart and Paisiello. Paisiello was then undercut by Rossini’s setting. Rossini’s opera has remained the most popular, but who knows—maybe someday, John Corigliano’s Figaro setting will undercut Rossini.