An Open Innovation Grand Challenge in Louis XIV’s Grand Siecle
On a quiet Boxing Day morning (young ones fully occupied with new electronic goods, teenagers still unwakeable) I stumble on the surprising 17th century story of the making of Versailles fountains, in Erik Orsenna‘s wandering biography of André Le Nôtre. Versailles’ surroundings have no natural water reserves, whether lake or river, posing a major challenge to the running of the many fountains that Le Nôtre, the King’s Gardener in Chief, has planned for Versailles.
In traditional fashion, all known experts are invited to leverage their expertise to meet the challenge. Pierre Paul de Riquet, known for having sunk a personal fortune in the building of Canal du Midi that crosses the South-West of France to link the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, offers a canal-type solution: to divert the course of the River Loire, more than 100km away), to make it flow through Versailles. Someone, a Finance minister perhaps, has the good sense of killing the project. Vauban, genius of civil engineering, offers, not surprisingly, a civil engineering solution: to pump the waters of the River Eure, ‘only’ 50km away, and bring them to Versailles via the biggest aquaduc ever built. Such is Vauban’s track record and reputation, that the project starts straight away. 30 000 soldiers are mustered to speed up the construction, but another of Louis’ wars eventually returns them to soldiering, and the project is abandonned. The most logical place to get water from would be the River Seine, less than 10km away, but its valley is separated from Versailles by massive hill, more than 100m high.
Then something unexpected happens: since known experts have failed, the decision is made to reach out to what Chesbrough would call today the “unobvious others”. The king orders criers in all cities of the kingdom to announce that anyone with hydraulic experience is invited to make themselves and their inventions known to Industry minister Colbert. This is an Open Innovation Grand Challenge more than 300 years before the concept was (re)invented. From the outskirts of the Realm comes a engineer named Arnold de Ville. In association with a carpenter from Liege named Rennequin Sualem, de Ville has experience in building hydraulic pumps for coal mines and has already built large hydraulic pumps to bring water uphill in a few palaces including Prince of Condé’s Saint-Maur castle. De Ville and Sualem are selected and invited to build a large-scale prototype to bring water from the River Seine to the Saint-Germain castle right above it. The prototype works and the engineer and the carpenter are then commissioned to create the largest piece of hydraulic machinery ever. The Marly Machine will eventually be built pumping water from the River Seine at the village of Marly, bringing it over the Bougival hill in a deafening noise, and making water flow in the fountains of Versailles.