Born on 13 April 1846 at Skærsø manor to Lauritz Ulrik la Cour (no. 52) and Ellen Kirstine la Cour, Poul was named after his mother’s brother, Poul Poulsen of Rolsøgård manor. The year after Poul’s birth, his father bought Jægergården, where the family lived from 1848 to 1852, so Poul’s first lessons were with a Miss Kruse in Aarhus. In 1853 he was enrolled in his uncle Peter’s boarding school at Margrethelund and remained there until he was transferred to the Randers grammar school* at the age of 12. At the time, he wanted to be a pastor, but it was not long before mathematics and physics completely captured his interest. He himself told the story of how, as a 15-year-old, he explained the Ptolemaic model at a year-end oral examination so beautifully that the teacher remained silent from the time he started until he ended with, “And that was what was to be proved.” In contrast, his language skills were sparse, and at his upper secondary school-leaving exams, he received less than perfect marks in French and Greek, leaving the headmaster to express his regret on graduation day that such a gifted student had received only a second-class degree.
Even in secondary school, Poul had a yearning to invent things, but thus far he had only applied himself to problems such as angle trisection and perpetual motion, problems he didn’t realise were unsolvable. After graduating from upper secondary school in 1864, he went to Copenhagen to study at the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University; he also took the polytechnic entrance exam in 1865. However, it was meterology he was particularly interested in: a little story told by author Morten Pontoppidan, who visited Skærsø manor in the summer of 1865, illustrates the eagerness that even back then animated Poul when he did something. “At the time,” wrote Pontoppidan, “it was meteorology that interested him greatly, a science that had previously been uncultivated here in Denmark. And the farm’s cattleman had orders to awaken young Poul every morning at three in the morning so that he could get up and make his rounds of the fields and woods and read the thermometers he had placed in different locations, as far as I remember, in order to compare field and forest temperatures. After recording all his observations, Poul la Cour went back to bed again.” Possibly this was the beginning of his study of the influence of forests on the climate, the subject of his first scientific treatise some years later.
From 1865 to 1868, Poul studied engineering and earned his second degree at university. In the winter of 1868-69, he taught at his brother Jørgen’s agricultural college in Lyngby (Landboskolen) while finishing his studies: he took his final exams in April 1869 for a master’s degree in physics with a major in meteorology. After graduating, Poul served in the army in 1869-70 and was promoted to corporal. In the winter of 1870-71, he went back to teaching at Landboskolen. In 1870 he took on a study trip to Utrecht in the Netherlands, where the founder of modern meteorology, Buijs Ballot, was working, and to Edinburgh, Scotland, and Christiania (now Oslo) in Norway. The following winter, Poul debuted with his first invention: a method to measure the altitude of clouds, for which he received the silver medal of the Royal Danish Academy of Science and Letters in 1872 because “his small treatise contains more information on these matters [cloud altitude] in the country than everything previously collected.” In the meantime, Poul had taken his second trip abroad, this time by sea: he wanted to learn what sailors knew about weather. By way of Swansea in Wales, he went to Messina in Sicily, Italy, where he was met by the news he was being offered the position of deputy head of the newly established meteorological institute in Copenhagen. After journeying home by way of Trieste, Vienna, Berlin and Hamburg, he started at his new position on 1 April 1872.
Poul’s first marriage was to Hulda Christina Birkedal Barfod la Cour (née Nielsen Birkedal Barfod) on 4 April 1873. Born on 28 June 1850 in Copenhagen, Hulda was adopted on 27 July 1851. She was a servant in the household of Pastor Rørdam in Ondløse in 1866 and spent the summer of 1867 at the Askov folk high school*. In 1869-70, she stayed with her oldest brother-in-law and sister at the Landboskolen agricultural college and in 1870-71 with her cousin, Ludvig Thomsen, who leased the Edelgave farm. Hulda’s importance in Poul la Cour’s growth and development as a Christian and a human can hardly be overestimated. Before they met, his interests had not spanned too widely, but she opened his eyes to spiritual life. At her funeral, Poul said, “If I were to express one thing that was her fundamental view, the thing that permeated her entire being, then it is the truth that love is the greatest superpower in the world.” Indeed, it was from her that Poul Cour originally got the sayingthat has since been known and loved as his motto: “Now try it using the strong arm of love.” Hulda died on 5 December 1878.
In 1874, Poul invented the phonotelegraphic system, which made it possible to send several telegrams through the same wire at the same time, in 1875 receiving the Academy’s gold medal for this invention as well as funding from the Danish parliament, the Carlsberg Foundation and other sources so he could continue his applied science experiments. In July 1875, he travelled through Poland to the international telegraphic conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, returning afterwards through Poland and Germany. In August 1875, he invented the tone wheel and the very next month took a trip to London. In October, Poul travelled with his wife and his sister Jenny on a trip through Germany, Switzerland and southern France to southern Italy, where he remained for six months for his health, staying with a Catholic priest in Cava de’ Terreni, a town not far from Naples.
On 1 April 1877, Poul tendered his resignation as deputy director of the Meteorological Institute in order to devote himself to his scientific work. He travelled to Paris in 1878, where he sold a partial interest in his invention to an electrical engineer named Hardy. On his way back to Denmark, he stopped in Brussels to learn about the methods of water level measurement used there, on behalf of the Danish government. In 1878, he began working as a math and physics teacher at the Askov folk high school, where he worked for 30 years until his death in 1908. He received an offer to become head of the Danish Meteorological Institute in 1884, but preferred to stay in Askov.
It was at a meeting in Askov in 1878 that Poul, as was said, “dawned on the school like a sunbeam” and “found Askov to be a
blessed place, and it found him to be a wonderful human being.” A great deal was written about his work as a teacher at the Askov folk high school. Upon his death, the following was published in the Svendborg county local paper (Folkebladet for Svendborg Amt) by a person signing his name ” H.R.E.” : ” It was probably a fairly rare occurrence, what happened with a group of Askov students who, about 20 years ago, began describing and evaluating their teachers. We loved all our teachers, but each of them had one thing or another we might wish were different: one could have been a little more personally accessible, another slightly more condensed in his presentations, a third a little more punctual for his classes, and so on. But with la Cour there was not one who wanted anything to have been different about him, neither as a teacher nor otherwise in his relationship with his students.”
“His teaching activities in mathematics and physics,” said physicist Helge Holst, “greatly affected the status of these disciplines in this country, because he elevated their standing as subjects taught at folk high schools* and stirred up a lively interest in them within wide circles of the rural population. Whereas previously history had an overwhelming first- rank position as the most inspiring subject offered by folk high schools, la Cour showed that the same could be achieved by mathematics and physics, and with his equally captivating, clear and simple presentation combined with his personal enthusiasm, he made these subjects so appealing that, for many students at Askov, la Cour’s classes were the ones that brought them the richest dividends.” But it also helped that Poul, who was a scientist, could reconcile his science with a childish faith and “could, in a lecture that otherwise was of a purely professional nature, easily and naturally make the transition to talking about the deepest and most elevated things.”
And that is why pastor and author Even Marstrand was right when he wrote: “When we think back to our unforgettable teacher Poul la Cour, we think not as much of his teaching abilities, the clarity that was upon him: we remember more the warm-hearted, pure and strong faith that shone out of all his doings.” Poul’s teaching at the school went hand in hand with the lectures he held around the country. And he was an excellent speaker who knew exactly how to explain even the most difficult and least accessible scientific problems. Upon his death, a short story that might help illustrate this made the rounds in a number of publications: “There was an autumn meeting in my local area, and Poul la Cour was to speak. There was an old crofter living nearby whom we used as a day labourer, and we did not have any more work for him that day because we were all going to the meeting, so we had the idea we could offer him the opportunity to come with us. ‘It’s certainly not anything for me,’ he said, ‘but if you’ll still be paying me, then…’ So we went to the meeting. The large building was filled to bursting with people. An audience of about 3000 people had turned up, almost all of them farmers and many who had never heard a lecture before. Then Poul la Cour stepped forward. He talked about the heavens, about the celestial bodies and their relationship with each other….Our crofter sat just across from me and seemed to be preparing himself for a little nap. When la Cour ended his lecture, and I again looked around the room, my gaze fell upon the old crofter first. He was sitting right in front of me, his mouth half open and his eyes still fixed on the lectern la Cour had left. I pulled on his arm to ask him what he thought of the lecture, but he didn’t notice, he just kept staring at the lectern.
As we were walking home, he had hardly a word to say about the lecture, except it was ‘the most beautiful’ he had ever heard. We both continued in our own thoughts, but after a little while the crofter broke the silence. ‘But there is one thing that makes me sad,’ he said quietly with a sigh. ‘And that is?’ I asked, surprised. ‘That Sidsel didn’t also come to the meeting.’ Sidsel was his wife.”
Poul married his second wife, Christine Marie la Cour (née Marstrand), on 2 June 1882. Christine was born on 20 June 1851 near Svanemøllen in Copenhagen; her parents were Troels Casper Daniel Marstrand, a Copenhagen baker and steam miller, and Caroline Emilie Carlsen. She travelled in southern Europe from September to December 1865 and worked as a servant in the household of a pastor named Nansen in Taps from November 1870 to May 1871. After studying at the Askov folk high school in the summers of 1871 and 1872, she worked there as a teacher of gymnastics and needlework until 1879. She travelled in 1877 to Norway and in 1878-79 to Paris, the Pyrenees and Rome. She worked as a servant in the household of a a pastor named Hoff in Ubberup in the winter of 1880-81, and then in the household of Pastor Knudsen in Lejrskov for half a year to learn housekeeping.
In 1881 Poul made a trip to America, mainly due to his having invented the tone wheel, and in 1882 he succeeded in selling the US patent. In 1883 he invented spectrum telegraphy, which in itself was a fine invention but never had any practical application. In 1891, Poul received government funding to carry out tests with a small windmill with a view to determining the usefulness of wind power, and later that year invented the “kratostat”, a device that evened out wind power so it could be used to run machines at an constant speed. He received even more government funding in 1897, which enabled him to build a larger windmill and laboratories in Askov. However, this brought him disappointments in different ways: not as much came out of the test windmill work as many had expected, although Poul did some of his best work on this project. Still, there are experts today who believe that much good will come of this work in the future.
In the summer of 1900, Poul and an engineer named Rink invented a “method for cleaning mercury catodes under uniform conditions”, which was patented. (A limited liability company called Dansk Alkali-kompagni was founded in 1902 to make use of the invention.) Poul also chaired the electricity commission that supervised power plants in Denmark. In 1899, he was made chair of the newly founded Nordic Association in Denmark. He was a member of Den københavnske Kirkefond (“The Copenhagen Church Foundation”) and of Menighedskonventet (“The Congregational Convention”) from the inception of both. He was a board member of Kirkeligt samfund af 1898 (” Church Society of 1898″ ) and chaired the Askov voluntary conger-gation* from its start in 1899. Appointed a titular professor in 1894, he was also made a Knight of the Order of Dannebrog* in 1902.
Of his writings, the following should be mentioned (all titles translated from the Danish): The Influence of Forests on Temperature (published in prominent Danish journals for physics and chemistry), Five- Year Report from the Royal Danish Agricultural Society’s Meteorological Committee for 1866-70, Altitude of Continuous Cloud Layers (Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters discussions, 1871), Processing Tycho Brahe’s Meteorological Diary (1876), The Tone Wheel (1878), Historical Mathematics (1888), The Structure and Workings of the Living Human Body (1889), Regulating Wind Power
etc. (Danish journal for rural economics, 1892), Historical Physics (co -author Jacob Appel, 2 volumes, 1896-97), Victories of the Human Spirit (coauthor Helge Holst, 1904), The Test Mill (I-IV, 1901 -03), and Rural Power Stations (coauthor Jacob Bjerre, L1907J edition, Danish Wind Power Society). One consequence of Poul’s involvement in folk high school education is a booklet titled Tidens naturlære (“Contemporary Physics”). He also wrote a book – Trolden tøjlet, tæmmet og taget I tjeneste (” The Troll Restrained, Tamed and Put into Service”) – illustrated by Troels Trier, in which he described the transformation of energy in the style of a fairy tale, in addition to a multitude of articles and essays published in periodicals and newspapers.
Poul died on 24 April 1908 on the Askovhus farming estate in Askov. Upon receiving news of his death, author Martin Andersen Nexø wrote in the newspaper Politiken: “A person doesn’t cry for gold if he never had any. So folks over there (i.e. in Copenhagen) could easily keep on moving, but every man out here [in Jutland, in the countryside] felt compelled to stop and look back when the postman came cycling along the country roads with the message that a man had passed: a man who – perhaps more than any other – had opened farmers’ eyes to the boundlessness of the world outside and life’s infinite riches within.”
At Poul’s funeral, Pastor Axel Helveg said: “Blessed by God, warmed by the heat of God’s grace, he stood shining in our midst. How brightly the light from him shone around all of us, large and small! It is a sun among us that has been extinguished. But that which shone in him, he whom God blessed, will never be extinguished. Indeed, we cannot understand that we shall not see him again. He filled a room with his presence, not only as a scientist and as a man of education, but also as a child of God in God’s congregation.”
The strongest, most beautiful and truest description of Poul la Cour’s legacy was set out in a verse by Norwegian author and poet Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson that is written on Poul’s tombstone: “Inventor thoughts, clear, high and beautiful happy love, they met in his great eye like sunshine in a flowerbed. Among the farmers he wished to stay, and where they were summoned, he gave (and shone by giving) of his learning and his heart’s treasures.” Under his picture was written: “The cogwheels that turn in the clockwork of the world take no notice of us. Happy is he who unburdens himself to eternal powers.”
After Poul’s death, Christine lived on the Askovhus farming estate until September 1926, when she moved in with her daughter Julie (no. 74-5) for the last months of her life. She died on 12 January 1927. (Eight children: the Askov Line.)