First published: Winter 2001
François Monchâtre was born on the 5th of August, 1928, in Coulonges-sur-Autize, adjacent to the marshes of the Poitiers region, lying between the plains of Niort and the woods of the Vendée. His mother died after giving birth to him, and his sister succumbed to childhood illness a year later.
Monchâtre was raised up by an understanding father who adored him, a stepmother who treated him as her own, and a maternal grandmother with a heart of gold. From the age of six, when he began elementary school, he began constructing steam engines, threshing machines and even a glider, in the converted attic. ‘It was there that I went on my most wonderful journeys,’ he says. The glider was never tested: it would not fit through the window.
At the age of eight, Monchâtre built a transatlantic liner from crates and was so absorbed in his dream world that he would miss calls to meals – and anyway couldn’t leave the ship because it was surrounded by water. He fed his inventive mind with copious reading; Diderot’s Encyclopaedia was a particular inspiration for his many machine-making projects. Secondary school changed little, and in the holidays he returned to his creations, but school discipline did not suit the inventor, who recalls, ‘The defeat of 1939, just adults behaving stupidly, had a good side too – the school was requisitioned. So the collapse of France turned into a long holiday.’