33 minute read
Thales S.A. Business Information, Profile, and History
173, Boulevard Haussmann
75008 Paris Cedex 08
Strategic Vision: global + dual = growth + profit
There are no firewalls between defence markets and the global economy. The global scale of the Thales Group's commercial operations, and the unique multi-domestic development model of its defence business, bring the benefits of globalisation to customers in all sectors.
Technologies with both commercial and military uses have come to play a pivotal role, both strategically and economically. The Thales Group's dual technology capability is one of its most significant competitive advantages in today's market for total security solutions.
History of Thales S.A.
Thales S.A., formerly known as Thomson-CSF, is one of the world's leading providers of advanced electronic systems and equipment for the defense and commercial aerospace and other industries. The company's operations are structured into three main divisions: Aerospace, Defense, and Information Technologies and Services (ITS). Defense is the company's largest segment, representing 58 percent of the company's sales. The company develops radar, missile, and other electronic warfare systems; avionics systems; tactical mobile and defense communication networks; integrated naval combat systems; optronics systems, including detection, guidance, and other optronics warfare systems. Many of the company's defense systems find application in the Aerospace market as well; the company's avionics systems, including flight control and navigation, as well as air traffic management, are developed for both military and civil aviation markets. The company also develops simulation and training systems. Thales's Aerospace division is the European leader and one of the top three worldwide. The company's third division, ITS, generates 24 percent of company revenues. Drawing on its expertise in the Defense and Aerospace markets, Thales develops mobile communications systems, electronic security and payment systems, and other information technology systems. Thales is also the world leader in development of sound and image broadcasting systems. Much of the company's ITS division was acquired through the 1998 acquisitions of certain components of France's Dassault and especially in the 2000 acquisition of the United Kingdom's Racal Electronics. This latter acquisition also has helped transform the company into a truly global—Thales likes the term "multi-domestic"—company, with industrial operations in more than 30 countries and more than half of its 57,000 employees located outside of France. Nonetheless, the company remains firmly wedded to Europe, which accounted for 60 percent of sales in 2000. The difficult-to-enter U.S. market generated only 10 percent of the company's sales. Yet the formation of a joint venture with Raytheon Company in 2001 promised to help build Thales's presence in North America. The company is led by Dennis Ranque and trades on the Euronext Paris stock exchange, with a secondary listing on the London stock exchange. Thales was formerly majority-owned by the French government and by former sister company Thomson Multimedia. The French government was expected to reduce its stake in Thales to below 33 percent by the end of 2001.
Electronics Pioneer at the Turn of the 20th Century
One of the jewels in France's industrial crown, Thales began its operations in 1893 as the Compagnie Française Thomson-Houston. This company was formed to export the patents and processes developed by the Thomson-Houston International Corporation, itself founded in Connecticut in the United States by Edwin Houston and Elihu Thomson in 1879. The French company initially served as a sales and marketing arm for its U.S. parent, which focused especially on the development of tramways and other types of electrical infrastructure systems.
Compagnie Française Thomson-Houston operated as a subsidiary to the Thomson-Houston International Corporation until its parent merged with Edison General Electric to form General Electric (GE) in 1903. At that time, Compagnie Française Thomson-Houston was bought out by a group of French investors, who retained the Thomson-Houston name and an agreement that gave the young French company access to GE's technology, patents, and licenses. Thomson-Houston maintained close ties with GE until after World War II, developing a licensing relationship that ended only when political tensions between France and the United States mounted in the 1950s.
Thomson-Houston began expanding in the 1920s, extending its operations beyond industrial infrastructure to include a variety of diversified applications of electrical technology, including home appliances and radio broadcasting and reception. One of the company's earliest diversification moves came in 1920 when it acquired heating and kitchen equipment manufacturer Usines du Pied-Selle. By then, another prominent French company, which was to play a prominent role in Thomson-Houston's later history, had begun business. Created in 1918, the Compagnie Générale de Télégraphie Sans Fil (CSF—literally, the "wireless telegraph company") had started in business. Alongside Thomson-Houston itself, CSF was an important force behind the development of France's own wireless, broadcasting, radio, and other electrical technologies.
Thomson-Houston joined with the Société Alsacienne de Constructions Mécaniques to form Alsthom in 1928. The company's move into radio and the beginnings of the television industry began at the end of the 1920s, when it bought up Etablissements Ducretet in 1929. In the mid-1930s, Thomson-Houston strengthened this activity with a new acquisition, that of Etablissement Kraemer, added in 1936. Increasingly, Thomson-Houston's diversification brought it into competition with GE, which was also establishing itself as one of the world's top home appliance and radio and television companies (GE had joined with AT&T and Westinghouse to form RCA in the 1920s, introducing the first television in 1939).
The years leading up to World War II were lean ones for Thomson-Houston, however, and the company lacked the funds—and a strong government industrial policy—to pursue a vigorous expansion. The outbreak of World War II put a stop altogether to Thomson-Houston's activity. The Nazi invaders maintained in operations only those parts of the company necessary for its own occupational and military needs; the rest of the company was idle. Following the war, however, Thomson was to become one of the main proponents of France's industrial and economic recovery.
French Industrial Jewel in the 1960s
Following the war, the French government turned to Thomson-Houston and others to rebuild the country's shattered infrastructure. Technological developments made during the war years, particularly the use of electrical systems and electronics in aviation and other military applications, placed Thomson-Houston at the center of the French government's desire to establish France's technological independence. Thomson-Houston soon became one of the country's leading defense systems and armaments developers, while also joining in the development of the country's nuclear power industry.
Meanwhile, the recovering economy soon gave way to a vast economic boom, starting what became known to the French as the "30 glorious years." The rising wealth of the country sparked rising consumer interest in a new wave of electrical home appliances. Thomson-Houston began developing its home appliance division as well.
By the early 1950s, Thomson's expansion placed it at the center of new political conflicts between the United States and France, while also setting it more and more in direct competition with GE. As Thomson (the company dropped the second half of its name in the 1950s) took on a growing role as part of France's military and technology effort, while also seeking to expand its role in the consumer products market, the company was forced to end its long licensing relationship with GE in 1953. The now fully independent Thomson was in a better position from which to compete in the booming markets for both consumer electrical appliances and industrial and military applications of its electrical and electronics systems technologies. An agreement with Pathé-Marconi represented a new step in Thomson's involvement in the production of televisions, as that market took off in France at the end of the 1950s.
During this time, the French government, eager to shore up its waning position in its colonial possessions, while also committed to remaining a major player as an international military and diplomatic power, stepped up its funding for military and defense-related spending. With the backing of the French government, Thomson was able to enter a new era of expansion, both in its defense- and aerospace-related operations and its consumer products activities. With a strong balance sheet, Thomson began eyeing larger acquisition targets.
In 1966, the company acquired a leading French consumer appliance manufacturer, Hotchkiss-Brandt. The acquisition, which resulted in a change of the company's name to Thomson-Brandt, also brought Hotchkiss-Brandt's own strengths in the defense and automotive sectors. Yet this name change was to last only two years. In 1968, Thomson-Brandt acquired defense specialist CSF and regrouped its defense operations with those of CSF to form the Thomson-CSF subsidiary. This merger sparked a new period of aggressive growth—and financial problems—for the company.
Nationalization and Reorganization: 1970s-80s
The 1970s saw Thomson's continued expansion and diversification into a variety of new areas, including telephone switching components and systems. Other new areas included medical imaging and even semiconductors. Meanwhile, the company went on a buying spree, picking up a number of new businesses and markets, including operations in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The economic difficulties of the era, sparked by the oil embargo of 1973, nonetheless brought some relief to the company, as Middle East countries turned to France—which set itself in contrast to the United States with more pro-Arab government policy—and to Thomson for military and defense orders. At the same time, Thomson could depend on a steady stream of orders from the French government itself to maintain a strong cash flow.
This cash flow was unable to shore up what had become something of a leaky ship by the early 1980s. A number of the company's business areas had long been losing money—only the company's government contracts had given the company liquidity. Thomson-Brandt revealed itself as a bloated, top-heavy company with an extremely inefficient management. Indeed, despite being a subsidiary, Thomson-CSF had continued to operate as an independent company, with its own chief executive, all but ignoring its parents. This situation had been allowed to continue throughout the 1970s because of Thomson-CSF's extreme importance to the French military and defense program.
That importance was underscored at the beginning of the 1980s when the arrival of the new Socialist government, led by François Mitterand, announced its intention to nationalize key French industries. Thomson-Brandt found itself under new ownership in 1982. Named to lead the company was Alain Gomez, who previously had helped restore the financial health of the Saint Gobain industrial conglomerate. The parent company was given a new name, Thomson S.A., while Thomson-CSF remained its more or less autonomous subsidiary.
When Gomez took over, Thomson was bleeding heavily, losing more than $275 million in 1982 alone. Gomez soon forced out the president of Thomson-CSF, placing control of the subsidiary firmly under the parent company's control for the first time. Gomez also led Thomson on a massive restructuring, shrinking the company's bloated management and cutting away a number of diversified operations to return the company to a strong core of defense electronics and consumer electronics. Among the operations shed at this time was Thomson-CSF Téléphone, losing more than $100 million per year, which was traded to Alcatel (then known as CGE) in exchange for that company's own military and consumer electronics businesses. The 1983 deal, described by Fortune as "the most important industrial restructuring in postwar France," proved a prime example of the French government's much criticized willingness to assert its influence over the country's industries.
In 1984, Thomson attempted to acquire rival German electronics and consumer appliance maker Grundig. That effort was blocked by Germany's antitrust authority. Instead, Thomson picked up smaller Telefunken, gaining access to the then restrictive German consumer electronics and appliance market. Thomson then undertook a controversial streamlining of Telefunken's operations, maintaining little more than the Telefunken brand name and its marketing network. Despite this episode, Thomson's restructuring had placed it back on the road to health, and by 1985, the company was once again turning a profit.
Growing opposition to France's nationalization policies led the government to rethink its "experiment" and in 1987, Thomson, along with a handful of other companies, was privatized. The French government nonetheless retained majority control of the company. Soon after, Thomson, which had attempted to build up a semiconductor business with the 1984 acquisition of money-losing Mostek, began to disengage from that sector, spinning off the business as ST Microelectronics. The company sold off its semiconductor operations in 1997.
By then, however, the company had made new moves toward becoming one of the world's leading consumer electronics companies. After acquiring the consumer electronics business of Thorn EMI in 1987, Thomson acquired the entire consumer electronics division from GE—including the RCA brand—becoming overnight the largest seller of televisions to the U.S. market and one of the largest in the world. The company sold off its consumer appliance division in 1992, concentrating on its Thomson SA consumer electronics operation and its Thomson-CSF defense group.
Independent Electronics Giant in the 21st Century
Thomson-CSF boosted its defense operations in 1989 with the purchase of MBLE of Belgium and Signaal, based in Denmark but a division of the Dutch firm Philips. The company also picked up fellow French defense electronics firm TRT.
During the 1990s, Thomson-CSF faced a new challenge as the close of the Cold War resulted in a tightening of the worldwide defense market. In response, Thomson-CSF began building up its civil electronics wing—adapting its technologies to the civil aviation and aerospace sectors especially. By the mid-1990s, Gomez recognized a need to place the company closer to its customers in order to secure its place in the global marketplace. As such, the company was reorganized, with management decentralized to concentrate on local markets, forming the basis of what the company called its "multi-domestic" operation. This reorganization was credited with protecting the company's balance sheet during the political turmoil that marked its emancipation at the end of the decade.
In 1996, the French government announced its intention to complete Thomson's privatization. An initial deal, to sell the company to Lagardère Groupe and Matra, which in turn had agreed to transfer the newly named Thomson Multimedia consumer electronics group to Korea's Daewoo, was struck down amid great controversy. Thomson's privatization only came in 1997, when the group accepted Alcatel and Dassault as major shareholders—alongside the government's continued 48 percent holding. The deal involved a transfer of parts of Alcatel and Dassault's defense and aerospace operations to Thomson-CSF. By then, however, Gomez had stepped down from the company's leadership.
The appointment of Dennis Ranque as the company's CEO and chairman in 1998 marked the start of a new era for the company. In 1999, the now independent and publicly listed Thomson-CSF went on a buying spree, enhancing its multi-domestic policy by acquiring ADI of Australia, ADS of South Africa, Sextant-in-Flight Systems of the United States, and Avimo, an optronics company with operations in Singapore and the United Kingdom.
The year 2000 marked a turning point for the company. In that year the company acquired Racal Electronics of the United Kingdom, giving it the number two position in that country's defense and aerospace electronics market. The acquisition prompted the company to adopt a new name, Thales, after the Greek philosopher and mathematician, at the end of the year. At that time, the company announced its formation of Thales Raytheon Systems, a joint venture with the U.S.-based Raytheon, to develop air defense systems, which began operations in 2001. At the same time, the French government announced its intention to reduce its holding in the company to below the 33 percent mark, meaning it would no longer have a minority block on company decisions. As it entered the new century, Thales emerged as one of the world's top three defense and aerospace electronics systems companies and expected to remain a force to be reckoned with on a global scale.
Principal Subsidiaries: ADI (Australia); Thales Cryogenics (Netherlands); African Defence Systems (Pty) Ltd (ADS) (South Africa); Thales Atm; Thales Optics; Thales Information Systems (Russia); Thales Optics (Japan); Thales Cryogenics; Thales Optronics (Netherlands); Diehl Avionik Systeme (Germany); Thales Navigation; Eurodisplay; Thales Optronics; Fibre Form (U.K.); Forges De Zeebrugge (Belgium); Thales Identification Systems (U.S.A.); Thales Isr; Thales Technologies & Services; Thales Raytheon Systems; Thales Training & Simulation (U.S.A.); Thales Electron Devices; Thales Electron Devices (Germany); Thales Components (Spain); Thales Air Defence; Thales Atm; Thales Avionics Electrical Systems; Thales Avionics (U.S.A.); Thales Communications; Thales International (Venezuela); Thales Airborne Systems; Thales Systemes Aeroportes; Thales Communications (Italy); Thales Systems & Services (Germany); Thales Communications (Brazil); Thales International (South Africa); Thales International (Switzerland); Thales Idatys; Thales Identification Systems; Thales Industrial Services; Thales International (Chile); Thales International; Thales Optics; Thales Missions & Conseil; Thales Naval (U.K.); Thales Naval France; Thales Information Systems; Trixell; UDS International; UMS; Thales Université; Thales E-Security (U.K.).
Principal Divisions: Aerospace; Defense; Information Technologies and Services.
Principal Competitors: Alliant Techsystems Inc.; BAE SYSTEMS; BellSouth Corporation; The Boeing Company; Bombardier Inc.; Diebold, Incorporated; ECC International Corp.; European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company EADS N.V.; FLIR Systems, Inc.; General Dynamics Corporation; Harris Corporation; Honeywell International Inc.; InteliData Technologies Corporation; ITT Industries, Inc.; LaBarge, Inc.; Litton Industries, Inc.; Lockheed Martin Corporation; Lucent Technologies Inc.; Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd.; Mitsui Group; Motorola, Inc.; Nokia AS; Nortel Networks Corporation; Northrop Grumman Corporation; Raytheon Company; Reflectone, Inc.; Robotic Vision Systems, Inc.; Rockwell International Corporation; SBC Communications Inc.; Siemens AG; Sony Corporation; Uniden Corporation.
Related information about Thales
Greek natural philosopher, traditionally regarded as the first
philosopher, born in Miletus. His mercantile journeys took him to
Egypt and Babylon, where he acquired land-surveying and
astronomical techniques, and is said to have predicted the solar
eclipse in 585 BC. None of his writings
survive, but Aristotle attributes to him the doctrine that water is
the original substance from which all things are derived.
: For the French Defense Company, see Thales Group
Thales of Miletus
(ca. 624 BC?ca. 546 BC), also known as Thales
the Milesian, was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher and one of the Seven Sages of
Greece. Many regard him as the first philosopher in the Greek
tradition as well as the father of science.
Thales lived in the city of Miletus, in Ionia, now western Turkey. According to Herodotus (1.74) Thales predicted a solar eclipse, which has been determined by modern
methods to have been on May 28, 585 BC. Pliny's (Natural
History 2.53) places it in 584, which is considered close
enough for verification purposes. According to Thales however, he
obtained knowledge of the eclipse from Egyptian astronomers.
According to Diogenes Laertius (DL 1.37-38), the chronicle of
that Thales died at 78 in the 58th Olympiad. Diogenes Laertius says
that Sosicrates said
he was 90. The year of his birth was the first year of the 35th
Olympiad, or 640 BC.
Thales would have been about 40 during the eclipse.
Diogenes Laertius (1.22) and others say that Thales was the son of
Examyas and Cleobulina and that they were of the Thelidae family
(hence Thales), who were of noble Phoenician descent from Cadmus of ancient Thebes. After repeating a story that Thales had been
naturalized, or recently enrolled as a citizen, Diogenes Laertius
asserts that he was "a right-born Milesian".
When the Greeks settled Mitelus it included a Carian population. Thales'
father's name is of the Carian type, like Cheramyes and Panamyes.
According to Diogenes Laertius (1.25-26) there are two stories
about Thales' reproductive life, one that he married and had a son,
Cybisthus or Cybisthon, or adopted his
nephew of the same name. The second is that he never married,
telling his mother as a young man that it was too early to marry,
and as an older man that it was too late.
The well-traveled Ionians had many dealings with Egypt and Babylon, and Thales may have
studied in Egypt as a young man. In any event, Thales almost
certainly had exposure to Egyptian mythology, astronomy, and
mathematics, as well as to other traditions alien to the
Homeric traditions of
Greece. Perhaps because of this his inquiries into the nature of
things took him beyond traditional mythology.
Thales involved himself in many activities, taking the role of an
innovator. Diogenes Laertius (1.43-44) quotes letters of Thales to
Solon, offering to review
the book of the former on religion, and offering to keep company
with the latter on his sojourn from Athens. One story recounts that he bought all the
olive presses in
Miletus after predicting the weather and a good harvest for a
particular year. political life had mainly to do with the
involvement of the Ionians in the defense of Anatolia against the growing power of the Iranians, who were then
new to the region. A king had come to power in neighboring Lydia, Croesus, who was somewhat too aggressive for the
size of his army. The story is told in Herodotus, Book 1.
The Lydians were at war with the Medes, a remnant of the first wave of Iranians in the
region, over the issue of refuge the Lydians had given to some
Scythian soldiers of
fortune inimical to the Medes. The war endured for five years, but
in the sixth (the Battle of Halys) an eclipse of the sun (mentioned above)
spontaneously halted a battle in progress.
It seems that Thales had predicted this eclipse. The Seven Sages were most likely
already in existence, as Croesus was also heavily influenced by
Solon, another sage.
Whether Thales was present at the battle is not known, nor are the
exact terms of the prediction, but based on it the Lydians and
Medes made peace immediately, swearing a blood oath.
The Medes were dependencies of the Persians under Cyrus. He was stopped by the river Halys, then unbridged. The
channels ran around both sides of the camp.
The two armies engaged at Pteria in Cappadocia. As the battle was indecisive but
paralyzing to both sides, Croesus marched home, dismissed his
mercenaries and sent emissaries to his dependents and allies to ask
them to dispatch fresh troops to Sardis. Diogenes Laertius (1.25) tells us that Thales gained
fame as a counsellor when he advised the Milesians not to engage in
a symmachia, a ?fighting together?, with the Lydians. Herodotus
says that Thales advised them to form an Ionian state; that is, a
bouleuterion (?deliberative body?) to be located at Teos in the center of Ionia.
The ethics of Thales can be estimated from the sayings
attributed to him, reported in Diogenes Laertius. First, he recognizes a
transcendental God, who has
neither beginning nor end. In this form of polytheism the transcendental
god expresses himself through gods, so that a man can say theoi and
Thales? However, don?t be rich badly (?????).
As to the spirit of the law, we find Thales expressing a rather
well known principle for leading the best (??????) and most just
- ?? ??????
- ?That for which we blame others, let us not do
This rejection of hypocrisy resembles the foundational principle
of Jewish law, ?Do not
unto thy neighbor what is hateful to thyself.? After all, Hebrew and Phoenician are closely
related, coming from a common ancestor about the time of Cadmus.
There is no known connection between Thales and any Hebrew
speakers, however. The Old Testament supports an equal exchange of penalties:
an eye for an eye, etc. According to Thales, a man can better bear
adversity if he sees that his enemies are worse off.
There are certain other prejudices that some of us would find
jarring today: men are better than women and Greeks are better than
barbarians (this coming from a man whose proudest ancestor was
dethroned in Thebes for being a barbarian).
Democratic, Thales was not. One story has him living with
tyrant of Miletus. In his letter to
Solon he offers to live
elsewhere with Solon, seeing that the latter finds tyranny so
However, ancient philosophers in general tended to support or
advocate benign tyranny, such as Plato?s ideal philosopher-king.
They could not resist undertaking to reform the morals of the
citizens, with well-known results.
In addition to his social ethic, Thales had a set of personal
principles as well. According to Thales, a happy man is defined as
?? Perhaps Thales did exercise, but he did not cultivate the
body, as he preached not beautifying the appearance (?????) but
practicing the good.
SagacityDiogenes Laertius (1.22) tells us that the
Seven Sages were
created in the archonship of Damasius at Athens about 582 BC and that
Thales was the first sage. The same story, however, asserts
that Thales emigrated to Miletus. Much as we would like to have a date on the
seven sages, we must reject these stories and the tempting date
if we are to believe that Thales was a native of Miletus,
predicted the eclipse, and was with Croesus in the campaign against Cyrus.
Thales had no instruction but that of Egyptian priests, we
are told. Moreover, the ordinary citizen, unless he was a
seafaring man or a merchant, could not afford the grand tour in
Egypt, and in any case did not consort with noble lawmakers
such as Solon. Perhaps
the source only meant that Thales had not been instructed in
philosophy before proposing his theories about nature.
He did participate in some games, most likely Panhellenic, at
which he won a bowl twice. He dedicated it to Apollo at Delphi. As he was not known
to have been athletic, his event was probably declamation, and
it may have been victory in some specific phase of this event
that led to his being designated sage.
Another trophy, a tripod, is said to have been bestowed upon
him and was given by him to another sage, going the rounds
until it came back to him, at which time he dedicated it to
Apollo. The oracle
given to the Coans, in obedience to which the tripod was given
to Thales (in this story), said that it should go to
- ??? ?'?????
- ?Who is wise in the things that are, the things that will
be, and the things that were?
which is delivered in dactylic hexameter, the verse form of the
Iliad, and contains a
formula said of Calchas (Book I, first part), a Homeric mantis, or
- ?Time is the wisest because it discovers
The ability to predict also is a hallmark of good science, but
not all the sages were known for their ability to
The time, place and reasons for Thales being declared officially
sage remain obscure, although the sources made some good guesses,
one or more of which were probably right. ??????.
- ?Never did many words declare a mindful teaching: strive
after a single wise thing, pick one thing you can depend
It is ironic that a man with this principle had many and various
Thales is said to have died in his seat, while watching an
Before Thales, the Greeks explained the origin and nature of the
world through myths of
gods and heroes. Phenomena like lightning or earthquakes were attributed
to actions of the gods.
Nature as the principles in the form of matter
By contrast, Thales attempted to find naturalistic
explanations of the world, without reference to the supernatural. He explained
earthquakes by imagining that the Earth floats on water, and that earthquakes occur when
the Earth is rocked by waves. Fire, for example, is not naturally
hot, but is moved to hotness by the daemon of fire.
Thales, according to Aristotle, asked what was the nature (Greek physis,
Latin natura) of the object so that it would behave in its
characteristic way. Physis comes from phuein, "to grow", related to our word "be". (G)natura
is the way a thing is "born", again with the stamp of what it is in
Aristotle (Metaphysics 983b6) characterizes most of the
philosophers "at first" (??????) as thinking that the "principles
in the form of matter were the only principles of all things",
where "principle" is arche, "matter" is hule ("wood") and "form" is eidos.
"Principle" translates arche, but the two words do not have
precisely the same meaning. As a matter of fact, that is exactly
what modern scientists are trying to do in nuclear physics, which
is a second reason why Thales is described as the first
Water as a first principle
Thales' most famous belief was his cosmological doctrine, which held that the world
originated from water.
this belief roughly equivalent to the later ideas of Anaximenes, who
held that everything in the world was composed of air.
The best explanation of Thales' view is the following passage from
(983 b6). Thales says that it is water."
Aristotle's depiction of the change problem and the definition
of substance could not be more clear. He was probably not far off,
and Thales was probably an incipient matter-and-formist.
The essentially non-philosophic DL states that Thales taught as
- "Water constituted (???????????, "stood under") the principle
of all things."
Homericus (Quaes. 22, not the same as Heraclitus of Ephesus)
states that Thales drew his conclusion from seeing moist substance
turn into air, slime and earth. It seems clear that Thales viewed
the Earth as solidifying from the water on which it floated and
which surrounded Ocean.
Beliefs in divinity
Thales applied his method to objects that changed to become
other objects, such as water into earth (he thought). When asked
why he didn?t die if there was no difference, he replied ?because
there is no difference.?
Aristotle defined the soul
as the principle of life, that which imbues the matter and makes it
live, giving it the animation, or power to act. Accordingly, the
sources say that Thales believed all things possessed divinities.
In their zeal to make him the first in everything they said he was
the first to hold the belief, which even they must have known was
However, Thales was looking for something more general, a universal
substance of mind. Zeus was
the very personification of supreme mind, dominating all the subordinate manifestations.
From Thales on, however, philosophers had a tendency to depersonify
or objectify mind, as though it were the substance of animation per
se and not actually a god like the other gods. Instead of referring
to the person, Zeus, they talked about the great mind:
- "Thales", says Cicero, "assures that water is the principle of
all things; Deorum,"i.,10.)
The universal mind appears as a Roman belief in Virgil as well:
"In the beginning, SPIRIT within strengthens Heaven and
The watery fields, and the lucid globe of Lina, and then
Titan stars; and mind infused through the limbs
Agitates the whole mass, and mixes itself with GREAT
- (Virgil:"Aeneid," vi., 724 ff.)
Thales was known for his innovative use of geometry. For example, he
- Megiston topos: hapanta gar chorei
- ?Place is the greatest thing, as it contains all
Topos is in Newtonian-style space, since the verb, chorei, has the connotation of
yielding before things, or spreading out to make room for them,
which is extension.
Points, lines, planes and solids related by distances and angles
follow from this presumption.
Some have argued that his geometry was simply a lucky
happenstance resulting from empirical method worked out by the
Egyptians and that
he had no understanding of the basic principles involved. This
overskeptical view neglects Thales own predilection for insight and
also human nature. The mathematics of the times was not especially difficult or
obscure and we have a convincing story from DL that when he had
inscribed a right
triangle in a circle
he sacrificed an ox. Better known is Archimedes? Less dramatically, most of us just
evidence the behavior associated with being startled.
Thales understood similar triangles and right triangles, and what is more,
used that knowledge in practical ways. cit.) that he measured the
height of the pyramids
by their shadows at the moment when his own shadow was equal to his
height. The length of the pyramid?s shadow measured from the center
of the pyramid at that moment must have been equal to its
This story reveals that he was familiar with the Egyptian seqt,
or seked, defined by Problem 57 of the Rhind papyrus as the ratio
of the run to the rise of a slope, which is currently the cotangent function of trigonometry. It
characterizes the angle of rise.
Our cotangents require the same units for run and rise, but the
paryrus uses cubits for
rise and palms for run,
resulting in different (but still characteristic) numbers. We would
go on to calculate the cotangent as 70 divided by 93.33 or.75003
and looking that up in a table of cotangents find that the angle of
rise is a few minutes over 53 degrees.
Whether the ability to use the seqt, which preceded Thales by
about 1000 years, means that he was the first to define
trigonometry is a matter of opinion. More practically Thales used
the same method to measure the distances of ships at sea, said
Eudemus as reported by Proclus (?in Euclidem?). It would be hard to
imagine civilization without these theorems.
It is possible, of course, to question whether Thales really did
discover these principles. The sources are all that we have, even
though they sometimes contradict each other.
According to Diogenes Laertius, Lobon of Argos wrote that he saw a statue of Thales at
Miletus with an inscription describing him as "most senior in
wisdom of all the astronomers (??????????)." The word, astrologoi,
could mean what it does today, the divination of human affairs from
the positions of the stars, but it also meant scientific astronomy,
as in the case of Thales.
Thales was said to be able to predict eclipses and fix the solstices, which abilities made him a very useful
man in business and politics. He was able to estimate the heights
of the pyramids from
the lengths of their shadows. He knew and taught the value of
Ursa Minor to
navigators, which the sources say he got from the Phoenicians, but as far as
they were concerned, he "discovered" it.
We know that he observed the stars, as he is related to have fallen
into a ditch one night. Plato makes the ditch a well and questioner a witty and
slave girl (Theaitetus 174a), unless we presume he fell twice and
elicited the same sort of comment.
In terms of modern science, Thales had as high a batting average as
anyone in the ancient world. His reason for the yearly flooding of
the Nile, for example, was
that seasonal winds blowing upstream impeded the water.
In the long sojourn of philosophy on the earth there has existed
hardly a philosopher or historian of philosophy who did not mention
Thales and try to characterize him in some way. Thales added
something to these different collections of knowledge to produce a
universality, which, as far as writing tells us, was not in
tradition before, but resulted in a new field, science.
Ever since, interested persons have been asking what that new
something is. Once an answer has been arrived at, the next logical
step is to ask how Thales compares to other philosophers, which
leads to his classification (rightly or wrongly).
The most natural epithets of Thales are "materialist" and "naturalist",
which are based on ousia and physis. The Catholic
Encyclopedia goes so far as to call him a physiologist, a
person who studied physis, despite the fact that we already have
physiologists. On the other hand, he would have qualified as an
early physicist, as
did Aristotle. They studied corpora, "bodies", the medieval
descendants of substances.
Most agree that Thales' stamp on thought is the unity of substance,
Russell ("Wisdom of the West"):
- "The view that all matter is one is quite a reputable
- "...But it is still a handsome feat to have discovered that a
substance remains the same in different states of
Russell was only reflecting an established tradition; for
example, Nietzsche, in
his "Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks", (則 3),
"Greek philosophy seems to begin with an absurd notion, with
the proposition that water is the primal origin and the
womb of all things. The arrival of uncertainty in the modern
world made possible a return to Thales; for example, John Elof Boodin
writes ("God and Creation"):
- "We cannot read the universe from the past..."
Boodin defines an "emergent" materialism, in which the
objects of sense emerge uncertainly from the substrate. Thales
is the innovator of this sort of materialism.
MethodThales represents something new in method as
Husserl ("the Vienna Lecture") attempts to capture it as
ClassificationThe term, Pre-Socratic, derives ultimately from
Aristotle, a qualified philosopher ("the father of
philosophy"), who distinguished the early philosophers as
concerning themselves with substance.
Influence on othersThales had a profound influence on
other Greek thinkers and therefore on Western history. Some
believe Anaximander was a pupil of Thales. Early sources
report that one of Anaximander's more famous pupils, Pythagoras, visited
Thales as a young man, and that Thales advised him to travel to
Egypt to further his philosophical and mathematical
Many philosophers followed Thales' lead in searching for
explanations in nature rather than in the supernatural; others
returned to supernatural explanations, but couched them in the
language of philosophy rather than of myth or of religion.
When you specifically look at the influence Thales had in the
pre-Socrates era, he was one of the first thinkers who thought
more in the way of logos than mythos. This lays
the foundation of philosophy and its way of explaining the world in
terms of abstract argumentation, and not in the way of gods and
SourcesOur sources on the Milesian
philosophers (Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes)
were either roughly contemporaneous (such as Herodotus) or lived within
a few hundred years of his passing. Compared to most persons,
places and things of classical antiquity, we know a great deal
about Thales. More than likely, the non-writing tradition about
Thales is a complaint that such a famous man did not leave
enough to be quoted by the secondary sources.
The main secondary source concerning the details of Thales'
life and career is Diogenes Laertius (DL here), "Lives of Eminent
Philosophers". DL does give us the extant primary sources
on Thales (the two letters and some verses).
Most philosophic analyses of the philosophy of Thales come from
Academic and a
professional philosopher, tutor of Alexander the
Great. It is not clear that the theory of matter and form
existed as early as Thales, and if it did, whether Thales
- In the A&E television rendition of Nero Wolfe, one of the
antagonists, a mathematician, uses the name "Milton Thales" as a
pseudonym, a reference to Thales of Miletus.
- G.E.R. Lloyd, Early Greek Science: Thales to
- Burnet, John, Early Greek Philosophy, The Meridian
- Key Dates:
1893: Compagnie Française Thomson-Houston is established as a subsidiary of Thomson-Houston International Corporation.
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