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Engineering the Revolution

Engineering the Revolution: Arms and Enlightenment in France, 1763-1815

Ken Alder
Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 494
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  • Book Info
    Engineering the Revolution
    Book Description:

    The French Revolution and Industrial Revolution together inaugurated the modern era. But recent historical "revisionists" have divorced eighteenth-century material conditions from concurrent political struggles. This book's anti-teleological approach repudiates technological determinism to document the forging of a new relationship between technology and politics in Revolutionary France. It does so through the history of a particular artifact--the gun. Expanding the "political" to include conflict over material objects, Ken Alder rethinks the nature of engineering rationality, the origins of mass production, and our interpretation of the French Revolution.

    Near the end of the Enlightenment, a cadre of artillery engineers transformed the design, production, and deployment of military guns. Part 1 shows how the gun, the first artifact amenable to scientific analysis, was redesigned by engineers committed to new meritocratic forms of technological knowledge and how the Revolutionaries and artillery officer Napoleon exploited their techno-social designs.

    Part 2 shows how the gun became the first artifact to be mass producedwith interchangeable parts, as French engineers deployed "objective" drawings and automatic machinery to enforce production standards in the face of artisanal resistance. And Part 3 places the gun at the center of a technocratic revolution led by engineers on the Committee of Public Safety, a revolution whose failure inaugurated modern capitalist techno-politics. This book offers a challenging demonstration of how material artifacts emerge as the negotiated outcome of political struggle.

    Originally published in 1999.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6454-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-2)
    (pp. 3-20)

    The summer after his arrival in Paris as American ambassador, Thomas Jefferson paid a visit to the Château de Vincennes on the eastern reaches of the city. The date was 8 July 1785, and over thirty-five years had passed since Jean-Jacques Rousseau traveled there to visit Denis Diderot—briefly imprisoned for hisLetters on the Blind. There, in the courtyard of the Château, the two philosophes had debated the essay question of the Dijon Academy: “Has the progress of science and the arts corrupted or refined civilization?”¹ Thirty-five years later the American ambassador might have asked himself the same question....

  7. Part One Engineering Design:: Capital into Coercion, 1763–1793

      (pp. 23-55)

      Gribeauval and his artillery engineers came to power in the wake of the Seven Years’ War when humiliating French defeats prompted a bitter debate about field artillery: a dispute about cannon design, which thinly cloaked a struggle over military strategy, which itself thinly cloaked a battle for influence and power within the state. Certainly, this quarrel over field maneuvers attracted a much wider audience than such technical and morbid subjects usually warrant. It was the “Star Wars” dispute of its day, a public debate over the offensive and defensive capabilities of the nation and the effectiveness of high-tech gadgetry. In...

      (pp. 56-86)

      It is hardly sacrilegious nowadays to suggest that knowledge is produced socially. Historians have at last rid themselves of that old-time faith that science and technical know-how have an immaculate conception in method, logic, or unmediated experience. This apostasy has become particularly necessary now that historians have begun to look beyond the air-less, friction-less, point-particle abstractions of an ideal physics, and confront knowledge-claims about the bulky, worn world of thick things. This isnotto say that technical knowledge is mere whimsy, a relativist free-for-all in which anything goes. The challenge is to explainhowthis knowledge—which seems to...

      (pp. 87-124)

      The previous chapter laid out the social and epistemological basis of Enlightenment engineering as the story of formation of a new polity within the body of the ancien régime. Here I continue that story into the heart of the gun. To that end, I examine how the design and operation of eighteenth-century military weaponry reflected the artillery engineers’ suppositions, and hence expressed particular political values. My purpose is to show how technological change in the late eighteenth century was an integral part of the transformations which preceded and accompanied the French Revolution. By this I mean more than that experts...

  8. Part Two Engineering Production:: Coercion into Capital, 1763–1793

      (pp. 127-162)

      Historians have long wondered how and why production in Western Europe shifted from the artisanal workshop to the industrial factory. Not the least of the challenges has been to explain the assimilation of “mass production” machinery into the making of textiles, pottery, clocks, guns, and a host of other goods. Various hypotheses have been presented to account for the timing and character of this transition that underpins much of the West’s wealth and military power. The approach of economic historians, such as David Landes or Joel Mokyr, is to couple the rise of the factory organization with technological creativity motivated...

    • Chapter Five The Saint-Etienne Armory: Musket-Making and the End of the Ancien Régime
      (pp. 163-220)

      Passing through Saint-Etienne in 1778 Jean-Marie Roland de la Platière, royal inspector of manufactures, noted down these impressions for his fiancée, the future Madame Roland.

      [Saint-Etienne] is perpetually shrouded in coal smoke which penetrates everywhere and vents at great distances. [The town and its faubourgs] encompass approximately 30,000 inhabitants, almost all of them occupied at the forge: men, women, children, boys, and girls; armorers, ironmongers, metalworkers of all sorts. You cannot have any idea of the number of forges, and their activity: these are the true dens of Vulcan. Each one works with tools proportionate to his age and strength;...

      (pp. 221-250)

      Why did the Gribeauvalists turn to interchangeable parts manufacturing for muskets in the mid-1780s? After all, there was nothing new about the ideal of interchangeability in the late eighteenth century. The artillerists already had two decades’ experience with the method in the arsenals of construction. And there had been attempts even earlier. In the 1720s, Christopher Polhem, a Swedish inventor, built a wooden clock composed of interchangeable parts. For this feat, Polhem has been often described as a lone technological visionary, a man far ahead of his time.¹ But at the same period in France, an armorer-inventor named Guillaume Deschamps...

  9. Part Three Engineering Society:: Technocracy and Revolution, 1794–1815

      (pp. 253-291)

      In March 1794, at the height of the Terror, government posters in the Parisian armaments workshops were found marked with graffiti. Beneath the signature of Robespierre someone had written “anthropophage” (eater-of-men) and beneath the names of Prieur and Lindet someone had written in red pencil: “stupid brutes” and “deceivers of the people,” and in black pencil: “thieves, murderers” (fig. 7.1). The employees of the musket workshops had been in revolt for several days. Two arms workers were arrested, and all the workers were made to copy these words to compare their handwriting. The culprit, however, was not identified. The Committee...

      (pp. 292-318)

      To an unprecedented degree, the French Revolution integrated scientists and engineers into the governing elite. Parisian academicians had long served as royal advisers on policy relating to technology, but even under Turgot’s Ministry they never wielded power in their own name. The Academy of Sciences mirrored the corporate world of Colbertist statecraft.¹ In the new Republic, however, many savants (including military engineers) were elected to the national legislature. At a time when public life became the arena in which personal and national destinies were worked out, men such as Condorcet, Bailly, Prieur, Carnot, Fourcroy, Guyton-Morveau, and Bureaux de Pusy spoke...

      (pp. 319-343)

      One of the most common assumptions about technology is that it “stacks.” Whether considered as a form of knowledge, a set of practices, or a collection of hardware, technology is said to “accumulate.” This realm, above all others, is said to be one in which we can accomplish more than our predecessors—thanks, in part, to the efforts of our predecessors. One popular version of technological progress implies that technology stacks like a Lego set of modular bricks. Even scholars who doubt that technological progress is a friend of human betterment still assume that technology is cumulative, much like the...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 344-351)

    In the end, we are left with a paradox that can be stated succinctly. In the fifty years between 1763 and 1815, the French military engineers enjoyed a spectacular political triumph—yet they mostly failed in the realm of technics. Consider first their successes. In the ancien régime these men had lurked on the periphery of power, a corps of technicians from a hodgepodge of social backgrounds, answerable to lordly patrons, hemmed in by rival claimants, and locked in an internecine war. Yet in the final decades of the eighteenth century, and then more dramatically with the coming of the...

    (pp. 352-352)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 353-420)
    (pp. 421-456)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 457-476)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 477-477)