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

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Winner of the 1998 Dexter Prize, Society for the History of Technology

"Engineering the Revolution is a triumph. It deserves to be read widely, and not just as an inquiry into the origins of modern France."—Donald MacKenzie, London Review of Books

"Ken Alder has written an ambitious book.... His description of work in the weapons industry and his analysis of the effects of standard measures, such as jigs and gauges, is both fascinating and enlightening. His treatment of the arms manufacturing during the Year II furnishes useful data on this extraordinary phase of the Revolution."—Sam Scott, The Journal of Military History

1997 Dexter Prize
1997 Dexter Prize from the Society for the History of Technology
Journal of Modern History

"Alder''s work is one of the first in the history of technology to offer a sophisticated historical treatment of skills. By arguing that skills are historically contingent, Alder''s contribution offers a valuable cultural study of the relationship between the rational knowledge of enlightened philosophers and engineers and the artisanal knowledge of skilled craftsmen."

— Myles W. Jackson

Isis

"This richly textured, heavily documented, and fluently written study centers on the attmept by French military engineers to apply engineering rationality--through the use of mass-produced interchangeable parts--to the reorganization of mass warfare. . . . Anyone interested in such topics as the social role of engineers, the politics of artifacts, and the military sources of social change will . . . benefit from a careful study of this remarkable book."

— Barton C. Hacker

American Historical Review

"This is a fine work, grounded in research in French archives and a plethora of other sources. Alder has forcefully demonstrated the role of engineers in fostering social change in the eighteenth-century and revolutionary eras."—Owen Connelly, American Historical Review

— Owen Connelly

Journal of Modern History - Myles W. Jackson
"Alder's work is one of the first in the history of technology to offer a sophisticated historical treatment of skills. By arguing that skills are historically contingent, Alder's contribution offers a valuable cultural study of the relationship between the rational knowledge of enlightened philosophers and engineers and the artisanal knowledge of skilled craftsmen."
Isis - Barton C. Hacker
"This richly textured, heavily documented, and fluently written study centers on the attmept by French military engineers to apply engineering rationality—through the use of mass-produced interchangeable parts—to the reorganization of mass warfare. . . . Anyone interested in such topics as the social role of engineers, the politics of artifacts, and the military sources of social change will . . . benefit from a careful study of this remarkable book."
American Historical Review - Owen Connelly
"This is a fine work, grounded in research in French archives and a plethora of other sources. Alder has forcefully demonstrated the role of engineers in fostering social change in the eighteenth-century and revolutionary eras."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691009698
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 7/19/1999
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 6.18 (w) x 9.24 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

Ken Alder is the Milton H. Wilson Professor of the Humanities and professor of history at Northwestern University. He is the author of The Measure of All Things: The Seven-Year Odyssey and Hidden Error that Transformed the World and The Lie Detectors: The History of an American Obsession.

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Read an Excerpt

Engineering the Revolution

Arms and Enlightenment in France, 1763 - 1815


By Ken Alder

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1997 Ken Alder
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-01265-0



CHAPTER 1

THE LAST ARGUMENT OF THE KING


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 the end, the salons and academies of Enlightenment Paris were enlisted in a debate over what sort of ballistics could best redeem French national power.

Though both parties in this battle of artillery systems claimed to be vindicated by the most prestigious arbiter of the day—scientific experiment—in the end, the triumph of Gribeauval's "Moderns" turned less on narrow technical grounds than on their coherent vision of an aggressive new war of movement, and on the support these military engineers consequently received from a reform-minded faction of the army high command. For the artillery bureaucracy itself, the main outcome of Gribeauval's victory was to consolidate the service's hold over the world's largest proto-military-industrial complex (map 1.1). The result? From 1763 to 1789—with a dramatic hiatus in 1772–74—they refashioned the artillery service into a new kind of military machine that, in conjunction with the Revolutionary mass armies, spearheaded the destruction of the old Europe under the command of their disciple, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Historians of this episode have invariably been drawn to the bitter polemic that accompanied the transition from the old Vallière system of artillery to the new Gribeauval system. Yet almost without exception, they have recounted the Gribeauvalist triumph as a self-evident outcome, a chapter in the tale of the inexorable modernization of France. In doing so, they have followed the tone set by the young Louis-Napoléon in the multivolume history of artillery he wrote while waiting to fill his uncle's shoes: "The history of artillery," he said, "is the history of the progress of science, and consequently, of civilization." The story of scientific progress, it would seem, is so compelling a narrative that it can even be measured by a body count. And the engine of progress, here as in so many other areas of Western history, is said to be the knowledge which tells us how the world "really" works and those instruments which can be built with that knowledge. Told about guns, this story begins with Galileo discovering the principles of parabolic flight, and then takes a short trip along the trajectory of time to the ICBM. Adoption of the new artillery weapons, it could be argued, required new forms of central battlefield coordination, hastening the staff and line organization of the army. This change permeated military values: courage was demoted, and skill in calculation highlighted. Rather than an elite of blood, capable officers were now recruited from the "middling ranks of society." The ancien régime breaks down, everyone is a citizen, and civilization spreads around the world—according to Condorcet, because the courageous, barbarous peoples can now be defeated by those who are wealthy. Better ballistics for better artillery for a better world.

The appeal of this sort of narrative follows from its explanatory efficiency. It juxtaposes a narrow definition of science {rational mechanics} and a narrow definition of technology {the gun} with a big temporal and geographic frame (the history of the modern West). What should put us on the alert against this sort of explanation is that it is one of the central arguments developed by the interested parties themselves. Indeed, the reading of history as the unfolding of a technological determinism was one of the main armatures of the group which took the name "Moderns." Under closer investigation this determinism argument breaks down. The Gribeauvalists did not passively supply artillery know-how to their patrons. Like all effective creators of new technology, they actively defined the context as well as the content of their innovation. In doing so, they spearheaded a larger transformation in the nature of French sovereignty.

In this regard it is telling that the Gribeauvalists' new methods of uniform production precluded the ornamentation which had once adorned royal cannon (figs. 1.1 and 1.2). On the big guns which played such a prominent role in the wars of the ancien régime, the Bourbons had inscribed the motto, Ultima Ratio Regis, "the last argument of the king." For many of the traditional artillerists, the Gribeauvalists' erasure of the king's motto symbolized the radical rupture of the new system. Implicitly, these new motto-less cannon posed the question: whose argument were they? Speaking for the Gribeauvalists, Tronson Du Coudray refused to "mourn" the passing of these "costly ornaments." The design of the new artillery, he said, "allows no thought for the superfluous." The question was: in the searching light of this leveling instrumentalism, what else might be considered superfluous? This chapter examines the changing nature of state power in the eighteenth century as refracted through the contemporary debate over the artillery. In doing so, it highlights those contradictions within the ancien regime's logic of power that ultimately threatened to tear the state apart.


State Power and the Monopolization of Violence

The royal states of early modern Europe only gradually established dominion over feudal rivals, privileged cities, and peasant producers. Throughout this fitful and uneven process, the centralized national state triumphed largely to the extent it could monopolize violence. How and where this occurred depended on two factors: first, the state's position within the system of states; and second, the particular mix of coercion and capital the sovereign employed domestically as he pursued his interests and those of the ruling elite. The absolutist state functioned as a vast machine for waging war on behalf of an aristocratic class for whom the spoils of battle meant gratifying gains in economic surplus and prestige. Rather than acting with "absolute" authority, however, the scale and diversity of war-making activities meant that states relied on intermediate powers: local magnates, private financiers, merchant dealers, and artisanal producers—all "capitalists" of one sort or another, ranging up and down the social ranks. Indeed, the largest and most successful states of Western Europe (France and England) increasingly used a system of extracting revenue to purchase the coercive power that guaranteed a further supply of domestic revenue, and hence the ability to wage more war. In return, these capitalists received protection for their commerce, an expanding military market for their goods and services, and social and financial privileges. Charles Tilly has likened this rondo of coercion, extraction, and protection to organized crime.

Increasingly in this period, the actual business of battle was turned over to men trained for a variety of specialized tasks and coordinated by a central power. This occurred because, quite simply, such organization paid–not just in victories on the field, but in profits and social standing for domestic interests allied with the sovereign. Two innovations in particular gave the advantage to those centralized powers which organized for war during times of peace. By the early seventeenth century, Maurice of Nassau and Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden had shown that the repetitive drilling of rank-and-file soldiers transformed them into a victorious battlefield instrument. Ranged in long lines and firing their smoothbore muskets in volleys, these troops constituted the first effective response to the massed squares of "Swiss" pikemen who had once dominated European battle. The drill enabled commanders to make effective soldiers out of urban riffraff and impoverished peasants' sons without disturbing those productive members of society whose taxes maintained armies in the field. This regular drilling also demanded greater self-discipline from officers, men almost always from the noble classes, whose duties and values became increasingly distinct from those of the men they commanded. The larger armies made possible by drill also increased the need for military equipment, providing burgeoning profits for military contractors. The second cluster of innovations centered on fortress warfare. Increasingly, the northern European states built walled defenses—the trace italienne—which placed a premium on mobilizing vast sums of capital, technical expertise, and manpower. These defenses called for a corresponding investment in the cannon to breach those walls, and in the capital, expertise, and manpower needed to bring these guns to bear at a specified time and place. The changes surrounding these twin tactical, technical, and socioeconomic innovations comprise what historians call the "Military Revolution," now seen as central to defining and sustaining the absolutist state.

Once France adopted this formula in the mid-seventeenth century, her monarch was able to pursue his dynastic ambitions across Western Europe. Louis XIV and his lieutenants—Colbert, Vauban, Le Tellier, and Louvois—dramatically increased the size of the French armies and imposed ministerial authority over aristocratic officers. The adoption of a military uniform (though the pattern still varied from regiment to regiment) neatly symbolized the new routine of military life. Similarly, the War Office standardized the supply of weaponry by designating a sole buyer on its behalf. At the same time, these ministers also cultivated a proficient corps of military engineers, and gave them resources to build fortresses and armaments to fight the siege wars which characterized the period. And last but not least, they transformed the army into a standing peacetime force largely insulated from the civilian population. This standing army not only guarded against foreign enemies, but assured internal peace, and hence the revenue to fund further war.

The spread of this "bureaucratization of violence," however, produced continual frictions within the ancien régime. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the peak wartime army barely equaled 60,000 men. Richelieu increased this to 125,000 men, largely relying on the purse strings of commanders. By the end of the century, the Sun King fielded at least 340,000 men, plus a peacetime contingent of 150,000. Remarkably, this expansion had been funded out of his own coffers. But while combating the coalitions ranged against him in the later years of his rule, Louis XIV strained France's ability to raise, supply, finance, and coordinate these troops. The effort put pressure on the constitution of the absolutist state, and on the system of privileges which defined social status in the ancien régime. The nobility, which provided virtually all the members of the officer class, had historically claimed to merit these positions by their family tradition of personal service, as recognized by the king. In the eyes of some reformers, however, effective battlefield coordination required subordinate but knowledgeable officers, merits not necessarily promoted within the vast machinery of patronage and purchase that was the key to advancement in the ancien régime. As a result the rationalization of the military was decidedly incomplete in this period.

Commanders still retained a substantial proprietary interest in their units, advancement still depended upon birth and courtly connections, and war aims were still shaped by dynastic interests. It is important to stress the contradictions of a system which waged war for the benefit of the noble elite and was staffed by them, but which worked against their particular interests on behalf of a centralizing power. This tension—which the ancien régime proved unable to sustain—was built directly into its instruments of war.


The Vallière System: "Absolutist Rationality"

As the state's emissaries to the nation's privately held armaments works, and as the operators of the cannon that spearheaded the king's army, the artillery engineers were central to the state's ability to convert capital into coercion, and vice versa. In this respect, the reform of the French artillery in the early modem period lay in the main line of a two-hundred-year effort by the northern European states to bring military force to new levels of potency.

The Vallière cannon, introduced in 1732 (fig. 1.1), belonged to a carefully conceived system of weapons, social organization, and tactics, which operated within this framework, and which suffered from its contradictions as well. The Gribeauvalists were later to accuse the Vallièrists of "irrationality," of being bound to meaningless traditions. But as Joseph-Florent de Vallière, fils, noted, his father had not settled on his system of artillery "arbitrarily or by mere conjecture," but on the basis of his twenty-eight years of experience fighting the wars of Louis XIV.

Indeed, while the Vallièrists and Gribeauvalists themselves divided their ranks into "Ancients" and "Moderns," they shared professional attitudes which the line army was only slowly beginning to accommodate. Within the military, the artillery represented a case apart: atypical in the extent to which professional values permeated the corps, though quite typical in their mistrust of the civilian constitution of France. Known, along with the royal fortification engineers (Corps du Génie), as an arme savante, the artillery service differed from the main body of infantry and cavalry not only in its tactical role, but in its social composition and mentality.

Cannon had been essential to warfare and French national power since the resurrection of the monarchy from the Hundred Years' War and the Italian campaigns of the Renaissance. These big guns could obliterate or defend a fortress, and decimate or protect massed troops. They enabled political organizations with sufficient financial and bureaucratic resources (the national state) to prepare this explosive force in advance and deliver it with considerable precision. The effectiveness of these cannon, however, depended on various factors: maneuverability, throw-weight, rate of fire, and accuracy. As no single gun could maximize all these parameters, artillery design involved difficult tradeoffs. Prior to the Vallièrists, the solution was specialization. Even though the advantages of a uniform caliber size had been apparent since the time of François I, the varieties of cannon proliferated throughout the seventeenth century. To cope with the diversity of situations encountered in war, artillerists needed distinct classes of siege guns and field guns. Cannon also varied in the thickness of their cast, and hence in their maneuverability and the strength of the blast they could withstand. Furthermore, each French foundry—under its separate regional administration—cast pieces of sufficiently different caliber that their shots were not interchangeable. Finally, these tubes were mounted individually on carriages whose dimensions depended on local methods of production and local needs, so that, for instance, the axle length matched the requirements of local roads.

In this regard, Vallière's program of standardization represented a radical reform. Appointed director-general of the artillery shortly after the death of Louis XIV in 1715, Jean-Florent de Vallière, père, set out to bring order to the French arsenals. In 1732, he instituted his famous system of standardized artillery pieces, specifying the five classes of cannon—4-, 8-, 12-, 16-, and 24-pounders—whose dimensions and weights were not "under any pretext" to deviate from the official guidelines as inscribed in the official master drawings. Like his absolutist sovereign, Vallière sought to reign over a highly centralized and stable domain. The Vallière system combined a simplified administrative structure with a conscious appraisal of the wars of the period. The same artillery pieces were now to be used for coastal and fortress defenses and for sieges and campaigns in the field. To enable them to fit into prepared emplacements, all the cannons had been given the same length. And because they had to batter down the walls of fortresses from perimeter trenches, they had to be capable of propelling the heaviest caliber shot a considerable distance, and hence possess sufficient thickness to withstand a tremendous charge.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Engineering the Revolution by Ken Alder. Copyright © 1997 Ken Alder. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface
Acknowledgments
Introduction: A Revolution of Engineers? 3
Pt. 1 Engineering Design: Capital into Coercion, 1763-1793
Ch. 1 The Last Argument of the King 23
Ch. 2 A Social Epistemology of Enlightenment Engineering 56
Ch. 3 Design and Deployment 87
Pt. 2 Engineering Production: Coercion into Capital, 1763-1793
Ch. 4 The Tools of Practical Reason 127
Ch. 5 The Saint-Etienne Armory: Musket-Making and the End of the Ancien Regime 163
Ch. 6 Inventing Interchangeability: Mechanical Ideals, Political Realities 221
Pt. 3 Engineering Society: Technocracy and Revolution, 1794-1815
Ch. 7 The Machine in the Revolution 253
Ch. 8 Terror, Technocracy: Thermidor 292
Ch. 9 Technological Amnesia and the Entrepreneurial Order 319
Conclusion 344
Abbreviations 353
Notes 355
Bibliography 421
Index 457
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