The Natural History of Industry

By Gillispie, Charles Coulston | Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, September 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Natural History of Industry


Gillispie, Charles Coulston, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society


THE FOLLOWING PAPER is self-explanatory, but perhaps it would be well to say something about the background behind the research in the French archives. While preparing these articles I was commissioned by the publisher of Dover Publications to prepare a reprinted edition of the technical plates from the Encyclopédie.1 It was then borne in upon me, what is too often not noticed by intellectual historians, that this cardinal monument of the Enlightenment is not merely a sly ideological work slipping liberal criticism and ideas into accounts of current practices, institutions, and doctrines. It is also and equally a technological reference work reporting on the most accomplished methods, apparatus, and procedures in the arts and trades and exhibiting trade secrets in the light of day. The purpose was not only technical improvement. It was also in a sense democratic. For in Diderot's eyes the two were related. In the article "Art," he writes

Let us at last give the artisans their due. The liberal arts have adequately sung their own praises; They must now use their remaining voice to celebrate the mechanical arts. It is for the liberal arts to lift the mechanical arts from the contempt in which prejudice has for so long held them. . . . Artisans have believed themselves contemptible because people have looked down on them; let us teach them to have a better opinion of themselves; that is the only way to obtain more perfect results from them. We need a man to rise up in the academies and go down to the workshops and gather material to be set out in a book which will persuade artisans to read, philosophers to think on useful lines, and the great to make at least some worthwhile use of their authority and wealth.

The first edition of the Encyclopédie consisted of seventeen volumes of text and eleven of plates. Publication of the former was interrupted with volume VII in 1759, when the Council of State ordered suppression of the whole work along with other dangerous writings. There could be no objection to the technical plates, however, and Diderot carried on with them until the remaining ten volumes of text were completed and passed en bloc through the censorship. In effect, therefore, though this may not have been Diderot's intention, the technology carried the ideology.

One correction is in order. The stricture passed on Berthollet in the last two sentences of the first paragraph in section V is mistaken. The essay is indeed better than its expansion into the book there mentioned, but the two together were the starting point of physical chemistry.

Note

1. A Diderot Pictorial Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry: Manufacturing and Technical Arts in Plates Selected from "Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire Raisonnée des Arts et Métiers." 2 vols., New York, 1958: Dover Publications.

FIVE

The Natural History of Industry*

In a previous paper, the problem of science and industrialization was pursued in some detail through an account of the discovery of the Leblanc process. The present paper approaches the question on a broader plane and ventures to offer some general considerations. Both articles are a result of investigations pursued in France, and refer specially, therefore, to the pattern of French scientific and industrial development. This was necessarily affected by certain factors peculiar to French history, notably the ever-growing centralization of cultural development in Paris and its learned bodies and the profound instinct of everyone concerned-scientist and statesman, industrialist and artisan-to expect of a paternalistic state the impetus which their British counterparts drew from private venture and expected only of themselves. But these are only social influences. Neither science nor industrialization has ever been national in scope, and to consider a question related to the industrial revolution-a framework other than British may have the merit of modifying the tendency to see this great event in the exclusive perspective of the Midlands of England and the Lowlands of Scotland. …

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