Ken Alder


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

Second edition; University of Chicago Press, 2010.

[First edition; Princeton University Press, 1997.]

Winner of the 1998 Edelstein Prize of the Society for the History of Technology for the best book published in the field of the history of technology.

Engineering the Revolution documents the forging of a new relationship between technology and politics in Revolutionary France, and the inauguration of a distinctively modern form of the “technological life.”  In this book, Ken Alder rewrites the history of the eighteenth century as the total history of one particular artifact—the gun—offering a novel and historical account of how material artifacts emerge as the outcome of political struggle. By expanding the “political” to include conflict over material objects, this volume rethinks the nature of engineering rationality, the origins of mass production, the rise of meritocracy, and our interpretation of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.


“A work of stunning originality.... An important contribution to a variety of fields.”
— Theodore M. Porter


“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

“In the history of technology, one of the very best books is Ken Alder's Engineering the Revolution, about the ways in which new engineering practices both emerged from and shaped the ideals of the French Revolution.”
— Peter Galison, American Scientist

“Ken Alder's study of the relations between artifacts, technical life, and politics constitutes a model study in its genre.”
— Terry Shinn, Social Studies of Science

“An outstanding book. . . . Anyone interested in such topics as the social role of engineers, the politics of artifacts, and the military sources of social change will also benefit from a careful study of this remarkable book.”
— Barton C. Hacker, Isis

“Ken Alder has written an ambitious book. . . . His description of work in the weapons industry and his analysis of the effects of standard measures . . . are both fascinating and enlightening.”
— Sam Scott, Journal of Military History           

“Alder’s remarkable study succeeds at many levels.  A highly innovative monograph, it contributes significantly to debates on the role of technology while producing important new insights into revolutionary history....  In the larger context of capital and politics, avoiding the traditional foci of labor history, Alder’s study represents the finest type of labor history.” 
— Michael Hannagan, International Labor and Working Class History

“Ken Alder’s Engineering the Revolution is one of the best accounts I have read that attempts to situate the analysis of skills and practices in its proper context....  [It] 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 Jackson, Journal of Modern History

From the Preface:
On the run from the Revolutionary police, Condorcet's mind raced toward a better future.  Hidden away in a Parisian garret, the last of the philosophes imagined humankind borne inexorably toward perfection.  It was the year II of the French Revolution (1794 by the old calendar), and Condorcet looked beyond the violence around him—men and women throwing off centuries of servitude—to gauge the deep currents of progress.  The trajectory of knowledge was ever upward.  As communications expanded, the threat of reversal receded.  In short order, superstition would be driven from every corner of the globe.  With knowledge more widely shared, people of all sorts—women, blacks, the propertyless—were becoming capable of self-government.  Soon they too, like the French and Americans, would demand the rights and duties of citizenship.  Hand-in-hand with this vision of intellectual and political progress went the expectation of greater and more widely shared material comfort.  Scientific knowledge was at last being applied to practical affairs.  Everywhere, new machines multiplied wealth, new technologies improved communications, and new medicines prolonged life—all spurring further social, economic, and political equality.  Condorcet held that every useful art served human betterment.

Even the invention of gunpowder, which had precipitated "an unexpected revolution in the art of war," had actually made battles less murderous, warriors less ferocious, and military expeditions more costly.  The perfection of firearms meant that wealthy, well-organized nations no longer needed to fear the blind courage of barbarous peoples.  At the same time, the gun had cut down the advantage of the mounted nobility over the common soldier, leveling this last obstacle to freedom and equality.  Henceforth, the field of battle would be dominated by prosperous nations of free citizens, until such time as war, the greatest scourge of humanity, would vanish.

Condorcet's utopian vision still compels admiration, both among those who have partially reaped his promise of relative equality and comfort (behind fortified frontiers), as well as among those who still wait for that promise to be realized (some inside the frontiers, and many millions more outside).  But two centuries of bitter history oblige us to acknowledge what Condorcet ignored: the dark underside of knowledge-making, technological achievement, and popular sovereignty.  In this book I examine how, at the end of the eighteenth century, the nation-state was reformulated so as to greatly expand its capacity to wage war.  More specifically, I lay out the Enlightenment program of the French military engineers and describe their labors to bring that program to fruition.  These engineers sought to design gunpowder weapons of improved destructiveness, produce them with unprecedented precision, and deploy them to devastating effect.  Their efforts oblige us to confront a rather different relationship between technology and politics: not simply because these guns were put to destructive ends, but because the means of creating these guns and the meanings invested in them depended on a distinct form of the "technological life."

By the phrase, "technological life," I mean a coherent social and ideological world which gives purpose and meaning to a set of material objects.  The engineers' technological life revolved around the management of large systems of workers, soldiers, and weapons; it presupposed new forms of technological knowledge and innovation; and it was energized by a radical ideology that justified social hierarchy by reference to national service.  This book argues that this engineering technological life was as constitutive of the modern era—and of the French Revolution, in particular—as Condorcet's vision.  After all, dissimilar as they are, there is much these two visions share: in general, a utopian aspiration to regenerate society, and in particular, a meritocratic and instrumentalist ethos hostile to the collectivist privileges which governed life in the ancien régime.  Both imagined a new polity founded upon these principles; both are part of the contested legacy of the French Revolution.  It is this contest which I propose to investigate in this book.  Our modern technological life is a political creation, and we can read in its artifacts the history of the struggles and negotiations which gave it birth.

I realize that it may seem perverse to probe the great transformations of the French Enlightenment and Revolution through the medium of an artifact like the gun.  My intention is not to suggest that gunpowder weapons—either field artillery or hand-held muskets—were the principal technological achievement of this period.  On the contrary, despite great efforts these smooth-bore guns saw relatively minor alterations between the late seventeenth and mid-nineteenth century.  Nor is it my intention to suggest that this period can be understood solely through its war-making activities—although the age was racked by continuous warfare, and war-making ranked as the main activity of the state.  Rather, I have chosen the gun because I believe it can serve as an revealing site to examine the relationship between the material and political revolutions of the late eighteenth century.

Technology is the material embodiment of human labor and human thought.  It is also the substantiation of the choices of particular people in particular times and places.  For better or worse, we live in a world that is designed.  The question is: how constrained are we by these technologies, and what new possibilities do they create?  Over a decade ago, Langdon Winner posed the provocative question: "Do artifacts have politics?"  The time has come to pose the next question: What kind of politics do artifacts have?  How do they acquire these political qualities, and how are they manifested?  On one side we hear that artifacts are neutral tools, liberating us to achieve our human potential.  On the other, we hear that they set the terms for all social and political relations, radically circumscribing human freedom.  Between these two positions, there is a vast ground upon which the dialectics of Enlightenment play.  We are born into a world that is designed, yet we redesign our world as best we can.

That weapons can acquire political significance will hardly surprise twentieth-century Americans.  Guns, like all artifacts, participate in a material culture which imbues objects with meaning.  But guns cannot be understood solely as cultural signifiers.  As Mao and the other masters of police and armies have all too well understood, power flows out of the barrel of a gun.  Guns kill.  For this reason, the management of guns has always preoccupied those who hold (or desire) power, and considerable effort has been expended to keep those weapons pointing in the "right" direction.  From the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763 to the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, France was the site of continual conflict over the proper design of guns, their proper mode of production, and their proper military deployment.  As an artifact amenable (in principle, anyway) to scientific analysis, the design of the gun was tied to transformations in the social organization of technological knowledge.  As an artifact on which the state expended growing quantities of capital and labor, the gun was the site of attempts to alter radically the means of production.  And as an artifact whose effectiveness depended on tactical arrangements (themselves caught up in strategies for offensive or defensive war), the way that guns were deployed implied a particular relationship between officers and soldiers, as well as a new definition of the nation-state.  In this deeper, structural sense, the political history of the late eighteenth century was inscribed in its weaponry.  To the extent that our own era can plausibly be understood by reference to the V2 and the ICBM, so can the era of the French Revolution be understood by reference to the gun.

Approaching the era of the French Revolution through its material culture is also meant to offer a new perspective on the prevailing interpretations of that period.  In particular, the attempt to write something like a total history of an artifact will mean confronting directly the current idealist trend in the historiography of the late eighteenth century.  Two decades of revisionist history have largely obscured the relationship between the political struggles of the eighteenth century and the material conditions under which most French men and women lived.  These revisionists have much to teach us about the slippery uses of language in the Revolutionary setting.  But rather than limit political activity to the realm of symbols and representations, as many revisionists have done, this book seeks to expand our understanding of politics to include contests over the terms of the material life.  Artifacts are material vessels which funnel enormous social forces, but they are vessels shaped by human hands, and as such, the negotiated outcome of diverse interests.

I hope this book will also perform a similar mediating service.  One of its main ambitions is to show how the history of science and technology can help bridge the gap between our current cultural-linguistic histories and the older social-materialist histories.  This does not mean showing that technology drives history; nor that social interests condition the development of new technology.  Both approaches elide the difficult question of why particular technologies have assumed particular forms in particular times and places.  Taking the history of technology seriously has implications, not just for "general" historians, but for historians of technology as well.  It means applying to technology the same historicist approach with which historians have long plied their craft.  Until we understand the development of science and technology from the point of view of its human creators—and take seriously the claims of their opponents—we will never come to grips with our own technological life.  Nor will we understand how things might be different.