Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Proposal Thoughts

Once again, I’m faced by the looming spectre of my proposal. I’ve gone through a few different variations and have taken different slices on the same topic. Finally, I’m at the point where I need to either shit or get off the pot… and I’m not ready to stop.

There are a few threads that interest me. The first is the early engineering handbooks and the ways in which they arose and became popular. Every time I extend my horizon outside of these works, I seem to fall back towards them. It seems that the early mechanical works are very different from later texts (despite my earlier arguments to the contrary). The flavour and form of the texts seems to change remarkable around 1800—the era of steam. Perhaps the documentary innovations of Watt drove this remarkable transformation. The relatively sparse population of early works is replaced by a deluge of technical treatises, perhaps related to the rise of the Mechanics Institutes.

Incidently, the Weldon Library has a tremendous collection of micro-fiched documents from the various Canadian Mechanics’ Institutes. The earliest dates from 1820.

The documents themselves are quite straightforward. The community behind these documents is a little trickier to pin down. During my recent presentation at DOCAM, a number of people commented on the importance of the underlying epistemic or interpretive communities. For example, if the documents themselves changed, were these changes evident in the community. An even better approach would be to demonstrate that the changes in the documents caused the changes in the community… I’m just not sure how to get there.

This whole argument needs to be positioned in a particular dispute (as per the example of Shapin and Schaffer, Eisenstein, and Johns). One argument that I could possibly tilt at is engineering’s reliance on science. Indeed, there’s more of Besson or Ramelli in Hooke’s initial depiction of the air-pump than there is of Galileo or Brahe.

So… here it is: the early documentary practice of engineering is the primary contributing influence of modern science.

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