Friday, March 10, 2006

From the French

I have a stack of papers written in French that need summarizing. Here goes...

Dolza and Verin: Figurer la mecanique: l'enigme des theatres de machines de la Renaissance

The theatres of machines haven't yet answered the questions posed by historians and yet they are particularly amenable to the work of Gille, Bloch, and Febvre. The authors provide an introduction to these works using the wordsof Beroald, in his introduction to Besson:

"Voici un theatre de labeur immense, rempli de machines et d'instruments plaisants a considerer et tres-utiles a practiquer."

They note that these works were typically printed in folio, with a grand dedication and introduction, followed by a series of printed pages. Each page contains a short description and a representation of some device located in a landscape, workshop, or abstract space. The theatres were published between 1570 and 1770. Their heyday was between 1570 and 1620. A number of different descriptors apply to these works including "theatres," des "livres," des "recueils," des "modelles," des "dessins," or des "inventions." They are--for the most part--French or Italian. Dolza and Verin note that the only exception to this rule is Zeising.

In the second half of the seventeenth century, most of the theatres were either German or Flemish. They point to the work of Leupold and Boeckler, and to two works that I haven't actually explored: Van Zyl's Theatrum machinarum universale (1724, 2nd ed. 1761), and Van der Horst Tileman's Theatrum machinarum universale (1736, 1737, 1761). Apparently these low landers needed some help in naming their books!

The authors note that this second generation of works contained considerably more text and that the text itself became an important complement to the plates. The overall presentation of these works was very similar to what would appear in later works such as the Encyclopedie and Machines et inventions approuves par l'Academie Royale des Sciences.

Dolza and Verin make a very important point about this change. They note that the theatrical esthetic of the works was gradually effaced by the arts and trades:

"L'esthetisation theatrale de la mchine s'efface devant le serieux de l'inventair des arts et metiers. Au service des royaumes et des leurs preoccuptions mercantilistes, au service de l'administration camerale allemande ou encore, avec l'Encyclopedie de Diderot et d'Alembert, dan des vues de progres de l'industrie humaine, le repertoires de machines du XVIIIe siecle sone des oeuvres collectives que ont pour but de faire et de presenter un etat de la situation des art mecaniques." (p. 10)

The theatra machinarum were collected by a wide variety of expert mechanics, and by educated men and savants. Their underlying form depends largely on the example set by Giulio Camillo's Idea del Teatro, a popular mnemonic system described in Yates's The Art of Memory.

Illustrated works were flourishing in Europe during the era of the theatram machinarum. Books on emblems, anatomy, flora and fauna, numismatics (as demonstated by Di Strada), and architecture were very popular. New technical innovations such as the rolling press (as demonstrated by Errard) and new ways of inscribing plates and cutting wood blocks drove the production process.

The authors were careful to dedicate their works to great men in order to both establish credibility and gain patronage. They also made strong claims about the sincerity of their works and the depth of their experience. The validity of the depicted machines was established by invoking the names of Archimedes, Pappus, Hero, Aristotle, Plato, Pythagoras, and Euclid. Their understanding of these authors, however, is somewhat suspect as demonstrated by Besson's rather incomplete comprehension of Aristotle.

Three main themes have emerged from commentary on the theatra machinarum: plagiarism, the operational viability of the depicted machines, and the issue of the scientific content of the works. Academic interest in the works began in the late 19th century through the explorations of Reuleaux, Beck, and Marcellin Berthelot.

Practices of technological development differed in England and on the continent. While Europe was embroiled in the wars of religion--and the pomp of various courts--England was influenced by Bacon's proposal to study the practical sciences. This difference is evident in the many projects of William Cecil and Walsingham. An interesting case in point is Sir Hugh Platt's Jewel House of Art and Nature. While of the same era as the theatra machinarum, it is clearly different.

The Renaissance books of machines have received some bad press through the years. Gille, for example, remarked on the "purility" of the authors' florid imaginations. Edgerton called them "coffee-table books" for aristocrats (Ther Hiertiage of Giotto's Geometry). Basalla also compared them to the work of Rube Goldberg.

Dolza and Verin maintain that the works require additional study. They recommed two methods: "La premiere est l'histoire du livre, de l'ecriture et de la lecture." "La deuxieme approched, qui a pris ajourd'hui un grand assor, est l'histoire sociale, economique, institutionelle, des inventions, et, plus genereralement, des savoirs." (p. 28) They describe the varied conditions that dominated the creation of these works:

"C'est dans le contexte de ces exigences et obligations socioprofessionalles , mais aussi religieuses et intellectuelles, que de developpe la litterature technique que nous evoquee: livres d'architecture, de fortfication, de geometrie pratique, de macanique et d'hydraulique." (p. 29)

Get: "Archives, objets, et images "

The authors also include an extensive appendix detailing various editions and reprints in chronological order.


Dolza, Luisa and Helene Verin (2004). Figurer la mecanique: l'enigme des theatres de machines de la Rensaissance. Revue d'Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine 51.2 (avril-juin): 7-37.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Revisiting Besson I

The hagiography I had produced on the life of Jacques Besson is a tad bit dated. It's time to refresh it with some new source material.

I find it interesting to reflect on the whole time period in which Besson worked. Based on the extand to the technical books, one could think that France was the heart of mechanical innovation but Keller indicats otherwise:

"By comparison with the great days of her medieval schoolmen or with the immense contributions made by Frenchmen in later generations, the science of physics seems to have languished in sixteenth-century France, otherwise so lively and vigorous. Among her neighbours, the study of mechanics was turning in new direction. But France had no Tartaglia, no Benedetti, no Stevin. Trataglia was translated into German and English, but only the fortification section of his Quesiti et Inventioni Diverse was rendered into French. The study of medieval comentaries and treatises on the theory of motion did continue at Paris, yet all th emost original work in this relatively conservative facet of the science was carried on by foreigners, by Scots, Flemings, Spaniards." (p. 75)

It seems that even Ramus lamented the loss of mathematics from France in 1567. He apparently attributed the Italian and German advances in fortification, gunnery, and metallurgy to their relatively advanced mathematics. Still, the books of machines are a uniquely French innovation.

Keller's study focusses primarily on the British Museum's Additional MS 17921 which is a manuscript copy of Besson's printed work. It is, according to Keller, the original manuscript on which the printed book is based and it includes both preliminary machine designs and an expanded introduction. The intended title appears to be Livre de la plus part des Instruments et Machines Inventees par Jacques Besson Dauphinois: Les quelles Servent a plusier beaux effets pour l'usage de Mathematiques et Utilite Commune.

The work contains an extensive dedication of King Charles IX. It discusses both the pains that Besson required to acquire his mechanical knowledge, and his desire to serve "the preservation, utility and upkeep of the common good" by disseminating his "machines and new inventions for geometers, for mariners, for merchants, for artisans, for gentlemen, in short for poor and for rich." (p. 76)

Besson's introduction demonstrates an unsophisticated understanding of basic Aristotelianism: four elements and their natural motions. He insists that machines can be studied in isolation of the physics of natural motion, a study more applicable to astronomy or medicine. Besson states that only mathematics are required. Keller notes that the results of this argument are dissapointing:

"There is little of axomatic geometry in the book of machines, still less of precise measurement or calculation, at most a three-dimensional feel for machinery based on a static lever law. His thought develops that of the opening paragraph of the Mechanical Problems; in practice Besson uses less mathematical demonstration than his ggreek predecessor." (p. 77)

He classifies machines as being of three types: those that pull (pulleys, endless screws, etc.), those that push (sails, oars, and wheels that impart motion without any alteration of movement), and those which repel (springs, presses, and lathes). He notes that a machines effectiveness can be estimated from its promptness in action and the duration of that action, and from the cost of construction, maintenance, and operation. These principles seem quite far from Taylor's Scientific Management.

Besson also articulates a number of general principles that are primarily Aristotelian in nature, although he also makes some reference to Archimedes, Euclid, and Jordanus.

These preliminary drawings often differ considerably from their printed brethren. In some cases, the printed drawings are far more practical and sound (despite Andouet de Cerceau's baroque ornamentation). In other cases, sound innovations have been dropped. He royal carriage, for example, originally featured a suspension system based on springs. Keller explores one of the reasons why Besson's machines are so remarkable:

"In many ways Besson's inventions are stranger and further removed from the best contemporary practice than are those of the next generation, men like Errard, Ramelli or Zonca. That may be in part because he was an outsider, less dependent on the manuscript tradition of the Italian mechanicians than they were. If his very originality also makes some of his inventions now seem more eccentric, his own time certainly did not regard him as a crazy inventor full of impractical notions. On the contrary, his publication broke the ice for later, more knowledgeable but perhaps less imaginative men. And this manuscript demonstrates that he had also worked out his own theoretical ideas, equally imaginative and original. He was ready to learn, perhaps to be guided by the comments of those with more experience, certainly willing to cast aside a notion that would be unworkable and replace it by a better." (p. 85)


Keller, Alexander G. (1976). A manuscript version of Jacques Besson's book of machines, with his unpublished principles of mechanics. In Bert S. Hall and Delno C. West (eds.) On Pre-Modern Technology and Science: A Volume of Studies in Honor of Lynn White Jr. (pp. 75-104) Undena Publications, Malibu.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

History of Engineering Drawing

A project I occassionaly return to is the history of engineering drawing. The primary text on the field seems dated and limiting. Booker provides biographical detail but leaves out all the really interesting bits. I suppose he created a history without writing a "social history."

There are a number of papers that deal with elements of the topic and a few books that deal with other elements. One of the most cited works is The Art of the Engineer by Baynes and Pugh. It seems that Ken Baynes also published at least one other paper that provides a very interesting take on drawing.

In a paper entitled The Ethics of Representation (pp. 12-16), Baynes provides both a good overview of the history of engineering drawing and some exposition on how it differs from other types of technical creative activity.

He notes: "All models are an abstraction from the chaos of information presented by the complexity of the real world. This is their value. It enables us to isolate variables, describe them accurately and analyse their significance. Different kinds of model have been developed to do different kinds of job--in essence, to describe and manipulate different aspects of reality." (p. 12)

He then describes three general types of model:

ICONIC: "These are models that work by looking like a selected aspect of existing or proposed reality."
SYMBOLIC: "These are models that work by using an abstract code to stand for a selected aspect of existing or proposed reality."
ANALOGUE: "These are models that work by means of diagrams that stand for but do not look like a selected aspect of existing or proposed reality." (p.12)

Baynes also provides a more detailed article entitled The Role of Modeling in the Industrial Revolution (pp. 17-31). It is both derivative of--and expands--his earlier work in the The Art of the Engineer. He introduces the article by noting:

"The emergene of engineering drawing as a recognizable gaphic form took place at the end of the Eighteenth Century. For the development of design as a separate discipline it was indispensible. Without a method of modelling by drawing, the early engineers could not have distanced themselves intellectually or technically from the limiting conceptual framework of traditional craft procedures. Engineering drawing was a dramatic and powerful modelling tool that made possible a new relationship between management and manufacture and separated the process of deign from the process of construction. It was a tool of the new industrial specialisation that the Scots economist Adam Smith christened 'the division of labour.' It was at the heart of the industrial revolution and the new work relationships it brought into being." (p. 18)

His history also contains some other interesting tidbits on the very origin of the practice of drawing:

"However, engineering drawing did not emerge in isolation from other, less specialised, developments in the history of European drawing. Its sources straddle the technical, aesthetic and scientific worlds. Although its application to industry was strictly utilitarian, its origins were at one with the intellectual ferment that began in Italy at the time of the Renaissance. It was Italian architects, shipwrights and military engineers who first used drawings in a recognisably modern way, just as it was Italian artists who first introduced the revolution in the means of representation that is at the basis of objective drawing. It was they who first pursued rational rules for perspective, illusionist representation of solids and depiction of buildings and objects through a series of systematic projections." (p.19)

There were several attempts to formalize technical drawing. Desargues, Philippe de la Hire, and Blaise Pascall all made contributions. Things didn't really get underway until the mid 18th century when patronage in France really started to support the basic investigations required: perspective, solid geometry, and applied drawing. Much of this work was centered around the nascent military colleges and L'Ecole Polytechnique. With the Napoleonic wars, interest in drawing increased due to commercial concerns.

There was also research effort in England: King George III was interested in drawing (he appointed Joshua Kirby as his personal tutor in perspective). Kirby, in turn, produced a manificent book on perspective called The Perspective of Architecture. The Military Survey of Scotland also had an effect on precise representation. The Royal Navy was also influential. From the days of Pepys, it had become a very effective commercial bureacracy that required documentation for every new ship design: drawings and a model (many of which are still preserved at the National Maritime Museum). It should be noted that these drawings were intended as working drawings for craftsmen and differ considerably from contemporary techne-documents such as the plates in Hendrik Chapman's Architectura Navalis Mercatoria.


Roberts, Phil, Bruce Archer, and Ken Baynes (1992). Modelling: The Language of Designing. Occasional Paper No. 1 from the Loughborough University of Technology Department of Design and Technology. Downloaded March 1 2006 from

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Some Books of Note

Machines as the measure of men, Adas
Shaping technology/building society, Bijker
The social construction of technological systems, Bijker
The visible hand, Chandler
The cultural uses of print in early modern France, Chartier
The renaissance discovery of linear perspective, Edgerton
Emulation and inventions, Hindle
Prints and visual communication, Ivins
The nature of the book, Johns
Technology in western civilization, Kranzberg
The unbound prometheus, Landes
Aramis, Latour
The development of large technical systems, Mayntz
Technics and civilization, Mumford
The culture of technology, Pacey
The French book trade in the Ancien Regime, Pottinger
Work and revolution in France, Sewell
A history of technology, Singer
Technology's storytellers, Staudenmaier
The causes of the English revolution, Stone
Scientific management, Taylor
The art of medieval technology, Unger
Medieval technology and social change, White
Control through communication, Yates