Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Phases of Engineering Development

I just finished reading Langins's Conserving the enlightenment. In short, it's a great book and belongs in the pantheon of works on the history of engineering by Picon and Verin. It's a particularly suitable companion to Picon's Architectes et ingénieurs au siècle des Lumières (although I'm only familiar with Thom's English translation). Langin addresses the military side of engineering while Picon covers the civil aspect. A good sequel to these works is Pfammatter's The making of the modern architect and engineer. Anyone interested the specialization of engineers might be interested in Calvert's The mechanical engineer in America, 1830-1910, Calhoun's The American civil engineer, or Slaton's--for more of a contemporary STS take--Reinforced concrete and the modernization of American building, 1900-1930.

Langins's history of fortification is very informative and illuminating, particularly his account of the ongoing conflict between Montalembert—a noble fortification dilettante—and the military corps of engineers. One particular thread runs throughout his book. It describes the evolution of a highly bureaucratic system of technical competency and its ongoing conflict with the forces of novelty. Langins cites Jean-Claude Éléonor Le Michaud d'Arçon:

"Grand ideas cost little; details kill." (pg. 404)

Langins study has led me to some thoughts on the nature of the evolution of large technical systems.

Phase I: Charisma.
The first phase of a technical system is the domain of the charismatic inventor-entrepreneur. It is also the domain of the charlatan. At this stage novelty is crucial and the inventor-entrepreneur must engage in aggressive marketing campaigns to establish a foothold in the market. Ramelli is a good example. His book of machines served as a means of marketing his skills to kings and regents.

Phase II: Trading Zone.
During the second phase the genres of communication begin to stabilize. There are formal processes--or at least expectations--for the exchange of ideas and the establishment of professional reputation.

Phase III: Bureaucracy.
The final stage is marked by the presence of bureaucracy. The focus of attention has shifted from novelty and design to overall costs and operations and maintenance. Distinct systems of training bureaucrats such as schools exist.

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