Thursday, April 19, 2007

Why Machine Books?

I'm tilting at a large question at which I've probably had a go in the past. But the only way to create copy is to, well, create copy so here goes. Perhaps I'll start with Buisseret.

The term "engineer" first appeared in Catalonia in the 11th century and was in wide use by the end of the 12th (White 1975). It initially applied to men in charge of military machines and fortifications. The mechanical arts practiced by engineers began to fall out of favor with the rise of Renaissance humanism in the 12th and 13th centuries. While mechanical arts were praised in Rabbinical teachings and were practiced by Benedictines, they had been reviled by the ancients and this prejudice resurfaced during the Renaissance. The skills of engineers, however, were clearly rooted in practice. White notes:

"The skills of engineers then, as in Antiquity, were empirical rather than theoretical." (pg. 13)

Many of the early mechanical professionals gave up aspects of their craft. Medical scholars, for example, gave up surgery and pharmacy and embraced Aristotelian notions of health. Mechanical skills did, however, persist in some corners of these fields. Medical astrologers, for example, built incredibly elaborate machines for maintaining time and for tracking the position of the planets. The underlying philosophy of the astrologers eventually lapsed but their machines had an important effect on subsequent mechanical initiatives.

In some ways, early doctors served as the model for subsequent engineers. Both Guido da Vigevano and Conrad Kyeser--two early authors of treatises on machines--were doctors. They both likely practiced as medical astrologers and had some familiarity with machines and mechanical apparatus. These authors were crucial for subsequent engineering practice. The engineers of their day were trained in an apprenticeship models and generally did not create books or even consider books as part of their professional model (although Villard may have been an exception). The doctors, however, were mechanical humanists well versed in both creating and using books.

The need for military engineers began to emerge at the end of the 15th century. This need only increased through the 16th century. Henry VIII of England, for example, turned to two different sources of engineers. He employed domestically trained master masons who ascended to the rank of engineer (e.g., John Rogers). He also imported Italian specialists such as Girolamo Pennachi and Jacopo Aconcio.

Other kings faced similar problems. Charles VIII, Louis XII, Francis I, Henry II, Francis II, Charlex IX, and Henry III all depended on foreign experts. This demand was driven largely by the advent of new gunpowder technology. Italian engineers quickly found a niche as both gunners and as designers for defensive technologies. The engineers who served these kings are now largely forgotten.

While engineers were primarily concerned with military projects, they also fulfilled a crucial civil role. Aconcio, for example, worked on both drainage projects and port projects. Mechanical and non-military devices were also important for the crown. Heller (1996) notes that in 1500 France had 60,000 water mills and 12,000 wind mills. In the late 1600s, Vauban estimated that 5/6 of these mills were devoted to grain while the rest were used for manufacture and industrial processing: cloth fulling, leather tanning, paper making, pipe boring, ore crushing, sawing, hammering, pumping, and processing.

Charles IX was the first king to aid private enterprise and to act as a patron for engineers and entrepreneurs. He appointed Abel Foulon as his valet de chambre du roi in 1551. Foulon was an engineer and inventor who created trignometric tools, new methods for casting bronze, devices for raising water, and even a self propelled vehicle (Heller 1996). Heller describes the crown's fascination with mechanical devices:

"The economic and political crisis into which the French kingdom was plunged in the 1560s spurred technological innovation and economic rationalization Schemes and proposals to produce more food or to conserve or develop sources of energy were put forward. All kinds of machines and inventions were designed with the intention of producing manufactures which were cheaper and therefore potentially more profitable. A fascination with machinery became pervasive. An inventor came forward to offer the city of Rouen an underground diving bell of his own devising to repair a recently collapsed bridge. The Hermeticist bishop Franc?ois Foix de Candale spent his leisure contriving all sorts of mechanical devices including wheels, levers and pulleys, clocks and measuring instruments. A mock castle with ninety-nine mechanical artifices toured the kingdom, its mechanically operated cannon, jousting knights, water fountains and windmill astounding the population. The mathematician Henri de Monatheuil, viewing this spectacle, took it a a portent of more important things to come. The monarchy, although hamstrung by its own insolvency and distracted by the civil wars, tried as best it could do to encourage such initiatives." (pg. 97)

The importance of practice eventually came to be stressed by humanists. Palissy, for example advocated for a philosophy born of practice. Similarly, Ramus argues for the industrial advantages of geometry in "Geometria" of 1569. He went so far as to claim that Germany's advantages in mining and war came from its proficiency in mathematics. The work of Besson is appropriate for this increased awareness:

"At a time when the nominal cost of labour was rising owing to increasing food costs, while profits, for that reason as well as others, were under pressure, the devices proposed by Besson an dothers must have been attractive to manufacturers, provided, of course, they could have afforded them. From a historical point of view, it does seem that Besson's inventions were among the first in a long line of proposals designed, through the introduction of new technology, to enhance productivity and profitability in the face of declining profit margins." (Heller 111)

The crown's attention to machinery continued into the reign of Henri III. He worked hard to bring new industry to France and to encourage new technology. Heller, for example, notes that the crown licensed a new process for making soap in 1575 and supported several attempts to create more efficient furnaces and machines for processing ore, milling grain, and constructing bridges. In October of 1581, Nicholas Cheville of Besancon was granted the right to construct furnaces of his design at several sites on payment of 10 ecus per furnace. (125) After the Assembly of Saint-Germain Henri III issued letters-patent to those who could use water power for industry: “The king's privilege called for the use of water power to create grain mills, fulling mills, tanneries, gunpowder mills, paper mills, saw-mills and to operate the bellows and hammers of forges for the reduction of all kinds of ores. The royal letters speak of experiments with devices to carry or lift weights more efficiently, of fuel-efficient furnaces used in breweries and by fullers, and of machines based on perpetual motion which could be used for an infinitude of good purposes.” (126) Lettres de privilege du roy pour l'elevation des eaues et authres belles et utiles inventions (Paris, 1585) BN F.46879(3)).

These letters-patent seem to aptly describe the contents of Ramelli's book.

There were a variety of ongoing industrial projects that also intereted engineers. For example, a number of drainage projects were executed around Narbonne between 1558 and 1585. Similar efforts were underway in Italy's Val-di-Chiana, Plumsted Marsh in England, and pretty much everywhere in the Netherlands.

The demand for engineers--and mechanical inventions--also existed beyond the borders of France. Philip II of Spain, for example was desperate for technical assistance. Goodman notes that researchers have only identified 25 engineers that practiced during the reign of Philip II. In 1590, a captain-general of artillery only knew of 7 engineers in royal service in Iberia. And they were all foreigners. Like Henri III, Philip II also solicited designs for mechanical devices:

"Numerous military inventions, mostly from Italians, were offered to the king, usually in the hope of financial reward an on one occasion in an effort to secure release from a royal prison." (Goodman 129)

Some of these inventions included accurate guns purported to always hit the bull's eye, more mobile artillery, transportable bridges, amphibious vessels, methods of preventing rust on arms, and portable mills (Goodman 129). Again, this list seems amazingly consistent with Ramelli's book. Inventions even came from the clergy. In Feb 1590 fray Angelo Melado was working at the royal munitions house at Ma'laga on a new type of artillery. Melado wasn't the only holy man to turn to mechanical and military inventions. The pattern had already been established by Besson and Aconcio.

Engineers also fulfilled an important role as surveyors. Ramelli, for example, was taken prisoners while surveying the harbour of La Rochelle in 1572. John Rogers performed surveying work for the English crown at Guines in 1540 and in Scotland in 1544. Other engineers had extensive involvement in mapping town and frontiers. They also had an important role in compiling economic information. Jean Errard, for example, conducted a survey in the early 1600s that indicated that the river Bievre had at least 26 water mills (Heller 1996).

It wasn't until the reign of Henry IV and the initiative of Sully that engineers became a formalized entity within France. Many of the early machine books appeared just as Sully was organizing the economic might of France. Following the Wars of Religion, the country was sorely lacking in infrastructure. Many of the existing roads and bridges had been destroyed and many more had to be built. In addition, Sully also encouraged the construction of the canals. Engineers became essential as bureaucrats during a period of growth that lasted from 1605 to 1615 (Buisseret, 1965).

The engineers of Henri IV had many responsibilities. For example, Each of the great eastern provinces--Picardy, Champagne, Burgundy, Dauphine, and Provence--had an ingenieur du roi and a subordinate, the conducteur des desseins, who did the topographical work (Buisseret 1985). As noted, these engineers also had to fix bridges and roads and also carried the responsibility for dissassembling internal fortifications, a project that was continued into the time of Vauban. Master-masons were also called on to complete this work (Buisseret 1965). It was a time of transition. There was need for middle management or bureaucracie that could fix bridges, destroy strongholds, report on projects, manage the finances of towns, and conduct statistical surveys. Henri's nascent bureaucratic structure would eventually evolve to the "intendants" and "corps du genie" of Richelieu and Louis XIV.

The books of machines could have fulfilled an important role in establishing credentials. Books on fortification were still rare--as evidenced by William Cecil's interest in the genre--and there was a clear demand for books on machines. Besson, Errard, Bachot, and Ramelli weren't the only ones to create such works. There are unpublished manuscripts by the likes of Jacques Gentillātre.


References

Buisseret, David J. 1965. The communications of France during the reconstruction of Henri IV. The Economic History Review. 18.2: 267-277.

Buisseret. 1966. A stage in the development of the French intendants: the reign of Henri IV. The Hisotrical Journal. 9.1: 27-38.

Buisseret, David. 1985. The cartographic definition of france's eastern boundary in the early seventeenth century. Imago mundi, 36: 72-80.

Goodman, David C. (1988) Power and penury: Government, technology, and science in Philip II's Spain.


Heller, Henry (1996). Labour, science, and technology in France, 1500-1620. Cambridge University Press, New York.

White, Lynn. 1975. Medieval engineering and the sociology of knowledge. The pacific historical review. 44.1: 1-21.

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