Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Intro to Two Bridges

There's something I've been meaning to write for a while. I think this entry will basically be the lead for an article that compares two bridge designs: one ancient (from Bachot) and one (relatively) modern.

These two figures clearly depict designs of bridges. When compared to the modern design, however, Besson's design seems somehow naive. Indeed, the entire genre of the theatrum machinarum has come under fire. Gille, for example, commented on the “puerility” of the authors' florid imaginations and Edgerton referred to them as “coffee-table books” for aristocrats (Dolza & Verin, 2004). Basalla (1988) even compared them to the fantastical mechanical creations of Rube Goldberg, the muse of such diversions as the board game Mousetrap.

But why does the modern design seem so much more real to our modern eyes? Contemplating the two figures, I begin to get a sense of vertigo as the canyon of historicity yawns in front of me. As a civil engineer, I'm aware of the standardized elements of the modern design that make it seem real. But as an historian of technology I'm aware that these elements each have a long and drawn out history of skirmishes and sorties that were fought to in order to fabricate the standards. I'm reminded of Henry Adams who visited the great Paris exhibition of 1900. He was overcome by the sudden emergence of the awesome power of electrical technology. He described the experience as having "his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new." Contemplating these two images has induced in me a very similar experience but its not modernity that has overwhelmed me; it's the lurking depths of historicity.

The purpose of this paper is partially to articulate how technical drawing evolved from the puerile drawings of Bachot to the real drawings of the modern design. I intend to invoke Donald MacKenzie's call to undertake studies of technology, "not to settle priority disputes, not to satisfy antiquarian curiosity, not for celebration, but because only through history can we find how the ship got into the bottle, how the technological artefacts and the technological knowledge we take for granted became takeable for granted." (p. 254) Specifically, I explore the emergence of particular standards that are exploited in the modern drawing. As noted by Bowker and Star, standards are particularly important in questions of the "taken-for-grantedness of objects" (p.15) The back story of standards is a particularly elusive quarry. They represent the types of text that "overtly aim to negate their own status as discourse in order to produce, at the practical level, behaviour or practices held to be legitimate or useful." (Chartier, 1989, p.170)

The paper addresses the emergence of three particular types of standards. The first is technical drawing, a crucial consideration for why the drawing appears the way it does. The second concerns units of measurement. The third isn't about the referent rather than the image. It is about the origin of perhaps the most banal aspect of technical drawings: standard structural shapes i.e., the shape of the I-beam.


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