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Carriages, coffee-cups and dynamometers :representing French technical cultures in the London Mechanics’ Magazine,1823-1848





British discussions of French technical culture have often assumed, if not explicitly stated, contrasting ‘national styles’ : centralized, state-oriented, theoretically driven, and institutionally supported work in France ; dispersed, individualistic, empirically driven, school-shy practice in Britain. In this paper I examine a spectrum of French-British technical interactions during the second quarter of the nineteenth century and ask whether such caricatures have any power. To make this study more concrete I consider representations of France, and of French technical culture, in one important British periodical and, by way of occasional contrast, in some British professional and academic institutions. From the late 1830s there was a notable increase in the volume of technical literature ; but here, I focus on a periodical founded in 1823. The Mechanics’ Magazine (MM) was edited and printed in London but it was read far more widely. Its readership consisted primarily of literate but disputatious mechanics. Defining themselves against the gentlemanly, status-conscious civil engineers, the literary activists of the MM celebrated democracy, discourse and dispute. Their gaze fell on France and on French figures, institutions, technical processes, textbooks and theories. France was a distant arena of mechanical politics. There, exhibitions (it said) pandered to the useless wants of the aristocracy – were there only Kings in France ? There, Protestant craftsmen had resisted Catholic oppressors. There, fledgling Mechanics’ Institutes struggled against despotism. But not all was caricature : France was the land of heroes, like Charles Dupin, or a workplace for skilled artisans ; through de Pambour, Poncelet and Morin it could be a source, selectively, of technical insight and theory – even if built upon the example of British engineering works. Such representations of French technical culture ‘from below’ complement existing accounts of intellectual, cultural, or political encounter ; and they provide some clues as to the mechanisms whereby elite technical literature from France was appropriated in Britain.

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