Bunch-Hellemans, Technology in the Encyclopedia of Diderot

During the 18th century, few books on technology appeared in England –– progress in technology was the domain of the practitioner. In France, however, the savant was actively interested in technology, and there was a deluge of books on the topic.

As early as in 1675, Louis XIV instructed the French Académie des Sciences to create a treatise on all the machines used by artisans and manufacturers. Jacques Buot started work on this project, but died before he could accomplish anything. The project came in the hands of several committees but remained essentially dormant until 1751, when the first volume of Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, a competing project, was published. It greatly interested the French public.

The Descriptions des arts et métiers, faites ou approuvées par Messieurs de l’Académie des Sciences avec figures (“description of the arts and trades made or approved by the members of the Académie des Sciences, with illustrations”) did not start actual publication until 1761. The first volume was L’art du charbonnier (“the art of the coal miner”). Etching of plates to illustrate the volumes, however, had been started very much earlier, around the end of the 17th century. Consequently, once actual publication started, the Descriptions des arts et métiers was complete in 20 volumes at an average rate of one a year, finishing in 1781.

The Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des art, et des métiers, published by Diderot and Jean Le Rond D’Alembert, took twice as long to complete from first volume to supplement. But it was the Encyclopédie and not the Descriptions that became the most influential work of the Enlightenment, mainly because of the introduction of new ideas and views in the Encyclopédie, many opposing the existing order imposed by church and state. The authors shocked in other ways as well, as in Voltaire’s learned article on fornication in Volume VII (1757).

By 1759 publication was stopped on orders of the government, but various means were found to proceed anyway. According to one story (attributed to Voltaire) the final permission to publish resulted from Madame de Pompadour remarking that she did not understand how her rouge or silk stockings were made. The duc de la Vallière said that the answers to her questions could be found in the outlawed Encyclopédie. When this truth had been demonstrated to Madame and to Louis XV, the king lifted the ban and publication was hurriedly completed before he could change his mind.

One of the aims of the Encyclopédie editors and authors, known as the encyclopédistes, was to give a complete picture of technology as it existed at the time. The encyclopédistes were convinced that technical knowledge had to be treated the same way as other forms of knowledge, thus making technology part of culture. In this Diderot defended the artisan, the manual worker, affirming that the expertise of the artisan is as valuable as that of the artist. The efforts of the encyclopédistes resulted in a very large collection of plates of machines and tools, and a large number of articles on the different arts and crafts, making the Encyclopédie the most complete source of information on the state of technology during the first half of the 18th century.

A large number of the articles were written by Diderot himself, including many on technology, describing manufacture of steel and bronze; agriculture and bread making; needles, shirts, and shoes, as well as Madame Pompadour’s silk stockings; and the boring machine. Diderot did not rely only on existing descriptions of machines and techniques but observed how artisans used their machines. Then he tried to explain the construction and functioning of these machines as best he could, with mixed results. One of the most interesting articles is Diderot’s one on the knitting machine for stockings, a moderately sophisticated machine invented in England by William Lee about 1589, which Diderot learned to operate himself. He also supervised the famous illustrations showing the textile industry, gunpowder production, and pin manufacture.

The main reason that Diderot wrote most of the articles treating with technology himself was that he could not find authors for these articles. The members of the Académie des Sciences were involved with their own project, the Descriptions des arts et métiers, and many of the practitioners of the different technologies were not skilled at explaining their own work. However, a number of engineers and scientists contributed articles and several artisans contributed articles on their craft: Contributions on clocks were written by two well-known watchmakers in Paris, J.B. Leroy and Ferdinant Berthoud.

The technology described in the Encyclopédie remained, however, traditional, not progressive. The editors aimed at showing the perfection of machines and crafts and included very little about developments that took place during the preparation of the encyclopedia. The topic of steam engines is hidden away in the article “Fire,” and some of the articles, such as “Forging,” describe methods that were already outdated.