Underlying this book has been a different assumption, and hence a different kind of history. It is time, therefore, to confront one of the more radical implications of the historicist view of technology I have been developing: the possibility that a technology (even a technology accounted "superior") can be rejected, discontinued, and forgotten. In Tokugawa Japan, it should be remembered, all knowledge of firearms was systematically exorcised. Similarly, the ideal of interchangeable parts production pioneered in late-eighteenth-century France was repudiated in the nineteenth century. That repudiation was sufficiently thorough that today we know this method of production as the "American system of manufactures." Disbelief and ridicule greeted those manufacturers who tried to interest the French state in interchangeable gun manufacture in the 1850s. At a time when the British were importing an entire panoply of American machine tools to outfit their Enfield arsenal, the French only half-heartedly integrated a few more machines into their existing armories. Only late in the nineteenth century did the French arms industry become the nexus of an indigenous machine-tool trade (as had been the case in America for several decades). This chronology of discovery and its subsequent fifty-year erasure violates several of our most basic assumptions about the "natural" history of technology--at least as it is supposed to have unfolded in the heroic age of the industrializing West. Why was interchangeable parts manufacturing, with its promise of efficiency and gain, repudiated in France? What can explain this strange "technological amnesia"?Engineering the Revolution is a fascinating book, not because it overturns our assumptions about the American origins of interchangeable parts (I honestly don't care all that much) but because of what it says about interactions between technical elites and other kinds of interest groups. In brief, Alder's argument is that ancien regime France possessed a very recognizable elite of engineers in the form of professional artillerists. In the decades immediately preceding the Revolution, a faction of these engineers attempted to institute standardization and objective standards in arms manufacturing, a project which failed in the face of opposition from the private gunsmiths who were actually responsible for producing muskets. Although an experimental attempt at a interchangeable-parts-based gun workshop proved resoundingly successful, during the Napoleonic era it was abandoned as a failure because of competition from other factions in the artillery.
- Ken Alder, Engineering the Revolution: Arms and Enlightenment in France, 1763-1815
All this is fairly uninteresting to anyone not specifically involved with the French Revolution or the history of technology. But Alder makes a key point (adapting a line of reasoning from Ted Porter) in the course of developing his argument, and it is one that needs to be taken seriously as an analytical principle: objective standards, in particular those which are measured using concrete physical objects like gauges and calipers, do not come about naturally in the course of nebulous developments such as "rationalization" or "technological progress." Rather, they are the outcome of failed negotiations over trust, authority, and verification.
Alder's most prominent example are go and no-go gauges. A go gauge, in its simplest form, would be something like a metal circle of determinate size through which a cannonball must fit in order to be judged "standards-compliant," while a no-go gauge establishes a similar lower bound for size (the cannonball must not be able to fit through it). These seem like elementary improvements to the production process: what ordnance-maker wouldn't want to have some way of verifying the quality of his finished product?
In fact things are rather less simple. The adoption of a gauge system totally reconfigures the power relationship between the various players involved in arms manufacturing. The craftsman who makes the balls no longer has the authority to judge his product, while the engineer entrusted with developing and deploying the gauges suddenly has a bird's eye view of the production process. The state stops being a customer and starts being an overseer; suddenly the implicit tolerances and instinctive calculations involved in production need to be made explicit and accessible to outside management.
Obviously lots of different stories can be told about these sorts of situations: we can call them "scientific management" or we can call them "dehumanization." But what happens to the gauge in all this? After it's introduced to the context of contestation, we forget about it completely, as if the decision to create a standard and decide on a tolerance were totally separate from that context. It becomes a unit of measurement, safe from any epistemological challenge precisely because of its arbitrariness.
Phrasing this point explicitly seems in itself to suggest that all standards are false or suspect or something. That isn't what it means at all. Since standards derive their authority from some form of mutual consent, they by definition cannot be "false." But they do, like Marx's famous table-shaking commodity, concretize and thereby conceal a whole web of individual desires and goals. For any historically-minded person, this unlocks a whole way of thinking about the world. All around us are the material and solid records of any number of battles won or lost; we've just never heard of most of them. These gauges, it turned out, was part of a losing system.