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No. 2507:
The Unsung Engineer

Today, celebrating the mechanical arts. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Much has been written about Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie. It's a monumental work, filled with articles by the leading thinkers of the Enlightenment. And among other things it celebrates what today we'd call the engineer.

The Encyclopédie opens with d'Alembert's Preliminary Discourse. The Discourse is often pointed to as an articulation of Enlightenment ideals, and it paints the landscape for the many articles that follow.

At one point, d'Alembert admits to a troubling reality: that society viewed the liberal arts as "superior" to the mechanical arts. Literature. Music. Languages. Philosophy. These were the liberal arts, expected of the wealthy upper classes, not fit for the lower classes. They were juxtaposed against bricklaying, tailoring, blacksmithing, watch making, and other mechanical arts practiced by the lower classes.

image of backsmithing

image of bookbinding

In keeping with Enlightenment ideals, d'Alembert viewed this perceived superiority as both "unjust" and "ridiculous." But as a member of the learned class, well versed in the liberal arts, his arguments sometimes displayed a certain bias.

For example, in defending the mechanical arts, d'Alembert writes, "… the advantage that the liberal arts have over the mechanical arts, because of their demands upon the intellect … is sufficiently counterbalanced by the quite superior usefulness [of the mechanical arts]." It seems that d'Alembert thought the mechanical arts were not inferior because they were useful — not because they demanded great intellect. I'd have to argue with that.

But to d'Alembert's credit, he recognized the skill required by practitioners of the mechanical arts. And he lamented how history ignored these savvy men and women. 

"The contempt in which the mechanical arts are held seems to have affected … even their inventors," writes d'Alembert. "The names of these benefactors of humankind are almost all unknown, whereas the history of its … conquerors, is known to everyone … I admit that most of the [mechanical] arts have been invented only little by little and that it required a rather long [time] to bring watches, for example, to their present point of perfection. But is not the same true of the sciences?" D'Alembert asks a good question. If we remember famous scientists, why can't we remember famous engineers? He continues.

"Moreover, … there are certain machines [whose] invention must almost of necessity be due to a single man. Is not that man of genius, whose name is shrouded in oblivion, well worthy of being placed beside the small number of creative minds who have opened new routes for us in the sciences?"

Here on the Engines of our Ingenuity, I think we'd have to answer with a resounding yes.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


An online translation of the Encyclopédie can be found at Accessed June 30, 2009.

The Encyclopédie contains many pictures of the mechanical arts. The blacksmith and bookbinding pictures, from the original work, are taken from it.


image of backsmithing