Humming, Gurgling and Whistling

Donald MacKenzie

  • Engineering the Revolution: Arms and Enlightenment in France, 1763-1815 by Ken Alder
    Princeton, 494 pp, £45.00, April 1997, ISBN 0 691 02671 8

In July 1785, Thomas Jefferson, then American Ambassador to France, paid a visit to the dungeon of the Château de Vincennes. Its three-metre-thick walls had previously imprisoned Diderot and the Marquis de Sade. Now, however, it housed the workshop of a gunsmith, Honoré Blanc, and a dozen assistants. As Jefferson watched, Blanc sorted into bins the pieces of 50 musket flintlocks: ‘tumblers, lock plates, frizzens, pans, cocks, sears, bridals, screws and springs’. From the parts in the bins, Blanc assembled several working gunlocks.

What the astonished Jefferson saw has become commonplace in the 20th century. Guns, cars, ordinary mechanical artefacts are all now made by assembly from interchangeable parts. If one part fails, we can readily replace it with another. In the 18th century, however, interchangeability seemed a distant dream, as utopian as political democracy had seemed before the American Revolution. The final assembly of a mechanical artifact was a laborious process of filing parts until they fitted well enough. In consequence, if a gun failed on the battlefield, it was impossible simply to replace the broken part with another, identical, one.

The modern reader may wonder why Jefferson sought out the gunsmith. In school, we are taught that modernity was brought about by revolutions of two kinds: political (as in America and France) and industrial. If the connections between the two are discussed at all, it is only at the most superficial level. The thesis of Ken Alder’s Engineering the Revolution is that the links go deep: into the subterranean 18th-century processes from which the French Revolution emerged; into the underpinnings of the military successes that almost gave Napoleonic France control of Europe; into the technical heart of guns themselves.

Some of the connections can be seen in the lens of a single day, 10 September 1792. It was a day when the French Revolution could easily have been snuffed out. Advancing towards Paris was a Prussian army, accompanied, as it happens, by Goethe. The Prussians expected a walk-over. They were admired and feared throughout Europe for inspired generalship and brutal discipline, and they thought they faced only a Revolutionary rabble. As the armies met, however, Goethe heard an unnerving sound – ‘humming ... gurgling ... whistling’ – that he was to say signalled ‘the beginning of a new epoch’. It was the sound of the cannonballs of the massive artillery barrage that saved Revolutionary France.

The architect of the cannonade of Valmy – and the patron of Honoré Blanc – was a man who had died three years before the battle: Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval. Born in 1715 to a recently ennobled family, the mathematically talented de Gribeauval rose rapidly via the artillery, a career path open to young men of modest means but one that was vaguely disreputable for an aristocrat, in that it involved the cowardly dealing out of death at a distance. A temporary move to the service of the Habsburg emperor served him well: at Schweidnitz in 1761-62 he held off a large force of besieging Prussians until Frederick the Great came in person to lead the assault. From 1763 onwards, de Gribeauval struggled for control of the French artillery service, becoming its first inspector-general in 1775.

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