Making Things the Same: Representation, Tolerance and the End of the Ancien Régime in France

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Alder, Ken


Social Studies of Science, Volume 28, Issue 4, p.499-545 (1998)



This paper documents the connection between the technological and political transformations of late 18th-century France. Its subject is the efforts of state military engineers to produce functionally identical artifacts (interchangeable parts manufacturing). These efforts faced resistance from artisans and merchants attached to the corporate-absolutist ancien régime, for whom artifacts were idiosyncratic, and `thick' with multiple meanings. I argue that to oblige artisans to produce standardized artifacts, the military engineers defined these artifacts with instruments such as technical drawing and the tools of manufacturing tolerance, which the engineers then refined in increasingly rule-bound ways to forestall further subversion by artisans. Hence, I offer a historical account of how the `objectivity' of these artifacts was the outcome of social conflict and negotiation over the terms of an exchange. In particular, I explain why engineers eventually turned to projective drawings (including the descriptive geometry) over alternative ways of representing artifacts (such as free-hand, academic, and perspectival drawings). And I document the origins of manufacturing tolerance, in which the dimensions of an artifact were circumscribed with gauges and machine-tools to preclude possible sources of disagreement. The paper closes with its own `thick' narrative of how standards of production emerged out of social conflict in a particular community on the eve of the French Revolution - a process which reflected the emerging political `toleration' of the French state for its citizen-producers. The SCOT programme can be used to provide a political account of how the operation of seemingly `objective' artifacts can be coordinated across vast physical, temporal and cultural boundaries.