Constructing a Bridge
An Exploration of Engineering Culture, Design, and Research in Nineteenth-Century France and America
448 pp., 5 x 9 in,
- Published: November 15, 1996
A historical look at styles of technological research and design.
If it is true, as Tocqueville suggested, that social and class systems shape technology, research, and knowledge, then the effects should be visible both at the individual level and at the level of technical institutions and local environments. That is the central issue addressed in Constructing a Bridge, a tale of two cultures that investigates how national traditions shape technological communities and their institutions and become embedded in everyday engineering practice. Eda Kranakis first examines these issues in the work of two suspension bridge designers of the early nineteenth century: the American inventor James Finley and the French engineer Claude-Louis-Marie-Henri Navier. Finley—who was oriented toward the needs of rural, frontier communities—designed a bridge that could be easily reproduced and constructed by carpenters and blacksmiths. Navier—whose professional training and career reflected a tradition of monumental architecture and had linked him closely to the Parisian scientific community—designed an elegant, costly, and technically sophisticated structure to be built in an elite district of Paris. Charting the careers of these two technologists and tracing the stories of their bridges, Kranakis reveals how local environments can shape design goals, research practices, and design-to-construction processes. Kranakis then offers a broader look at the technological communities and institutions of nineteenth-century France and America and at their ties to technological practice. She shows how conditions that led to Finley's and Navier's distinct designs also fostered different systems of technical education as well as distinct ideologies and traditions of engineering research.The result of this two-tiered, comparative approach is a reorientation of a historiographic tradition initiated by Tocqueville (and explored more recently by Eugene Ferguson, John Kasson, and others) toward a finer-grained analysis of institutional and local environments as mediators between national traditions and individual styles of technological research and design.
This is a fundamental contribution to the new paradigm of the history of technology. Eda Kranakis constructs bridges on several levels. One spans ideology, social, and institutional structure to detailed studies of engineering practice. Another is the comparative approach which brings out national differences in engineering culture and research traditions. A third links studies of technological knowledge, the design process and the social shaping of technology. It is a truly important book that will make a difference to the field of history of technology as a scholarly discipline. It will interest historians and engineers alike.
Svante Lindquist, Professor of History of Technology, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm
Eda Kranakis has written a finely-researched study in the history of 19th-century technology that contrasts engineering ideas, education, and designs developed in France to those pursued in the United States. Her comparative approach has the technological richness of suspension bridges and the cultural depth of general social theories. This lively book is accessible to the general public and will delight the specialist in either history or technology.
David P. Billington, Civil Engineering & Operations Research, Princeton University