Abstract

This paper characterizes the invention of the aerostatic machine in 1783 as a social drama to probe its social, cultural, and political function in Old Regime France. Even if the machine did not usher in modern industrialization and does not deserve a prominent place in economic history, the process of its “invention” highlights a rather usual set of factors involved in changing a traditional society organized by symbolic hierarchy. By delineating its provincial sites of production, its machine genealogy, the performative conjuncture of various sciences that facilitated its birth, and its metamorphosis in the Parisian public sphere, this paper makes visible the inventors’ liminality in theatrical polity and their strategies of self-fashioning that stabilized a fragile paper machine as a majestic scientific spectacle that helped visualize the emergent nation.

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