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Technology and Culture 46.1 (2005) 177-186

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The Annales and the History of Technology

Annales d'histoire économique et sociale 7 (November 1935), Les techniques, l'histoire et la vie

A significant locus for the origins of the history of technology as a discipline can be found in the Annales d'histoire économique et sociale, established in 1929 by Marc Bloch (1886-1944) and Lucien Febvre (1878- 1956).1 Bloch and Febvre sought to expand historical studies beyond the traditional concerns of politics, diplomacy, war, and great leaders, and to create stronger analytical frameworks drawing on social and economic history. Bloch embraced comparative methods and focused on rural and agrarian history, while Febvre emphasized the unity of knowledge and the importance of interdisciplinary cooperation between historians and social scientists.2 In [End Page 177] November 1935, seven years after founding their journal, Bloch and Febvre published a special issue titled Les techniques, l'histoire et la vie, a collection of empirically based articles, criticism, and prescriptive and programmatic statements.3 It is a landmark in the historiography of technology.

In an introductory essay, Febvre considered the problems and topics that should be investigated under the rubric of a new discipline called the history of techniques. He pointed to three approaches that such a history should encompass. The first would be to investigate techniques themselves, that is, the procedures that workers have used for each task and for each era. This history of techniques must be written by technicians. Yet those technicians could not shut themselves off from a broader analysis of historical times and places, for techniques do not remain isolated in their place of origin. Rather, they are borrowed by others, and technical secrets are eventually revealed. The historian should thus be able to follow techniques across time and space; even a "technical history of techniques" must be grounded in an understanding of the general conditions (social, economic, political) within which they were used and transmitted.4

Secondly, Febvre suggested that the historian should be able to understand the progress of techniques, both their incremental transformation and the precipitous changes or "revolutions" that create radically new situations. A key problem, in Febvre's view, would concern the complex reciprocal relationships of theory and practice—the role of science in technical accomplishments and the role of techniques in science. The third approach would concern, even more broadly, the relationship of techniques to other human activities, both individual and collective, including art, religion, politics, and military affairs. Each era, Febvre contended, has its own techniques and its own style. A fundamental problem for modern research was to explain how techniques and "what one can call general history" have influenced one another.5 [End Page 178]

These three approaches to a history of technology—the technical history of techniques, the study of both incremental and revolutionary change, and investigation of the relationships of techniques and other human activities—must be inseparable and "perfectly united." Such a history, Febvre believed, could only be constructed through a cooperative effort of scholars from various disciplines. Archaeologists have discovered ancient tools, ethnologists have discovered "primitive" tools, engineers have explained the workings of complicated modern mechanisms. Others have demonstrated the interrelationships of techniques and science. (Here Febvre pointed to Georges Cuvier's use of the techniques of dissection and of injecting the vessels of small animals with colored substances to better see them, contrasting this practice with Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's more theoretical approach.) In Febvre's view, to undertake all three approaches to the history of techniques and to explore the full range of relationships within them would require various kinds of investigators, including technicians interested in the history of their own techniques, engineers, chemists, and historians of civilization. All must collaborate—not in the sense of creating parallel, unrelated studies, but rather by confronting and questioning one another's ideas and areas of expertise.6

The essays collected in Les techniques, l'histoire et la vie reflected Febvre's and Bloch's broad ambitions and great range, both chronological and...


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