- Jean-Antoine Chaptal and the Cultural Roots of French Industrialization
Inexorably, the French Revolution paved the way for a new industrial vision. Among the men who came to power after 1789, a consensus had formed: France was a technologically backward state relative to its major competitor, Great Britain. Scientific journals, spy reports, informal visits to Britain by French citizens, and the disastrous repercussions of the 1786 Anglo-French Commercial Treaty for the French cotton industry all pointed, it seemed, toward France’s technological deficit. Many revolutionary leaders based this assessment on an ingrained anticlericalism. Education, they believed, held the key to progress, and the clergy had controlled French education for centuries. For the revolutionaries, the answer to France’s lack of industrial and technological development began with education and continued with the introduction of a new and dramatically altered scientific culture, one that favored application over theory. Under the ancien régime, French science had been brilliantly mathematical and theoretical—more so than its British counterpart. But French practitioners had seldom looked toward mechanical application or mass dissemination. 1
Many late-eighteenth-century voices were articulating the emerging consensus about French industry, and many attempted to rectify the perceived [End Page 671] technology gap. 2 In this article, we will focus primarily on the vision of Jean-Antoine Chaptal (1756–1832), chemist, entrepreneur, bureaucrat, reformer, and Freemason. As Napoléon’s most innovative minister of the interior (from November 1800 to July 1804), Chaptal played a major role in the creation of a host of new institutions that laid the foundation for a uniquely French approach to industrial development. A reformer who would be considered ruthless, Chaptal intervened in the systems of professional education from engineering to medicine, with the intention—his enemies believed—of making them more democratic.
The pattern of the nineteenth-century French state’s involvement in education, manufacturing, and the industrial arts took shape quite early in the century. Chaptal, like many others during the revolutionary period, believed that science, properly taught and applied, offered the key to solving industrial problems. This vision, which sought to create a scientific meritocracy, became central to France’s approach to development throughout the nineteenth century. 3 Partly because of the expansion of the French state under Napoléon, other continental countries soon imitated the French model. 4 The approach to science and technology taken by French revolutionaries such as Chaptal historicizes our current definitions of science and technology, blurring the clear, seldom-questioned demarcation between these fraternal twins. Chaptal’s ideological pronouncements on the utilitarian direction necessary in science and his ideas on how science should be brought to bear on industrial innovation further demonstrate the distinctive role that the French accorded to scientific research and scientifically trained engineers. His ideas had their historical origins in the enlightened milieu of the eighteenth century and were refined in the crucible of revolutionary experience. 5 Before 1789, French engineers saw [End Page 672] themselves as dedicated solely to public service, to making commerce flourish through public works. As Antoine Picon has shown, their self-perception was “a mélange of authoritarianism and abstract generosity.” By 1802, the state engineering corps, reformed and opened to new men by the mores of meritocracy, saw that a direct relationship to entrepreneurs had become essential. 6 Engineers shifted their roles toward commerce and industry, abandoning their traditional hauteur in favor of active engagement in industrial life.
From a tentative beginning after 1795, a new cadre took center stage in an effort to develop the technology that they considered essential to France’s industrial takeoff. These men were scientifically trained bureaucrats educated in the new schools established by the various revolutionary governments. Many of them were engineers whose reformed training made them increasingly aware of entrepreneurial interests. By the 1830s and 1840s, their work had paid off. 7 A long-term perspective on the cultural roots of industrialization must consider the distinctively French industrial vision that originated in the late eighteenth century; implemented during and after the revolutionary era, it deeply influenced nineteenth-century developments in industry. The new men of the 1790s created and systematized a scientific...