- The Grammar of Technology: German and French Diesel Engineering, 1920–1940
At a meeting of the Verein Deutscher Ingenieure (VDI, German Engineering Society) in 1925 Imanuel Lauster, an honorary doctor of engineering, expressed his “deep satisfaction” with the latest successful developments in diesel engineering. As a board member of the Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg (M.A.N.), he was pleased to note that it was German engineers and companies that deserved the credit for this success. Lauster claimed that “the diesel engine in its present form is still a German engine” and hoped that “it will remain so.” 1
Lauster did not utter these words in connection with any kind of celebration or anniversary. His assertion of the German character of the diesel engine at that time was meant as an exhortation to retain Teutonic hegemony in the field of diesel engineering. Growing international interest in the engine was threatening to shift the initiative away from German firms to foreign companies. Lauster’s address could be interpreted as a desperate attempt to build a German coalition that could withstand foreign competition and influence. A couple of years later, similar attempts would actually lead to the design of a German “uniform diesel” (Einheitsdiesel). [End Page 26]
Lauster had his own ax to grind. Rudolf Diesel had grown up in France but had been forced to leave that country during the Franco-Prussian war. He had accepted the Frenchman Sadi Carnot’s idea of the optimally efficient heat-engine process as his visionary goal, and he had lived for a decade in Paris as an adult. 2 The following comment attributed to Diesel makes Lauster’s worries more understandable: “If I had not been chased out of France, then the engine that carries my name might have been French.” 3 As things turned out, it was in Germany that Diesel would work out his first design plans and build a network of industrialists that could help him start to realize his ideas. Central to this network had been Maschinenfabrik Augsburg, one of the parent firms of M.A.N. 4 Lauster regarded it as a question of honor that the original design characteristics from this early period be acknowledged, at least by German companies.
In connecting artifacts and nationality, Lauster and Diesel reflected views that slowly began to emerge among historians and sociologists in their own time. In 1908 Conrad Matschoß, a pioneer of German history of technology, discerned what he saw as national differences between German and French steam-engine designs. 5 During World War I, Thorstein Veblen, the freethinking American sociologist and economist, delivered an analysis in which he contrasted the industrialization paths of these two European countries. 6 Their ideas had little effect at the time, and it would be more than half a century before similar ideas began to reemerge in a serious fashion in the writings of historians and sociologists interested in technological change. As in many other discourses, Lewis Mumford played a significant role. 7 His discussion about how authoritarian technologies developed in some parts of the world and democratic ones in other parts anticipated what during the last decade has become a surge of interest in the political, social, and cultural basis of technology. 8 In recent scholarship, national differences [End Page 27] in how technologies are developed and used have been extensively analyzed. The sociologist Werner Rammert has, for instance, drawn our attention to the various shapes and user patterns that characterize the telephone system in different countries. 9
This article aims to contribute to the emerging scholarship on cultural differences in technology. In the history of technology, the concept of “style” has been commonly used as a tool for national and regional comparisons. Perhaps most well known is Thomas Hughes’s analysis of differing technological styles operative in the electricity networks of Berlin, London, and Chicago. 10 Hans-Liudger Dienel has lately picked up this thread, suggesting that the style of German refrigeration technology was strongly influenced by the engineering sciences, whereas the American style was governed more by the structural demands posed by mass production. 11 Alain Dewerpe has talked about “national styles of...