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Reviewed by:
  • Ingénieurs et Entreprises, XIXe–XXIe siècle [Engineers and companies, 19th–21th centuries] ed. by Florent le Bot and Alain P. Michel
  • Pierre Verschueren (bio)
Ingénieurs et Entreprises, XIXe–XXIe siècle [Engineers and companies, 19th–21th centuries] Edited by Florent le Bot and Alain P. Michel. Special issue, Artefact 13 (2020). Pp. 492.

French history of work is flourishing and by no means institutionally marginalized. From 2021 to at least 2023, maybe 2024, every history student candidate for the agrégation and other competitive examinations for positions in secondary education will have to study "Work in Western Europe from the 1830s to the 1930s. Craft and industrial labor, practices and social issues." History of technology and its role in social change is one of the main perspectives explored. Such conjuncture, creating a strong demand for books on the topic, can only reinforce the field: this special issue of Artefact brings its building block by focusing on engineers, more precisely their training, careers, and activities.

Students—and professors—need good syntheses. The opening paper by Florent Le Bot and Alain P. Michel is especially useful, as it provides a state-of-the-art historiographical overview striving to highlight the major features of European engineers. The substance of the argument is that the need for new engineers is correlated with the industrialization processes, and that the structuring of education systems is linked with specific state configurations. In order to draw an accurate portrait of such a multifaceted character as the engineer, they insist that a multifocal approach is crucial: historians need to study both the engineers' forms of sociability as a group, through examining schools and associations, and their actions in their professional and social environments, through case studies and biographies. [End Page 272]

A collection of four essays, focusing on engineer training in France, starts with a stimulating historical survey by André Grelon. He describes the world of the grandes écoles since the French Revolution, underlining the foundational role of the École Polytechnique and the strength of the reconfigurations imposed first by the creation of the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in 1829 and then the opening of institutes for training engineers in the science faculties, starting in 1896. The École Centrale was the first to award an engineering diploma. As the other schools followed suit, the diploma gradually became a major tool for identification and hierarchization, to discriminate between engineers and non-engineers, and to rank the engineers. Grelon's paper is most stimulating when read in conjunction with the final paper of the collection by Éric Godelier, who questions the origins of the 1934 official recognition of the engineering diploma, underlining its crucial role in professional identity building for a profession marked by great heterogeneity.

Hervé Joly's paper, focusing on the profiles and careers of the 1901 generation of engineering students, substantiates those claims: even if the curricula often have a generalist streak, the schools and their diplomas are quite clearly socially ranked; their official rivalry is therefore only relative in practice, as they draw their students from different social and geographical groups. Those engineers are typically versatile: Alexandre Moatti, studying the first industrial engineers from the École Polytechnique through five case studies, suggests that the same polytechnicians can act and think successively and concurrently as scholars, inventors, industrialists, entrepreneurs, and even investors in industrial firms. In fact, specialized training seems to be quite rarely rewarded in the French industrial world. As Virginie Fonteneau's article shows, the ingénieur-docteur diploma, created in 1924 to establish a new engineering elite through research training, struggled to find its niche from a few of the selected local industrial ecosystems. Those articles are especially useful, as they all show how many varieties can be found beneath apparent similarities. It is therefore regrettable that there is little to no attempt to compare French engineering and the profession elsewhere—outside of Le Bot and Michel's paper.

The second and third parts of the collection comprise articles on in-depth case studies in order to study the relationships between engineers and their environments, showing how individual trajectories can illuminate wider topics. Bertrand...


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pp. 272-274
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