The Book Will Kill the Edifice? Mechanics Manuals and Learning to Draw in the Early and Mid-Nineteenth Century

In Notre-Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo (1802–1885) wrote, “the book will kill the edifice.” Spoken by Archdeacon Claude Frollo, this phrase signified the view that the Renaissance was “that setting sun we mistake for a dawn.”[1] Understood as a revolution in tectonics away from the organic and toward the classical, the Renaissance had separated sculpture, painting, and architecture—carved and parceled them out from what was formerly a single edifice of Gothic construction. The mechanism? Printing. Whereas Gothic architecture had reflected and affirmed the entire intellectual investment of society, the various arts and sciences were now contained in books.


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It is no coincidence that this account emerged in the nineteenth century, an era of rapid industrial change accompanied by a revival of the Gothic. Despite the role Hugo accorded to the printing press, the production and circulation of early modern “theatres of machines” had not divided mind from hand in production. These phenomena were efforts of his own time. The project of distilling design from fabrication—and placing design prior to fabrication, instead of in ongoing dialogue with it—developed in the standardizing military engineering of the French Revolution and culminated in the scientific management movements of the fin-de-siècle.[2]

One encounters conflicting historical accounts of the role technical print culture played in the social transformation of industry. On one hand, economic historians have argued that burgeoning productive exchange between savants and fabricants, personally and within technical print culture, gave rise to an “industrial enlightenment” in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.[3] On the other hand, social historians have described how the Encyclopédie, brought out between 1751 and 1772 by Denis Diderot (1713–1784) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717–1783), aimed to unveil crafts work processes to an emergent bourgeois public, thereby appropriating knowledge and subjecting it to a rationalizing, managerial gaze.[4]

This interpretative conundrum becomes all the more puzzling for the 1830s, when innovations in printing such as stereotyping and lithography made mechanics manuals equipped with numerous tables and drawings cheaply accessible. A subscription to the Encyclopédie would have cost 240 livres—the annual wages of a contemporary Parisian workman.[5] A century later, in 1870, American publishers sold myriad works on machine design and construction costing between one and eight dollars.[6] Nineteenth-century mechanics read manuals, scrawled computational marginalia in them, and sometimes authored them. How are we to understand shifting forms of knowledge and workplace power during the early nineteenth century, when mechanics experienced the fallout of and propelled change within machine design and manufacture?

In revolutionary France, engineers and mathematicians had pursued two main techniques of reformulating and reforming artisan work processes. One route lay in the attempt of artillery officer Lt. General Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval (1715–1789) to achieve interchangeable parts in the mass production of arms via locks, jigs, and templates.[7] The other path led through the efforts of Gaspard Monge (1746–1818), a mathematician and instructor at the Ecole Polytechnique, to compel artisans to produce standardized artifacts via depictive techniques based on descriptive geometry.[8] Over the course of the nineteenth century, Monge’s system of projection would become the dominant drafting norm, as decision-making power shifted from shop floor to drafting room.

Monge’s descriptive geometry contributed to this process by solving the problem of depicting the position of a point in space and from there generating lines and curves, enabling one to find the intersections of two surfaces. The main advantage offered by a graphical method for solving such problems was that true lengths for parts could be easily inferred, preserved, and read by operatives. Surfaces whose lines of intersection with the two perpendicular planes, or “traces,” could be comprehensively shown with ease included spheres and cylinders. These forms lay at the core of steam and other industrial technologies.

Memorializing Monge upon his death in 1818, Barnabé Brisson (1777–1828) argued that Monge had recovered, revealed, and systematized crafts work processes rather than upending them entirely. Brisson wrote, “it was mainly in practical research in the arts, and in applications immediately good for the society, that Monge found pleasure in consecrating mental force … with which nature had endowed him.”[9] According to Brisson, this began as a distinctly inductive process, echoing the transcription undertaken by the authors of Encyclopédie. Monge “collected the exact processes, discovered and put into practice by obscure men, who, from time immemorial, practiced them and transmitted them in secrecy.”[10] Then he “perfected them, extended them, and coordinated them in a general theory,” forming this “science into descriptive geometry.”[11] Rather than portray this process as appropriation, Brisson implied that Monge had parlayed his gift for envisioning three-dimensional structures in his “mind’s eye” into a bridge between scientific study and the artisan working classes.

Historians of engineering drawing have cast doubt on whether Monge’s descriptive geometry, disseminated directly through print, gave rise to the drafting norms that would predominate globally in the later nineteenth century and beyond.[12] In the antebellum United States, two types of institutions propagated drafting practices, along with a rising class of publishers such as John Wiley (1808–1891) in New York and Henry Carey Baird (1825–1912) in Philadelphia: mechanics institutes and military academies.

Drawing constituted an essential part of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century bourgeois habitus in Europe and the United States.[13] “Conduct of life” guides aimed at apprentices and young mechanics (a term encompassing a wide variety of trades) extolled the virtue of attending lectures at mechanics institutes, using their libraries, and learning to draw.[14] Mechanics Institutes held numerous French mechanical, astronomical, chemical, physical, mathematical, meteorological, and mineralogical texts, including works on descriptive geometry.[15]

“Conduct of life” guides promoted a connection between learning to draw and cultivating an individualist (rather than social) republicanism. Authorial advocates of this ethos honored the dignity of labor and prized mental self-direction, but they aimed to steer readers away from the Freemasonry, Freethinking, and Workingmen’s Party politics popular among journeymen.

Drafting according to the precepts of Monge’s descriptive geometry crossed the Atlantic via West Point. Modeled after the Ecole Polytechnique, West Point employed French professors such as Claudius Crozet (1789–1864), purchased hundreds of textbooks from France, and developed a curriculum centered around engineering and mathematics that emphasized visual reasoning, whether to build fortifications or effectively survey a field, from the late 1810s and 1820s onward.[16]

In 1852, Dennis Hart Mahan (1802–1871), a military theorist and civil engineering professor at West Point from the 1820s to the 1870s, published a guide to “industrial drawing” for non-cadets. He explained that the manual had emerged out of having to “direct workmen in constructing models from drawings” and discovering that, “though in other respects very intelligent and conversant with the resources of their art, they were, with but rare exception, almost entirely ignorant of the art of rendering their ideas by a drawing, and equally so in comprehending the ideas of others, however clearly expressed, when laid before them in this way.” [17] Mahan attributed lost time and frequent errors to this visual illiteracy, deploring that he was “obliged literally to stand at the workman’s side and say ‘cut here,’ ‘saw there.’” Consequently, Mahan undertook to introduce drafting into schools among the “intelligent and more advanced boys who would soon begin their apprenticeship to some trade.”[18]

He began with the school attached to the West Point Foundry Company, whose president provided models and implements for workers’ sons to learn to draw. Mahan followed the methods proposed by graduates of the Ecole Polytechnique, such as Charles Dupin’s De la Géométrie et de la Mécanique appliqués aux Arts et Metiers en Faveur de la Classe Industrielle.  He praised the elite polytechniciens for having “brought their knowledge down to the level of the working classes, and those who had time only for elementary acquirements.”[19] Mahan asserted, “there is no person, whatever his profession, but at times has need of drawing … to render his ideas perfectly intelligible to others.” [20] Beyond the examples he deemed obvious—engineers carpenters, masons, and mechanicians—Mahan claimed that industrial drawing was “to the artisan of every class” what “writing is to all.”[21]

Mahan inscribed a distinction between drafting education for officers and for craftsmen. His textbook and classroom course for the latter did not seek to “deal with abstract reasoning on which it is based,” but rather planned to “furnish the most simple means of mastering its difficulties and applying it to the many practical purposes of which it is susceptible.” He taught industrial drawing with an apparatus to simulate the perpendicular planes of Monge’s descriptive geometry, to be built “by an ordinary carpenter and turner.” Mahan posited class-specific versions of industrial drawing. Mahan observed that “as in other handicraft operations, whatever could be gathered by the eye the hand was found apt at once to execute.” [22] Whether or not the origins of Monge’s method lay in the ateliers, it is striking that Mahan referred to drafting based on descriptive geometry as a handicraft operation. He had attempted to make “industrial drawing” into a modern conception of just that.

Historians of technology have often noted the role of the “mind’s eye” when individual inventors envision means of power conveyance.[23] Tracing the history of drafting with mechanics manuals invites us to understand learning to draw as a complex social process, wherein democratized access to and popular participation in reformatting technical knowhow lived alongside new forms of stratification and dependency. This paradox finds its echo in our time.

Liat Spiro is a PhD candidate in the Department of History, Harvard University. Her Twitter handle is @LiatSpiro.


  1. Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris (Brussels: A. Jamar, 1840), 28.  ↩
  2. Ken Alder, Engineering the Revolution: Arms and Enlightenment in France, 1763–1815 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997); David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865–1925 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).  ↩
  3. Joel Mokyr, The Gifts of Athena: Historical Origins of the Knowledge Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002); Margaret C. Jacob, The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy, 1750–1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).  ↩
  4. William Sewell, “Visions of Labor: Illustrations of the Mechanical Arts before, in, and after Diderot’s Encyclopédie,” in Work in France: Representations, Meaning, Organization, and Practice, ed. Steven L. Kaplan and Cynthia J. Koepp (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986).  ↩
  5. Olivier Lavoisy, “Illustration and Technical Know-How in Eighteenth-Century France,” Journal of Design History 17, no. 2 (Jan. 2004): 141–62.  ↩
  6. Samuel Edward Warren, Elements of machine construction and drawing: or, Machine drawing (New York: John Wiley and Son, 1870).  ↩
  7. Ken Alder, Engineering the Revolution: Arms and Enlightenment in France, 1763–1815 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).  ↩
  8. Ken Alder, “Making Things the Same: Representation, Tolerance, and the End of the Ancien Regime in France,” Social Studies of Science 28, no. 4 (1998): 499–546.  ↩
  9. Barnabé Brisson, Notice historique sur Gaspard Monge (Paris: Plancher, 1818), American Philosophical Society Library, Philadelphia, PA, call number Pam. v.111, no.10.  ↩
  10. Ibid.  ↩
  11. Ibid.  ↩
  12. Peter Jeffrey Booker, A History of Engineering Drawing (London: Chatto and Windus, 1963).  ↩
  13. Ann Bermingham, Learning to Draw: Studies in the Cultural History of a Polite and Useful Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).  ↩
  14. Frances Harriet Whipple, The Mechanic (Providence: Burnett and King, 1841); John Frost, The Young Mechanic (Auburn, NY: Alden and Markham, 1848).  ↩
  15. Library of Foreign Literature and Science, Catalogue of Foreign Literature (Philadelphia, PA: Library Company of Philadelphia, 1835) .  ↩
  16. Christopher J. Phillips, “An Officer and a Scholar: Nineteenth-Century West Point and the Invention of the Blackboard,” History of Education Quarterly 55, no. 1 (Feb. 2015): 82–108.  ↩
  17. D. H. Mahan, Industrial drawing (New York: J. Wiley, 1852), ix–x.  ↩
  18. Ibid.  ↩
  19. Ibid., xi.  ↩
  20. Ibid.  ↩
  21. Ibid.  ↩
  22. Ibid., xv–xvi.  ↩
  23. Brooke Hindle, Emulation and Invention (New York: Norton, 1983); Eugene S. Ferguson, Engineering and the Mind’s Eye (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994).  ↩
Suggested citation: Liat Spiro, “The Book Will Kill the Edifice? Mechanics Manuals and Learning to Draw in the Early and Mid-Nineteenth Century,” History of Knowledge, May 29, 2018, https://historyofknowledge.net/2018/05/29/mechanics-manuals/.