Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 562:
DUPIN EN ANGLETERRE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 562.

Today, a young man opens his eyes and changes France. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Napoleon went down at Waterloo in 1815. By then, France had put almost three decades of its energy into strife. First revolution -- then the Napoleonic Wars! It'd all cost her dearly. Her roads, bridges, and merchant navy were in shambles. She'd done little to keep abreast of the English Industrial Revolution. Her economy was stagnant.

Now, as the smoke cleared, the extent of the damage also came clear. A young French naval engineer, Charles Dupin, saw a chance to do his country and his career some good. He would go to England and study her secrets.

France had been doing that even before the Revolution. In 1786 a French observer had said that English workers were

haughty, quarrelsome, risk takers ... easy to suborn. When a new machine produces gain ... the French government can always be master of it in six months for a small outlay.
Of course, thinking like that had condemned France to a tag-along role in the first place. Now there was no choice. If France was to start over, she had to begin in England.

Charles Dupin was upper crust. He had typical French training in math and physics. He'd learned almost nothing of practical use. He was hardly kin to the "quarrelsome risk takers" who'd built English industrial greatness. But he was not stupid.

In 1816 Dupin set out on the first of his information gathering raids into England. You catch the young man's arrogance in his reports. He sneers at the English when he can.

But you also see a powerful gift for observation. He tells of steam dredges and harbor works. He writes about new processes. Most important, he sees the breakdown of class separation. He sees England educating her working class.

In the end, Dupin returned to France to claim the political advantage he'd gained by his visits. But now, as a member of the Chamber of Deputies, he did not forget what he'd learned.

Dupin became a champion of practical education. He set up free schooling for workers. He fought tirelessly for industrial reform. He became an important agent for France's industrial recovery in the 19th century.

Dupin made the same kind of voyage that many of us have to make right here in America today. He went to England to learn how to save his stagnating country. We have to journey into our recent past to learn the same lesson.

Like Dupin, we have to know that our greatness was built on risk taking. It was built on education and opportunity for all. And, like France in 1816, those are virtues we too can still reclaim.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Bradley, M. and Perrin, F., Charles Dupin's Study Visits to the British Isles. Technology and Culture, Vol. 32, No. 1, Jan. 1991, pp. 47-68.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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