Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 245:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 245.

Today, we meet a man who was left behind by a revolution. 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.

In the late 18th century, Europe and America went through revolutions. In England that upheaval was bloodless. It was industrial -- not political. One man who was bypassed by those revolutions was a French manufacturer named Delaunay Deslandes.

Deslandes joined the French Royal Glass Works in 1752, when he was 30. And he did well. In six years he became its general manager. He held that job for 31 years, and when he died he left us a manuscript, On the History of Glass Making. It was as much a memoir as a history. It shows what was happening in one French factory while the English Industrial Revolution was growing. It's clear from the book that Deslandes found a real vocation in his work. He took great pride in it. It filled him up.

French plate glass was the best flat glass in the world when he was young -- far superior to the so-called crown glass or broad glass made in other countries. The French cast large plates in very hot molten glass. Then they rolled them out and ground them into high-quality panes for windows and mirrors.

Deslandes tried to learn what the English already knew about the chemistry of coal-burning. You need very clean, intense heat to make plate glass. The English knew a great deal about that from using coal to produce iron and steel. But English industrialists like Watt and Wedgwood created seminars with the great scientists of their day, while people like Deslandes were kept apart from French intellectuals. They didn't have the same means for keeping up, and by the end of the Industrial Revolution, France had lost its ascendancy, even in glass-making.

Deslandes's ideas about labor and management were progressive. He instituted workers' benefits. He knew that his product depended on his workers' pride and independent craftsmanship. If you looked carefully, you saw a kind of benevolent paternalism. But he was always there in the thick of things -- no managing from a distant estate. Every time glass was poured, he arrived in full formal dress to observe -- to make ceremony of the act.

He retired to a house near the factory. When he was 82, a bitter cold front threatened a company waterwheel with icing. He joined the workman fixing it. And there he died of exposure. The company that had been his life finally claimed his life.

If so good and honorable a man as Deslandes represented France, then what did France lack that England had! The answer is, Deslandes sustained an old order, shaded from the new winds of science and individualism. It took more than good masters to survive 18th-century revolution. It took people and institutions that could seize those changes and use them to remake the world.

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

(Theme music)

Harris, J.C. and Pris, C., The Memoirs of Delaunay Deslandes. Technology and Culture, Vol. 17, No. 2, 1976.

This episode has been greatly revised at Episode 2263.

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

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