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Science, Industry and the Social Order in Post-Revolutionary France.

By Robert Fox. Brookfield, Vermont: Variorum, 1995. Pp. xiv, 291. $89.95.

This book by a historian of science consists of 17 published papers of varying length from 7 to 79 pages (55 of text, 24 of 201 notes), five in French, and much more on the history of science and of education than on industry or the social order. If it has a place in an economics journal, it lies with economists concerned with economic growth, and especially "social capability," which some econometricians find a proxy for in years of education. Moreover, education, both technical and scientific, is salient day when many, like Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, believe that the salvation of the American economy lies in more of both. What the book emphasizes is that there is education and education, not only scientific and technical (universities and research institutes vs. "plumbers" academies), but within scientific, traditional vs. innovative, popular vs. professional, controlled vs. free-ranging, well-funded vs. hand-to-mouth. A historian of science on France, to be sure, has no occasion to treat whether the vital question for the United States lies in early, middle or late education. In an illuminating review article, however, of a book on the Ecole Polytechnique by Terry Shinn [chapter XI], much is made of the fact that children of wealthy parents have a great advantage over those in their cohort of equal brains, being able to follow the high road through one of the two great Parisian lycees, specialized in preparing for the excessively mathematical and grandes ecoles, themselves overstressed in mathematical rigor. The emphasis on mathematics on entrance and subsequent studies [pp. v-61] is perhaps another link to the concerns of some American economists. Some distance from local interest is that after Fox complains that economic historians neglect the work of historians of science [pp. v-59], his index contains no references to such historians of technology as David Landes, Joel Mokyr and Nathan Rosenberg.

As it happened, the book arrived in the same mail as the Spring 1996 issue of Daedalus on industrial (and one financial) innovators: Bechtel, Cabot, Hatsutopoulos, Philip Johnson, Land and the like. France was great on scientific and technical innovation in the years from 1815 to 1830, and again after World War II, though the latter period, referred to once in the book, lies outside the period of interest. In the 1820s Germans like Liebig and Kekule came to Paris to study with Gay-Lussac and Berthollet, and to escape "the sterile idealism of German universities at that time" for the "practical, laboratory-centered approach" in Paris. Half a century later, many French thought they had lost the Franco-Prussian war because of the superiority of German over French science and scientific education [chapter XV]. From the July monarchy of 1830 to Sedan in 1871, French education had been professionalized, centralized and made to yield to the Catholic, traditional, classic educational modes, calling in its professors, for first a lycee, then a grande ecole, the aggregation in which success depended on brilliant rhetoric and facility of expression, ten years of secondary school education while one wrote one's dissertation for the doctorate. Many professors wrote for popular journals and gave popular lectures, attracting on occasion 2,000 auditors plus more who could not gain admission to the hall. An occasional brilliant researcher like Louis Pasteur, or Urbain Le Verrier in astronomy, were autocrats who made the lives of their staffs miserable. University science turned away after 1871 from the state to industry, especially in the provinces, and had marked successes in heavy chemicals, the liquification of gases, hydro-electricity, as well as pure mathematics. But the system as a whole was clearly second-rate. Many French thought that German scientists were pedestrianly productive while the French had flair.

Fox's concern for industry is distinctly minor outside chemicals and electricity, in the latter of which, ex-hydro, the record was dismal. He does not treat steel where maitre des forges pushed strenuously to get their offspring into the Ecole Polytechnique, nor textiles, distinguished in Alsace, shipbuilding, locomotives, coal mining nor automobiles in all of which French industry scored some success. One interesting account is of Thomas Edison's success at the International Exhibition of Electricity at Paris in 1881 (Chapter VI in French), where Edison won the gold medal after (because of?) manipulating the French press in favor of his arc lamp as against those of another American and two British exhibitors. (The paper was based on Edison's archives at Menlo Park, New Jersey in which Fox, a Britisher, worked when he was a fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton.)

As already implied, the book will appeal more to historians of science than to economists or economic historians. In one passage, Fox says that the supply of engineers closely matched the demand in the nineteenth century, only to say a page later that the salary of entry-level engineers declined from about 300 francs a month to between 125 and 200 [pp. 209-10, chapter VI]. He tends to excuse French science and education from any responsibility for industry's shortcomings, especially marked in electrical equipment and synthetic dyes, saying they were the fault of "very real handicaps--slack markets, understandably amorous bankers, political conflict, unfavorable patent legislation, and so on" [pp. v-66; see also pp. xi, xv-21]. Without deeper analysis this is not persuasive to me, especially as the economic miracle after World War II, and the stunning successes of Masse in electricity, Lefaucheur in the Regie Renault, Arnoud in railroads, and others in nuclear power, telecommunications and high-speed trains, the last three of which he notes [pp. xi333] are often attributed to graduates of the grandes ecoles. It is noted that these graduates began to drift into industry instead of the military and government in the middle of the 19th century.

It is one thing to believe that the economic salvation of a country lies in education. All in France did in 1815 (pp. ii-25). But types and characteristics of education vary widely. Economists interested in probing deeper into the issue would do well to tackle Robert Fox's Science, Industry, and the Social Order in Post-Revolutionary France for important aspects of the question.
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Author:Kindleberger, Charles P.
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1996
Words:1027
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