In his “Discours préliminaire” (Preliminary Discourse) to the Encyclopédie, d’Alembert, a highly esteemed mathematician himself, asked:
Beginning with the philosophes’ vindication of artisans and inventors in the middle of the eighteenth century, the French bid up the value of technical skill as expressed in material products. The virtuosos, as craftsmen, designers, and technological innovators, shared in this appreciation.
Why are not those to whom we owe the fusee, the escapement, and the repeating-works of watches esteemed equally with those who have worked successively to perfect algebra? Moreover, if I may believe a few philosophes who have not been deterred from studying the manual arts by the prevailing contempt for them, there are certain machines that are so complicated, and whose parts are all so dependent upon one another, that their invention must almost of necessity have been due to a single man. Is not this rare genius, whose name is shrouded in oblivion, well worthy of being placed beside the small number of creative minds who have opened up new paths for us in the sciences?
For the first volume of the Encyclopédie, d’Alembert not only wrote the “Discours préliminaire” but also contributed the articles “Androïde” (Android) and “Automate” (Automaton). These two articles consist largely of extracts from Vaucanson’s exhibition prospectus, a long extract describing the Flûteur in the case of the first article, shorter extracts describing the Canard and Tambourinaire in the case of the second. After quoting Vaucanson’s description of the Flûteur, d’Alembert concludes: “If this article, instead of being the description of a functioning machine, were the description of a proposed machine, how many people would consider it anything but a chimera?”  This high praise from a member of the Académie des Sciences followed Voltaire and La Mettrie’s comparison of Vaucanson to Prometheus. If the God who made humans is the greatest mechanician, then mechanicians who make androids are little gods.
The philosophes exercised a strong influence on Thomas Jefferson, who lived in Paris for several years (1784–89) as the U.S. ambassador to France and then back in his own nascent republic became a leading figure of the Enlightenment. He published, first in Paris in French translation (1786), then in London in its original English (1787), only one full-length book, Notes on the State of Virginia, a descriptive and promotional account of his state, and to a lesser extent of his United States, principally for European consumption. In it he responded to Abbé Raynal’s allegation that America had not yet produced anyone illustrious:
Jefferson’s American Pantheon had different admission standards from ours. For him, Franklin won immortality as a scientist and inventor, the creator of the Franklin stove, bifocal eyeglasses, and the lightning rod, rather than as a writer or statesman. The now-eclipsed David Rittenhouse shone in Jefferson’s mind for having constructed an orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system, with a surrogate sun surrounded by orbs that both rotated and revolved at rates proportional to their planetary originals. Jefferson, a true son of the Enlightenment, glorified the new stars of technology.
In war we have produced a Washington, whose memory will be adored while liberty shall have votaries.…In physics we have produced a Franklin, than whom no one of the present age has made more important discoveries, nor has enriched philosophy with more, or more ingenious solutions of the phænomena of nature. We have supposed Mr. Rittenhouse second to no astronomer living: that in genius he must be the first, because he is self-taught. As an artist he has exhibited as great a proof of mechanical genius as the world has ever produced. He has not indeed made a world; but he has by imitation approached nearer its Maker than any man who has lived from the creation to this day.
The last volumes of the Encyclopédie appeared at the beginning of the reign of Louis XVI, and although he was not a particularly enlightened monarch, he too had a certain appreciation for what Diderot in the article “Art” had referred to as the unjustly scorned mechanical arts. The king invited Jaquet-Droz fils to court where the young mechanician’s Dessinateur sketched his and his queen’s portraits. He also learned the art of the locksmith and spent many hours with his locks diverting himself from the cares of state. Even those furthest from manual occupations were now tak-ing an interest in them.
In Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe, historian Peter Burke explains that in the Middle Ages two parallel streams of culture had flowed, each spilling over into the other at intervals but separately embedded: elite culture and popular culture. The elite tradition consisted of such things as formal dances, composed music, and written literature, much of it in classical languages; the popular tradition included such things as folk dances, improvised music, and oral recitation and storytelling in the vernacular, for the vast majority of people received practically no schooling. An asymmetry existed in that the elite participated in popular culture, which could be found in public spaces, such as festivals and fairs, taverns and town squares, while the people did not participate in elite culture, much of which was restricted to the courts, salons, books, and other private spaces of the upper classes. Then, Burke argues, in the early modern period, the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, the elite gradually withdrew its participation from popular culture. Finally, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, the elite rediscovered popular culture, which had become something foreign and exotic to it. Burke’s model of the changing relationship between the elite and popular culture is too simple to satisfactorily explain an evolution that took place over hundreds of years in dozens of different states. Nevertheless, the French elite of the Old Regime had certainly abandoned the mechanical arts to the people, cultivating the liberal arts instead, so that its new interest in the mechanical arts in the second half of the eighteenth century accords well with Burke’s hypothesis of a rediscovery of popular culture on the part of the European elite of that period.
But Burke’s model only explains how mechanical tinkering became a leisure-class hobby, as it indeed became for many, something like extramarital sex or breeding racehorses. For others, however, it became a respected occupation. The philosophes were greatly influenced by the writings of Bacon, Locke, and Hume, who led the way toward the acceptance of “utility” or “usefulness” as a standard of value, first in Great Britain and then in the second half of the eighteenth century in France. “The advantage that the liberal arts have over the mechanical arts, because of their demands upon the intellect and because of the difficulty of excelling in them, is sufficiently counterbalanced by the quite superior usefulness which the latter for the most part have for us,” wrote d’Alembert. Gradually, aided in some cases by their appeal as “transcendent” activities that imitated God or Nature, in other cases by their appeal as “exotic” activities of the forgotten classes, the mechanical arts attracted the serious interest of the elite. This new interest led to the inventions of the Industrial Revolution, creations by and large of substantial landowners, merchants, and professionals, rather than of peasants and artisans. At the end of the eighteenth century, after usefulness had grown sufficiently in value and mechanical inventions had grown sufficiently in usefulness, French society instituted formal rewards for inventors.
The two most important forms of societal recognition and encouragement given to inventors were patents and industrial expositions, both of them introduced by the revolutionaries. The French imported patent law, like utilitarianism, from Great Britain. There inventors had had the exclusive right to the commercial exploitation of new inventions since the early seventeenth century. France did not have a patent law until the National Assembly adopted one in the last decade of the eighteenth century, and not until the nineteenth century did such laws become widespread in Europe. These laws had only limited effectiveness, since smuggling ideas across borders in the technologically advanced and relatively compact states of Western Europe was easy and common until international agreements began to be negotiated at the end of the nineteenth century. As an indication of changing values, though, the official recognition the new laws gave to inventors had considerable significance. At the same time that the revolutionaries were abolishing the old privilèges, such as those that had been acquired by theaters, aristocrats, and craftsmen through purchase, family inheritance, or membership in a corporate body, the revolutionaries were also creating a new privilège to be acquired through technical skill. If the reign of the public began with spectacle-makers courting the public, it proceeded with the public deferring to technicians as members of a new privileged estate.
The industrial exposition materialized at the social space where the spread of spectacle intersected the elevation of technical skill. Its peculiarity and popularity made it an event highly characteristic of the Western world in the nineteenth century. The industrial exposition may have been hatched in London in the 1750s, but it grew to be most at home in Paris. England led France not in technological inventions but in their commercial reproduction, while France led England in their spectacularization. Paris held industrial expositions eleven times in the half-century from 1798 to 1849, during which period the number of exhibitors increased fortyfold. A whole range of governments, from the revolutionary Directory to the imperial regime of Napoleon to the “bourgeois monarchy” of King Louis-Philippe, supported this celebration of French inventions and their inventors. The national industrial exposition was soon adopted by other European countries and then by their former colonies in North and South America. By the second half of the nineteenth century the industrial exposition had become international, beginning with the Great Exhibition of London in 1851, and jumping at irregular intervals to various other capitals, but still landing most often and with the biggest splash in Paris, site of the Exposition Universelle in 1855, 1867, 1878, 1889, and 1900. The respective attendance figures for the latter four of these, in a world without airplanes or manufactured automobiles, were 9 million, 16 million, 39 million, and 50 million people! The steel tower named for its engineer, Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, built on the Champ de Mars for the exposition of 1889 to be the world’s tallest edifice, represented a high point in the industrial exposition’s synthesis of spectacle-making, technical skill, and self-promotion. And this is the construction that has become the symbol of Paris.
Several of the virtuosos used the Paris industrial expositions to exhibit their inventions. Maelzel moved to the French capital in 1807 and promptly presented his Trompeter to the Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale, the group that staged the expositions, mostly recently in 1806 but not again until 1819, at which time Maelzel was touring Great Britain. At the exposition of 1823, Maelzel showed his talking dolls and perhaps also his automaton slack-rope acrobat. Vidocq, among his myriad activities, did a little tinkering:
But he won no medals. Among the virtuosos, Robert-Houdin had the most success at the expositions. He exhibited his automaton Cups-and-Ball Ma-nipulator and his transparent Mysterious Clock in 1839, winning a bronze medal, his automaton Writer-Sketcher in 1844, winning a silver medal, and several electrical inventions in 1855, winning a first-class medal, the equivalent of a gold.
I invented a burglar-proof door, with a locking mechanism resistant to all attempts to open it, and then an absolutely forgery-proof paper, on which no alterations can be attempted without leaving indelible tell-tale traces. These inventions were exhibited [at the industrial exposition] in 1834 and they earned for me a citation, and an unsolicited nomination as titular member of the Academy of Agriculture, Manufacturing, and Commerce.
A novelty of many of the toys and games invented in this period was their requirement of technical skill. Maelzel’s talking dolls and Robert-Houdin’s singing bird automata required technical skill to produce. Kieseritzky’s three-dimensional chess and Vidocq’s card game, featuring pictures of the leaders of the Revolution of 1830 on the cards, required technical skill to play.
The virtuosos frequently combined mechanics and music in their inventions. The mechanicians created automaton musicians, Vaucanson the Flûteur and Tambourinaire, the Jaquet-Drozes at least two android keyboardists and many songbirds, Robert-Houdin at least three songbird-and-serinette-player combination pieces, for example. The musicians tinkered with mechanics, the mechanics of stringed instruments in the case of Paganini, keyboard instruments in the case of Liszt. Paganini had the bridge of his concert violin flattened out and lowered; he used thinner-than-normal strings; and he designed a “contraviola.” Liszt designed a “clavecin-orchestre.” Maelzel, accomplished both as a musician and as a mechanician, produced an automaton trumpeter, two Panharmonicons, several ear trumpets, and a mass of metronomes.
Both Paganini and Liszt had a great appreciation for the instruments of their art and for instrument makers. Paganini referred to Vuillaume, who won a silver medal at the exposition of 1834 and a gold at the exposition of 1839 for his work on stringed instruments, as “the surgeon of my violin.” Paganini amassed a fabulous collection of instruments, including eleven Stradivari (seven violins, two violas, and two cellos), five Guarneri (four violins and a cello), and two Amati violins. For Liszt, the latest was the best, and for him this meant in instruments the pianos of the Érard brothers, who won gold medals at the expositions of 1819, 1823, and 1827 and a medal of the Légion d’Honneur at the exposition of 1834, and in transportation railroads. The “knight-errant of every order” could not have made his “grand galop chromatique” around the Continent on his circuit of 175 cities, nor could he have had a seven-octave double-escapement piano waiting for him at every one of them, without extensive use of the iron horse. If the names of the inventors of the fusee, escapement, and repeating-works of watches are unknown to us while the name of railway inventor George Stephenson is in every history of modern Europe, and if the names Stradivarius and Steinway are as well known to us as those of any violinist or pianist, this is some measure of how the value placed on technical skill as expressed in material objects increased not only in France but throughout the West during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
And if the names Vaucanson and Rittenhouse are less well known today than they were in the eighteenth century, it is because the early promoters of this revaluation were tendentiously excessive in their praise of contemporary inventors. In their effort to overcome the Old Regime’s longstanding disdain of the mechanical arts, the believers in the new watchmaker-god exaggerated the achievements of leading mechanicians, calling the achievements miracles and the mechanicians demigods.