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  • Enlightened Secrets: Silk, Intelligent Travel, and Industrial Espionagein Eighteenth-Century France

    Paola Bertucci

    Technology and Culture, Volume 54, Number 4, October 2013, pp.820-852 (Article)

    Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press

    For additional information about this article

    Access provided by Yale University Library (14 Dec 2013 10:05 GMT)



  • A great variety of travelers moved through Europe in the eighteenth cen-tury. While grand tourists headed south to experience Mediterranean cli-mate and admire Renaissance masterpieces, savants from Mediterraneancountries set out on northern tours through England, France, and theNetherlands; philosophers such as Voltaire and Pierre-Louis Moreau deMaupertuis traveled back and forth between Paris and Berlin, while itiner-ant demonstrators followed more erratic trajectories within and acrossnational borders. Travel was quintessential to the culture of Enlighten-ment: it was part of the educational trajectory of men and often women ofletters, and it was a topic of conversation, a literary genre, and an element ofsocial mobility.1 It was also crucial to the enlightened economy.2 At a time

    Paola Bertucci is an assistant professor of history at Yale University and is the author ofViaggio nel paese delle meraviglie: Scienza e curiosit nellItalia del Settecento (2007) andcoauthor of Electric Bodies: Episodes in the History of Medical Electricity (2001). I wishto thank the anonymous referees of T&C for their insightful suggestions and construc-tive criticism. I have greatly benefited from the comments of audiences in Barcelona,Bologna, Geneva, New York, Paris, and Warwick, as well as from the generous feedbackon earlier drafts offered by Mario Biagioli, Robert Fox, Liliane Hilaire-Prez, DanKevles, Naomi Lamoreaux, Chandra Mukerji, Larry Stewart, Koen Vermeir, and ChuckWalton. Special thanks to Ivano Dal Prete, who ac-commodated my requests to changeour holidays into research trips over several years and who is lulling our newbornDamian as I put the last words in this article.

    2013 by the Society for the History of Technology. All rights reserved0040-165X/13/5404-0006/82052

    1. Daniel Roche, ed., Les Circulations dans lEurope moderne ; Roche, Humeursvagabondes. On travel and scientific culture, see Mary Terrall, The Man Who Flattenedthe Earth; and Marie-Nolle Bourguet, Christian Licoppe, and Heinz Otto Sibum, eds.,Instruments, Travel and Science. On travel and social mobility in the eighteenth century,see the articles by Vincent Denis, 35977, and Stphane Van Damme, 379406, in CarlaHesse and Peter Sahlins, eds., French Historical Studies 29, no. 3 (2006), a special issuededicated to Mobility in French History.

    2. Peter Jones, Industrial Enlightenment; Pierre-Yves Beaurepaire and Pierrick Pour-

    S P E C I A L S E C T I O N : S C I E N C E A N D I N D U S T R Y I N M O D E R N F R A N C E

    Enlightened SecretsSilk, Intelligent Travel, and Industrial Espionagein Eighteenth-Century France

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    BERTUCCIK|KEnlightened Secrets


    of great industrial innovations, travels aimed at gathering intelligence ontechnical matters unfolded along the same routes followed by grand touristsand learned savants. The material presented in John Harriss study of indus-trial espionage and technology transfer provides compelling evidence thattrade and technological developments were driving factors for eighteenth-century travel just as much as cultural exchange and individual refinement.3

    Harris focused exclusively on French attempts to import British tech-nology, yet the geography of industrial travel was far from unidirectional.4This article examines the role of travel in the attempts of the French stateto launch the national production of high-quality silk threads and to re-duce the large volume of imports from the neighboring kingdom of Pied-mont-Sardinia. I analyze in particular the secret journey of Jean-AntoineNollet (17001770), an acclaimed celebrity in the world of experimentalscience, who in 1749 was charged by the French Bureau of Commerce withthe task of gathering technical intelligence on the manufacture of silk inPiedmont. Nollet traveled to Italy under the cover of a philosophical duelwith a number of Italian savantshis involvement with silk never becamepublic.5 By discussing the strategies that Nollet employed to carry out hismission, and by framing his activities within the changing political econ-omy of the bureau, this article offers a critical examination of the relation-ship between the openness of academic knowledge and the secrecy of stateaffairs in the age of Enlightenment.6

    The public culture of science has long been the main lens throughwhich we understand the enlightened engagement with natural philosophyand, more recently, the early processes of industrialization and the enlight-ened economy.7 Such emphasis on the public, however, has obscured therole that secrecy continued to play in the eighteenth century.8 Here, I focus

    chasse, eds., Les Circulations internationales en Europe. For a global perspective, seeSimon Schaffer, Lissa Roberts, Kapil Raj, and James Delbourgo, eds., The Brokered World.

    3. John Harris, Industrial Espionage and Technology Transfer.4. For criticism of Harriss approach in the context of industrial development, see

    Patrice Bret, Irina Gouzvitch, and Liliane Hilaire-Prez, eds., Les techniques et la tech-nologie entre la France et lAngleterre; Hilaire-Prez, Les changes techniques; andHilaire-Prez and Catherine Verna, Dissemination of Technical Knowledge.

    5. The controversy is discussed in Paola Bertucci, Sparking Controversy andViaggio nel paese delle meraviglie.

    6. On the problematic distinction between openness and secrecy up to the sixteenthcentury, see Pamela Long, Openness, Secrecy, Authorship. In The Information Master,Jacob Soll has urged historians to pay more attention to the relationship between thepublic sphere and state secrecy.

    7. On the public culture of science, the fundamental works are Larry Stewart, TheRise of Public Science; and Jan Golinski, Science as Public Culture. Historians such asMargaret Jacob, Larry Stewart, and Joel Mokyr have linked the openness of scientificknowledge to the British Industrial Revolution. See Jacob and Stewart, Practical Matter;and Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy.

    8. Jrgen Habermass notion of the public sphere has elicited a flurry of historio-

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    on the French states interest in silk manufacture and on Nollets secretjourney with the aim of entering this unexplored territory. In contrast withHarriss unproblematic use of the category of industrial espionage, I arguefor the necessity of historicizing terms such as secrets and espionage andpropose the notion of intelligent travel to discuss journeys aimed at gath-ering technical information. Unlike industrial espionage, the category ofintelligent travel does not take secrecy for granted. Intelligent travels werecarried out openly by inspectors of manufactures or ambassadors as part oftheir job descriptions, as well as by merchants, artisans, or savants whoresorted to some form of secrecy to ensure the success of their mission. In-telligent travels were characterized by varying degrees of secrecy that are tobe understood in relation to the sociability of scientific and technical ex-changes, and to the increasing interest of the French state in technologicalmatters. By separating secrecy from the practice of technical intelligence-gathering through travel, I show that the openness of academic culture wasone of the resources that intelligent travelers mobilized to serve the state insecret.

    Industrial Espionage and Intelligent Travel

    In the age of Enlightenment, the association of secrecy with the absolu-tist state created by Louis XIV in concert with Colbert elicited critical re-sponses, yet opinions on the legitimacy of spying were far from unani-mous.9 In his Esprit des lois, baron de Montesquieu advised good monarchsnot to employ spies, famously declaring that espionage might perhaps betolerable if it could be exercised by honest people: for him spies were abjectmen, whose ignominy would reflect on the reputation of the king himself.10However, the entry on spy in the Encyclopdie (the manifesto of theFrench Enlightenment) explained that good spies were essential to themilitary art and that the state should spare no cost for maintaining them;spies were particularly devoted state servants, who risked their lives for thecrown.11 Similarly, the Treatise on Embassy and Ambassadors highlighted

    graphical discussions among scholars of the eighteenth century, who have repeatedlyemphasized the public dimension of Enlightenment political and cultural debates. AsThomas Broman pointed out in The Habermasian Public Sphere, however, the em-phasis on the public in the history of science was not directly informed by the notion ofthe public sphere, but rather by the sociology of scientific knowledge. See Habermas,The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. It is impossible to list here all theworks that have been inspired by Habermass public sphere, but see at least Craig Cal-houn, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere; the articles in Forum: The Public Sphere inthe Eighteenth Century; and James Melton, The Rise of the Public.

    9. On the state of secre