“A document is much more than just the paper or image or text itself”
Yohann Guffroy is a PhD candidate in EPFL’s Laboratory for the History of Science and Technology (LHST). He spoke to us about his research, the importance of humanities education at EPFL, and why sometimes it’s good to miss your exams.
In September, you will defend your dissertation “Representing Invention: Study of the Evolution of Drawings of Technical Objects in England, ca. 1750-1850” under the supervision of Prof. Jérôme Baudry. It is quite a specific topic. How did you end up researching this?
I found out about the opportunity to do a PhD at EPFL from Liliane Hilaire-Pérez, who was my thesis supervisor at Université Paris Cité. Prof. Baudry was looking for someone to work on a topic within the history of science and technology, but without any specific requirement. He did his PhD on French patents, so he is kind of an expert on invention in France. And Prof. Hilaire-Pérez, who is now my co-supervisor, is a historian of technology and invention, and worked on 18th century English inventions. First, she suggested a topic about machines for agriculture, and I said no. Then she proposed a topic that she said was “a bit dry” about drawings from the Royal Society of Arts. The Society was founded in 1754, which is why I chose 1750-1850. A book had been published about the history of the Society, but we didn’t know anything about its drawings. And she said that I could merge my topic with patent drawings, because the two corpora have many of the same draftsmen.
Why patent drawings?
Usually in the history of technology, we use patents for different things; to talk about economics or innovation or invention. And when we look at the patent, the drawing is often considered as just a simple illustration, because the text provides almost all the information you need. But the drawing is also an important part of it. So my research is to open the “black box” of these drawings. To understand who produced them, why do they exist, why are they part of the patent. The draftsmen are the same for the Royal Society of Arts and the patents, so you have a link between the two.
How did you do your research?
In total I think I spent six-and-a-half months in England. I started my research in September 2019 and went to London for two weeks for the archives of the Society. That was before COVID. Then I had to wait a year-and-a-half to go back. When I finally went back in April 2021, it was hard because the archives were still closed. They were easing the restrictions month after month, but it was very slow. They had some quotas where I could not go to the archives more than four days per month. The Royal Society of Arts was closed until August 2021, so I think I just spent one or two days there. Finally, I still got all the material I needed.
How did that challenge impact your final work?
In the end, I think maybe it was better to be limited, because I would have just accumulated more and more data. But except for the statistics, what’s the difference between 600 and 1,500 drawings? I think that you also have another relationship with your topic during a pandemic because it’s sort of all you have. The National Archives in London did not digitize their drawings which means you have to handle them manually. And the patent drawings are not in flat folders but in rolls of around 10 meters. So you have to unroll, reroll, so each roll takes 20-25 minutes, and there are hundreds of them. There is this box full of rolls and you don’t know exactly what is inside. That’s also a part of research that’s very nice. I didn’t spend all the time I wanted in the archive, but it was maybe for the best.
What do you think someone would find interesting about your topic? Or what do you find interesting?
I think the topic is interesting to help people understand that if you have a document in front of you, the document has a history, it has reasons to exist, it’s like data. When you talk about your topic to someone, sometimes they will say “yes and so what? Is it useful?” And sometimes that’s also the discourse we hear at EPFL. You can use a drawing or a text every day in your research and never know who the producer was or why they produced this kind of document. So that’s why I’m studying them and trying to compare drawings of inventions from the Royal Society of Arts and from patents, because the two institutions had their own ways to promote invention; patents were more secretive while the Society was public. You had these two institutions producing the same thing in two different ways, but with the same goal of promoting invention and technology.
The document you have in front of you is a result of choices. Economic choices, political choices. In that way, you can explain to someone that when they have a document in their hands, that the document is much more than just the paper or image or text itself.
How did you become interested in the history of science and technology?
In 2015, I did a research master’s in Paris on travelogues of Scandinavia. Then I did a professional master’s to work in a museum. But finally, to be honest, I just forgot to attend the exam. I forgot the dates. I think it was a message. So then I found a job at the Commissariat à l'énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (CEA). There was a philosopher of technology who was looking for an assistant to work on a project helping a company retrace the genealogy of their technology. We then proposed pedagogic materials for new engineers in that company to teach them the history of one of the technologies they were developing. I worked there for a year-and-a-half and learned a lot. I started to read and learn about philosophers of technology. I would not say that I do philosophy of technology, but I am using some concepts of philosophers in different parts of my dissertation.
Why is it important to look back instead of just focusing on the science and technology of today?
If you want to explore the future and all its possibilities, then you should also look back. Not in order to say that we are better now than we were a century ago, but just to try and understand how people were thinking, how the science and technology were developed. In my point of view, the history of science is to create a link, continuity, and to rework things, to modify them, or to make sure we don’t do certain things again.
It's important to continue developing a technical culture at EPFL, to start thinking about if we need all the things we produce, on the future we want to give ourselves in a limited world. A form of technical culture means, for example, becoming aware of the biases we introduce into algorithms and not perpetuating them, as Jessica Pidoux showed in her thesis. I’m not saying that history is the solution, but that humanities, more than digital technologies, enable this step.