The Right Stuff That Made Us

photo: arts & metiers, interior

Full-sized machines and tools, as well as models,
are on display in the renovated museum.

All In A New Home In Paris

Paris:- Wednesday, 29. March 2000:- About six years ago Monte dragged me over to the Musée des Arts et Métiers when it was mostly closed for demolition and renovation. Its transformation started 10 years ago and the museum re-opened last week.

In the meantime, Monte has taken up demolition in a big way. It's a good thing the two houses he's taken apart are his own. For one of them, he said its wiring was bad. I thought removing the roof was a radical fix, but 'fixing it' doesn't seem to be his purpose.

The weather in Paris has returned to winter, so I give the garden gnomes at Bagatelle a rain-check today and take the métro up to Arts et Métiers.

'Arts et Métiers' is also a school - the 'Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers' - with its entrance in the Rue Saint-Martin. This year it featuresphoto: pascal's calculator366 'Lessons for Each Day of 2000.' The entrance for the museum is at the corner of Rue Réaumur and Rue Vaucanson, opposite the métro exits.

Pascal's hand-made adding machine still works.

Meanwhile, getting back at the museum, architects were selected - to also build the museum's storehouse in Saint-Denis - and the archaeologists were called in to dig into the Saint-Martin-des-Champs church, which forms part of the museum.

This church started out as a simple cabin, which has been named after Saint-Martin who became one by hugging a leper, into health I guess, in 384. This cabin was not burnt down in 584, but was replaced in the 8th century, and the Norsemen wrecked the whole thing a century later.

In 1060, Henri the First had the new church built. Because it was outside Paris, it had a reinforced wall built around it in 1273. After a lot more history passed, Antoine was called in to build the present entry to the school, and the school itself.

The Conservatorie des Arts et Métiers was created by the Convention in 1798. From 1845 to 1892, it was restored and enlarged by Léon Vaudoyer and Ancelet. But if you look around there are some very antique bits still showing.

There were two jails; one for monks in the Tour du Vertbois, and the Geôle Saint-Martin - inside the Cour Saint-Martin - which was run according to civil law.

This jail was stormed - like all Paris' jails - in June of 1418 by the Bourgignons, who busily massacred all of the Armangnacs and other ordinary prisoners. This lamentable deed was followed by a smallpox epidemic which knocked off another 40,000 Parisians.

The civil jail was enlarged in 1575 and under Louis XIV it became the Royal Prison of Saint-Martin. Parents could get their troublesome kids locked up in it, but principally it was for the street ladies - as a result of the efforts of a sort of 'Moral Police,' created by the decree of 20. April 1684.

The Compangnie des Indes, seeking residents for Nouvelle Orléans, asked for these ladies for its new city which was built by the architect Law in 1717 on the banks of the Mississippi.

The first 180 ex-residents of the Saint-Martin 'depot' were married in September of 1719 to 180 stout fellows, plucked out of other Paris prisons. The ceremony over, they were chained together, marchedphoto: reinhold's celestial sphere off to La Rochelle, and sent off to their honeymoon paradise in Louisiana.

Sometimes, Parisians became over-emotional at the sight of these wedding parties moving through the streets, so the parades were held after dark. This prison was closed in 1785.

This may be Johan Reinhold's 'Great Celestial Sphere,' made in 1588.

As this brief history indicates, in the old days everything was more or less chaos and life 'wasn't fair.'

Sometimes these 'old days' are called the Middle Ages and we generally think they were either cheerful Crusades or gloomy muddles; with plagues, famine and massacres as nearly everybody's common lot.

But while these two sorts of events were happening - fairly constantly - at other periods things were calmer and other people went about their business, which was business. Another word for business is trade, and a lot more of it went on than most of us realize.

There was the Mediterranean world with its little lake which was useful for shipping goods - and pirates, and attacking neighbors, as well as getting a cut on all the spice trade.

To get around this, sailors set out into the big oceans. At first they followed coastlines - which was slow and tedious. Sailors couldn't short-cut across oceans because they'd get lost - for lack of reliable navigation equipment.

Time was money in those days too, so some smart guys started thinking about how to get around the world - on time.

Between 1500 and 1750 European tinkerers decided to get 'rational.' This has led directly to the re-opening of the Arts and Métiers museum this year, 2000.

Before 1750 accurate clocks for telling time were land-based and rare. Astrolabes - such as Gualterusphoto: lion made of glass fibers Arsenius' 1569-model 'great one' - for checking the skies, had been around for about 200 years. But without the right time, sky gazing was only half of it.

The lion and the snake are both hand-made of glass, which took almost longer to restore than to make. Both are about life-sized.

Ferdinand Berthold's number six and eight marine timepieces were considered a success, so he wrote an essay about them in 1763. His sons followed, but a British tinkerer eventually put together the best one - which eventually caused GMT to be moved from Paris to Greenwich.

Another thing trade required was standard weights and measures. 'Charlemagne's Pile' is a 15th century copy of an earlier standard. It equalled '50 marcs,' which led to the 'livre-weight' of the marc. A 'livre' was roughly a pound, and it in turn led to the kilogram in 1767.

In France today, you can still ask for market items 'by the livre,' and you will get 500 grams of beans, for example.

Nicolas Fortin made his 'Conservatoire' model kilo out of platinum in 1799. A measure was needed for volume and 'cadil' was the original name of the 'litre.'

According to the revolutionary 'Law of 18. Germinal, Year II' - now known as 7. March 1795 - a 'métre' ofphoto: platinum kilo length was supposed to be equal to one one-millionth of the distance of the arc of the meridian between the North Pole and the Equator. And - and I don't understand this either - a 'litre' is 'one-tenth' of a métre.

Which probably means one-tenth of a cubic métre. At the museum, a glass one-litre flask sits beside the one-kilo piece of platinum - because a litre of water weighs exactly one kilo, and the small size of the platinum kilo shows how dense it must be.

In case you've been wondering, this is what a kilo of platinum looks like.

Whether you look at the 400 or 500-year-old Astrolabes - all hand-made - or the Platinum kilo, you have to wonder how did people not only think this stuff up, but how did they make it - for it to be in this museum?

Blaise Pascal must have been operating a bit before the 'kilo-days' in 1642 when he built one of his mechanical adding machines - capable of calculating six numbers, plus 'sous' and 'derniers' no less. This idea of his led to the 1984-model Macintosh 128 and the 1985-model Cray 2; both also in the museum.

Léon Foucault made a machine to measure light. A 'shotgun' camera was made in 1882, for 'studying the flight of birds.' Hanging in a big stairway of the museum there is an entire steam-powered airplane called the 'Eole' and dated 1897.

This is the kind of stuff in this museum. Over 2000 pieces of ingenuity, some dating to before 1750, but most of the rest dating up to yesterday.

The museum is called 'Arts et Métiers' because most of the 'art' part is evident in the workmanship - insanely fastidious - and 'métier' means trade, profession, craft - but with the displays here, tilting towards craft - and mechanical science.

At one time pretty much everything was made by people. You might have either done some precision work yourself, or worked in a factory, or you may know somebody who did.

But we don't hear about any of this anymore. Even if we regularly see buildings actually being constructed - see the model Rue de Rivoli construction site - out the cheapest materials possible - we are vaguely aware that our shoes are made in China.

In China? Columbus was on his way there - the shortcut! - to get China's good stuff. Today we get our shoes from China; not any high-tech spices.

From all of the inventions and machines on display in the Arts et Métiers museum, what are we supposed to think is the 'next step?'

In the new incarnation of the museum there are hardwood floors that squeak and creak as you walk around, and there are high-tech intranet info posts that you can consult for more - interactive-multimedia - information about the hand-made stuff on display.

Aluminum is presented as a 'new' metal - first used in 1855, later to be used for jewelry - and there are displays that show how plastics get molded into the shapes we see. Therephoto: foucault's light gizmo is a 'first' Lumière movie camera, and a 'first' TV set. There are telegraph devices and telephones too. There's probably a 'Walkman' someplace as well.

This may be Foucault's light-measuring device. My notes are unclear. It looks like a gizmo to me.

I was in the museum a long time today, but I don't think I saw half of it. The displays are grouped in six main themes: materials, construction, communication, energy, mechanics and transport. There is also a design 'cabinet,' with 20,000 graphic documents.

The museum is full of the material - historical and actual - things that make our present world function. The stuff our modern world is full of - software - I did not see anywhere, at all.

There were printing presses, but no books - except in the museum's book shop. There were weaving machines, but no cloth on display. The old radio sets and the TV sets were turned off - if they were even plugged in.

But 'software' - I saw no sign of it. Maybe it is neither 'art' nor 'métier.' It certainly is a 'tool.' Maybe thinking it up is draining away all the brainwork that we really need, just to stay alive on this planet.

The best thing about the museum is seeing all the 'work' that went into making 'tools' by hand - the 'art.'

Musée des Arts et Métiers
60. Rue Réaumur, Paris 3. Métro: Arts et Métiers. Open daily except Mondays and holidays; from 10:00 to 18:00; on Thursdays until 21:30. Entry: 35 francs; 25 francs for children over five.

The museum's store house - 'les reserves' - out at Saint-Denis contain another 80,000 items. In addition to a public documentation centre in the museum, there is another one for people doing research that can be consulted by appointment.

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