Managing Heat, Gases and Steam in Everyday Life: Urban Micro Inventions in Enlightened Europe

Managing Heat, Gases, and Steam in Everyday Life: Urban Micro Inventions in Enlightened Europe

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Bibliothèque de l'Académie nationale de médecine (SRM 179 d5 n° 2)

Postulating that the socio-materiality of an object affects both the perception of environment and knowledge production, my research seeks to grasp the fine mechanisms by which a change in perception about human surroundings occurred in modern Europe in the course of the eighteenth century. My approach is to explore this process from a bottom-up dynamic of urban inventive practices. I therefore intend to focus on the dynamics on scale and social layers involved in shaping technical inventions.
 My research will further explore the nexus by examining a hitherto neglected significant rise in "micro" inventions, developed at the crossroads of technical thought and an economy of improvements. I focus on a set of objects, processes, and devices intended to improve everyday life, such as ventilation and rescue apparatus (gas masks), stoves, and furnaces, which relied on the use and management of various properties of heat, steam, and gases, revealing a new vision of material elements of nature reflecting the possibilities of acting upon daily hazards.

Firstly I seek to understand "air" through artefacts: How did the materiality of new devices shape the knowledge and identities they generated? Transparent and invisible, gases, steam, and heat were reframed around the 1770s with the discovery of the chemical composition of the air, which fueled the invention of a large set of polyfunctional and adaptable artefacts to capture these fluids. The relation between knowledge and the way it affects the uses that are performed needs to be further explored. One of my main tasks will be to address the question of the interplay between practices and knowledge around the understanding of the materiality (weight, pressure, etc.) of air, as well as the identification of a "noxious air" in various inventive contexts.

Secondly, I aim to enlarge the scope by looking at urban inventions in German œconomic societies (in fighting fire, asphyxia, etc.) and the way that communities were shaped around "improvement" projects.