Tue May 17 2016 21:45 Paris Pictures: Musée des Arts et Métiers:
Hey, how's it going? I've got a ton of important stuff to do, but that
just means I can procrastinate by putting up pictures from
our Paris trip. Today I'd like to introduce you to the Musée des Arts et
Métiers, a museum not found in either of our guidebooks but
recommended by every French person we talked to. You know how The
Da Vinci Code starts in the Louvre? Well, Foucault's
Pendulum isn't having any of that mainstream nonsense--it starts
off in Arts et Métiers, a museum of Science
and Invention with none of that postmodern self-reflection seen
in museums whose exhibits were updated after, say, 1995.
That's probably why it's not in the guidebooks; it's kind of
old-fashioned and disjointed. You'll walk through a bunch of
exhibits that don't seem to have changed since the 1960s, and then
suddenly jump forward in museum time to the electronics age (mid-1990s I'd say). You
check out some cool old computers and awkard "interactive" exhibits,
then you walk through a doorway or around a corner, and you're back
in the 1960s with things behind glass in wooden cases.
Nonetheless, if you're reading this weblog, this is a must-see
museum when you're in Paris, because the amount and type of
incredible stuff they have is off the charts. Here's just a sample
to whet your appetite:
I figured out who buys all that Statue of Liberty kitsch in New York
—it's tourists visiting from Paris! Parisians love the Statue of
Liberty. There's a 1/4 scale model on the banks of the Siene, there's
this thing (I think a 1/16) in front of the museum, another one
outside the Musée d'Orsay. Look, you gave it away, it's ours
now... don't make this weird, France.
This is the sort of thing you come to the museum for: Léon Foucault's 1862 apparatus for
measuring the speed of light with a rapidly rotating mirror. To see
how it works you can either watch a very slow video or promise yourself you'll
the Wikipedia page later and then never get around to it.
Or how about this wicked bastard? This is a steampunk oscilloscope, made
by Rudolph Koenig in the 19th century. On the left is a big stack of
Hemholz resonators, each designed to pick up one specific frequency
and dampen all other frequencies. Each resonator is attached to a
little gaslight. You set all the gaslights blasting away, and when a
resonator vibrates it makes the flame of the attached gaslight
Then you turn the crank on the right to rotate the mirror
(everything had a rotating mirror back then), and the resonant
frequencies of whatever sound you're playing show up visually as wavy
lines across the mirror, versus the undisturbed lines of all the
frequencies not present. There's almost no signage on this thing and I
had to sit through a slow five-minute audioguide explanation to figure
out what's going on here but it was worth it!
Perhaps the plastic arts are more your speed. Here's a show-offy
piece by Colville from the 1855 Universal Exposition, which
demonstrates all the colors the manufacturer is capable of slapping
onto a piece of porcelain. It really reminded me of the DOS color
palette the way there are adjacent dark and light versions of the
Or maybe you're too pure, too abstract for such material
concerns. Maybe you'd like to take this sample case door-to-door,
selling geometric solids to the public? This was briefly a popular
business model among the Willie Loman types of nineteenth-century France, who eventually gave up and
used the shapes to study geometry. These two pieces are by Louis
Dupin (1846) and Baradelle (1805).
You know that the French Revolution gave birth to the metric system
and had its own calendar, but did you know they also used decimal
time? Tragically, counterrevolutionary clocks, like this two-faced
example, made it easy for slackers to continue using the old system,
and decimal time was only the law of the land for about a year. Look
at it! The decimal time face is the tiny one on the bottom! They're
not even taking it seriously!
Sumana with a model of the Jacquard loom, distant ancestor to the
mighty general-purpose computer. What we didn't expect was all
the other looms that came beforehand! They were all here in
one big room that people walked right through, not knowing how cool
the things they were seeing are.
Here's an example: a model of an earlier loom controlled by holes
punched in paper. Now that's computery! Looks just like 1980s
dot-matrix printer paper. (We also saw a full-size loom that basically
ran off a player piano roll.) The problem here is that it's one
huge sheet of paper. If you want to add or remove an
"instruction", sucks to be you. It's like programming in BASIC when
you can't change the line numbers. Whereas the Jacquard loom is
programmed by small cards that are tied together. It's a lot easier
to go in and change something.
There was a whole exhibit hall about keyboards and other input
devices, a section I like to call "Telegraphy and Typewriters". The
museum is full of unusual keyboard layouts. You'll have to trust me
on this because I'm showing you a stenography typewriter, and those
still have weird keyboard layouts. The second picture shows the
box the stenography keyboard came in, and another, more spidery
stenography keyboard in the background.
Here's perhaps my favorie piece from the "Telegraphy" section of
that exhibit hall. This brave inventor refused to succumb to Not
Invented Here syndrome. In an era when everyone was inventing weird
telegraphy keyboards, this person thought "We already have
keyboards! The keyboard has been around and successful for hundreds
of years! I'm not going to reinvent the wheel!"
I'm going to close with this shot of the classic
Minitel terminal. The museum had a very Pavel Chekhov rah-rah
attitude towards all things French, and I don't begrudge this
attitude—technologically the French have a lot to
be proud of. But sometimes it was kind of a stretch. Did you know
that the European ground station for the Telstar satellite was in
France? I don't really think that's sufficient grounds to
display a model of the Telstar in a museum exhibit and do a whole
thing about it. You made Minitel! Minitel was
amazing! You should do a whole Hall of Minitel! Just a suggestion.
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