University of Twente Student Theses


Standvastigheid & verwachting : a historical and philosophical inquiry into standardization and innovation in design and production of the VOC retourschip during the 18th century

Jong, Johan de (2010) Standvastigheid & verwachting : a historical and philosophical inquiry into standardization and innovation in design and production of the VOC retourschip during the 18th century.

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Abstract:The central question of this thesis was the interpretation of the complicated relation between innovation and standardization. In particular, I explored and investigated whether the innovation in 18th century Dutch shipbuilding technology can be mainly attributed to the introduction of rational, standardized design- and building methods or rather to artisans (such as shipwrights) using their practical intelligence. The first sub-question was formulated as: “How was the standardization and innovation of the constructed artefact retourschip actually given shape?” In the first section, we showed how a long process of standardization found its culmination through the introduction of the innovation of using technical design drawings. These drawings, interpreted as an immutable mobile, connected the shipyards of the VOC in a single constructive network, concerning both the design phase and the building procedures and techniques. The artefact retourschip connected innovation and standardization, and it gave a foreshadowing of standardization processes and the use of interchangeable parts that was about to begin in Europe in the course of the 18th century. The second sub-question read: “Which relation existed between the standardization of working procedures at the shipyards concerned and the way in which these yards were structured?” An answer was found in the concept of hybrid networks, centred on the retourschip acts as a focal point. The position of the artefact retourschip within the hybrid network was reinforced by the fact that its design became an artefactual part of this network as well, emphasizing its central position. Shipwrights, captains and directors were among the human actors belonging to this hybrid (design- and constructive-) network, and among the non-human actants, we could count entities such as estuaries, climatological and geographical conditions. A shift towards concentration and centralization in the organization of VOC’s shipbuilding activities became apparent by the building of increasingly standardized ships at its own shipyards. The responsibility for technological developments shifted (or at least appeared to do so) away from the shipwrights on the shop floor to the master shipwrights or even to the Heeren XVII. The responsibility for complying with the design moved from the master shipwrights to impersonal prescribed frames. Instead of testing compliance with the rules after the artefact had been completed, the new regime of standardization made it possible to build compliance with the rules into the artefact, at the very early stages of its construction. The third sub-question was: “Clarification about the way local (master) shipwrights used their practical intelligence, on the one hand constructing the prescribed innovative and standardized vessels and on the other hand shaping anti-programs while they adapted existing, prescribed designs to demands put forward by different human actors and non-human actants”. An answer has been proposed by arguing that developments in large-scale commercial shipbuilding by the VOC can be attributed not so much to “scientific” knowledge, but to technoscientific knowledge developed by master shipwrights in a practical and experiential way. They used their practical intelligence to design, construct and adapt standardized retourschepen, using the innovation of technical design drawings. They did so as part of the continually developing hybrid network centred on the retourschip, which seamlessly combined the immutable mobile of ship design, shipbuilding, shipwrights, economic considerations, organization, natural phenomena, directors, (geo)political considerations, the governments of the provinces and the federal government of the Dutch Republic and the accumulation of materials and ideas. The master shipwrights used situated, localized knowledge to come up with creative appropriations of the new standard design, and in doing so challenged this design. These challenges might be termed “anti-programs”, which is not to suggest that the purpose of the shipwrights was to destabilize the existing network, but rather that they were intent on a re-structuring of the network, reclaiming power for themselves. Finally, it was argued that the VOC was internationally unique in its use of technical design drawings in commercial shipbuilding, and in connecting innovative ways of designing ships with standardized building methods and large-scale production. The company and its master shipwrights played an important role in the development of the process of technological design and of the organization of production.
Item Type:Essay (Master)
Faculty:BMS: Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences
Subject:08 philosophy
Programme:Philosophy of Science, Technology and Society MSc (60024)
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