This is my summary in English of part 5 of a 5 part video interview of Gilbert Simondon by Jean Le Moyne.
Q: Inspired by your ideas I tend to see the long obscurity and incomprehension of the steam engine as due to the fact that it was not theorised from the beginning, whereas the electric motor (the alternator) was theorised from the from its origin and so has been transparent. Do you see such a relation between empirical and theoretical machines?
S: Yes,the electric motor came afterwards, after the science that permitted the theory of this motor. On the contrary, the steam engine was constituted at a time when thermodynamics had not been developped., rather it called for the existence of a science of thermodynamics. Hover there are imperfections in the electric motor, in the Gramme machine or in the alternating current machine, in particular unforseeable phenomena of hysteresis: losses due to Foucault currents (eddy currents). The Gramme machine was not born perfect, it worked alright but it was not very efficient because of its heating up at high speeds. It required a lot of perfectioning before reaching its familiar 90-92% efficiency.
Q: I have often wondered about the relations between empiricism and theory with regard to the opacity and the transparence of certain machines. Perhaps I have made a too sharp distinction between the empirical machine and the theoretical machine. Thus I have believed for a long time that the alternator came entirely from its theoretical legitimacy, in contrast with any empirical illegitimacy, if we think of the well-developped rationality of electricity. Do you think that, for example, the alternator is a machine that can be said to be much more transparent than any steam engine, preciselyfor this reason, because of the theoretical field in which it developped and of the theory that is inherent to it?
S: I believe so, as regards the alternator, which was developped relatively late. It had been preceded by the trials of the Gramme machine, which is a machine based on direct current, and which can be used as an emitting machine (producer of energy), or a receiving machine. The alternator came later, and is a direct application of alternating currents, to produce them. It is also reversible relative to the alternating current motor. The alternator must be thought in terms of the same theoretical current as that which created the Ferranti transformer. This is around 1880, roughly the time when positive science was developping as powerfully as possible towards technology, perhaps more powerfully than ever, with a faith and an enthusiasm never to be seen again. At that time, anything goes.
Q: So for you around this time is the beginning of the union between technology and theory, or science and technology, which have now become almost indiscernible.
S: Not the beginning, since thermodynamics is relatively older, but let’s say the friendship and the reversibility of science and theory, of science and technology, became generalised during that period. There is a mode of thought, a modality of culture, which is the unity, or at least the profound friendship, of science and technology. It was the period of the Crookes tube and of the Coolidge tube, of the vast movement of science and technology.
Q: And which now is more than a frienship, a marriage.
S: Yes, but a marriage that makes too much profit, in my opinion. At the time it was a love affair, now it is totally different. There is a very organised and administrative relation between industry and technological research bureaus on the one hand, and pure science (which however is not completely pure) on the other. Now all that is too old, there is no longer the enthusiasm for something new. At that time in 1880 the fecund relation between science and technology had just been discovered. That was the youthful age of that encounter, today it is no longer young.
The video ends with a long question by Jean Le Moyne
Q: We are making a 20 minute film on the wheel, with no music and no commentary, just sounds produced by a wheel. We have a problem with the structure of the film, but we aren’t sure whether this is a purely filmic problem or a mechanological one. If we begin with a support wheel, it is soon complexified, adding gears and pulleys and chains, even becoming a motor at certain stages, and then adding to itself other wheels. We have a whole society of wheels to deal with, so should our approach be historical or genetic?