ABSTRACT

We tend to think of decentralized intellectual collaboration as a phenomenon of open-

source software, the Internet and the New Economy. But consider the plight of a certain

Monsieur Prony, as recounted by Charles Babbage (1835: 243). Gaspard Riche de Prony

(1755-1839) was a French civil engineer whom the Revolutionary government of 1790 had

charged with an unenviable assignment: construct the largest and most accurate set of

trigonometric and logarithmic tables ever produced. One day, while pondering this

seemingly impossible task, Prony wandered into a bookseller’s shop and absent-mindedly

thumbed through a copy of Adam Smith’sWealth of Nations (1976). Suddenly it struck him.

He could enlist the division of labor to construct the tables-in effect, he could manufacture

logarithms like pins. Driven by this insight, Prony set up a collaborative project along the

following lines. He would begin by enlisting four or five of the most eminent mathematicians

in France to devise formulas well suited for numerical calculation. The results would then

pass to a small team of run-of-the-mill mathematicians who would turn the formulas into

simple algorithms. The actual calculations would be performed by a large team of 60-80,

most of whom knew no math beyond simple addition and subtraction. Indeed, in the event

the calculators came largely from the ranks of unemployed hairdressers, a group who had

lost their once elaborately coiffed clients to the same Revolutionary taste for austerity and

reason that had inspired Prony’s commission. ‘‘By 1794, 700 results were being produced

each day’’ (Grattan-Guinness, 1990: 180).