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Engineers as military spies? French engineers come to Britain, 1780–1790

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This paper is based on the discovery of illustrated reports by French engineers describing their visits to the British Isles between 1783 and 1790, a brief period of peace between France and England after the ending of the American War of Independence. The manuscript reports are in the library of the Paris École des ponts et chaussées , which began to send students to Britain in the 1780s, but the engineers studied were of mature years and already well qualified. Two of them, in fact, were the marine engineers Forfait and Lescallier, who brought samples and materials back to France for testing and experiment. They all wrote in great detail of what they had seen, and this included the coastline, ports and arsenals as well as industry. The reports are significant for the wealth of information they contain, which would be of immense value to a hostile power. The reasons for their being in the Ponts et chaussées library are considered. We examine the origins of that school, the engineers who came, their careers, their particular expertise, why they came to Britain, and the reports of their findings. Tables of contents of these are provided in section 10, together with representative or especially meaningful exerpts.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Languages, Politics and History, Coventry Polytechnic, Priory Street, Coventry, CV1 5FD, U.K.

Publication date: 1992-03-01

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