Technical Systems in the 18th Century: The Example of the Horse Postal Service

Special Report:  Networks and Territoriality
By Nicolas Verdier

This article sets out to demonstrate that, in contrast with what is usually assumed in the historical literature, the concept of network originates in the 18th century, and perhaps even as early as the end of the 17th century. The absence of the word “réseau” itself does not prevent the use of the concept in different graphic representations, whether in cartography or triangular matrixes. In the second third of the 18th century the absence of the word network is partly compensated by the use of other words, such as “itinerary”. In France the Ponts et Chaussées engineers (the road-building authority), and those involved in fortifications and mining, all make use of the concept during that period, for instance Ogée for the road network in Brittany. Outside the sphere of engineering, from the start of the 18th century, technical systems such as the horse postal service mobilised the concepts of interconnection, connectivity and hierarchy in order to function. A reassessment of the concept of network in the light of these new elements is thus required.

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