Following its establishment in the wake of the French Revolution, the École Polytechnique undertook a long-term mission to train engineers to fulfill the different needs of the French Republic. Whether those engineers' eventual jobs would be to advance industrial and technical development or build infrastructure or armies, their training had to be based on a common foundation, provided by the École Polytechnique. The students - the country's future engineers - were chosen on the basis of their performance in a nationwide competitive exam. For the first time in the history of France, this competitive exam was not based on any condition of birth or wealth anymore - even though it was then reserved to men, and this for more than 150 years.
From the start, it was a matter of training an elite to ensure they would have basic knowledge at a higher level to be able to perform senior roles for the state. At the same time, the school was given a more general objective: to expand the teaching of science. As a result, the Academy of Sciences came to be staffed by numerous École Polytechnique alumni throughout the 19th century.
Becquerel, Antoine Henri (X 1872 ; 1852-1908). (1894) by Aron GerschelÉcole Polytechnique
Henri Becquerel received the Nobel Prize in Physics with the Curies in 1903 for the discovery of radioactivity.
Henri Becquerel (2019) by Ecole polytechniqueÉcole Polytechnique
Henri Poincaré (1854-1912)
Henri Poincaré joined the École Polytechnique as a student in 1873 and returned later to teach astrophysics. He advanced all of the subfields of mathematics and theoretical physics, becoming one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. He created algebraic topology and other completely new branches of mathematics. His main areas of work were chaos theory and special relativity, of which he was one of the pioneers, and philosophy of science. Henri Poincaré offered a new approach to theoretical celestial mechanics and the theory of the functions of several complex variables. He became a member of the Academy of Sciences in 1887 and joined the Académie Française in 1908.
Charles Koechlin and the orchestra of the class of 1887 (1889) by Aron GerschelÉcole Polytechnique
Training for all kinds of careers
While the education provided at the École Polytechnique had a precise objective, both theoretical and practical, nothing prevented the students from cultivating other kinds of talent more personal to them, following the completion of their studies. Indeed, the word Polytechnique implies a variety of personal profiles, careers, and individual trajectories.
Charles Koechlin, composer
Charles Koechlin, shown here with the orchestra of the 1887 year group, became a student of Gabriel Fauré and Massenet, and later a teacher of Francis Poulenc. Despite being almost forgotten as a composer, his work in the field of music theory found a wide audience. Koechlin was also a campaigner and a humanist. A defender of Dreyfus against the Schola Cantorum, a signatory to the appeal by L’Aurore following Zola's J’accuse letter, a sympathizer (but nonmember) of the Communist Party, a journalist with l’Humanité during the Popular Front, an ecologist before his time, and a defender of nature, Koechlin dreamed of a music for the people and more generally of a popular art that would be neither degrading nor defined by the political system.
Étienne Buffet, painter
A student of the painter Franck Bail (1858-1924) then at the Académie Julian de William Laparra (1873-1920), Paul Albert Laurens (1870-1934), drawing teacher at the École Polytechnique, and Henri Royer (1869-1938). Étienne Buffet was a prolific painter, a regular at the Salon des Artistes Français from 1903, the creator of more than 3,500 canvases, as well as a scientist, an École Polytechnique alumnus (1885 year group), and an artillery officer (rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel). He also wrote an Essai de théorie intégrale de la peinture (Essay on the Integral Theory of Painting).
The École Polytechnique of the Third French Republic was open to all talented individuals, regardless of the color of their skin, their social class, or their religion. Camille Mortenol was from Guadeloupe. He was the third child of a slave born in Africa in around 1809 and emancipated on July 23, 1847. His mother Julienne Toussaint was also born a slave. He joined the École Polytechnique in 1880 and on leaving he joined the Navy. During World War I, he was responsible for organizing Paris's air defense against German Zeppelins and planes.
Edmunds was a mixed-race Creole from New Orleans, who studied at the École Polytechnique (1871 year group) and at the school of military application at the same time as Ferdinand Foch. In New Orleans, he initially taught at Sumner Boys' School, before joining the main high school in New Orleans, which caused a reaction of outrage among white supremacists, who refused to accept his appointment. Edmunds taught at that high school until about 1877, when political change meant he was only allowed to teach at schools for "people of color." He was awarded the chair of mathematics at the newly established Southern University and published articles in several mathematics journals.
Chérif Cadi was an Algerian Muslim who studied at the École Polytechnique from 1887. In 1915 and 1916, Chérif ben Larbi Cadi fought in the Somme. He was then tasked with protecting Fort Douaumont in February of 1916, during the Battle of Verdun. Being both a diplomat and a soldier, Chérif Cadi was chosen in the summer of 1916 to be a part of the French military mission in Hejaz, in the middle of what is now Saudi Arabia, accompanied by two Spahi commanders and a Goumier lieutenant. He became a military adviser to the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein Ibn Ali, helping him to fight against the Ottomans.
The World War I army, commanded by École Polytechnique alumni
Between the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and World War I, more than 75% of the school's students embarked on a military career. Some of them reached the highest ranks of the army. Ferdinand Foch (from the 1871 year group), shown here as the captain of the 10th Infantry Regiment from 1878-1879, became Chief of the General Staff of the Army in 1917. In March 1918, the need for a sole commander became apparent following the latest breakthroughs by the Germans, and General Foch was named Commander in Chief of the Allied Armies. On August 7, 1918, he was awarded the supreme honor of Maréchal de France. On November 11, 1918, it was he who signed the Armistice.
Busts of Joffre and Foch at the École polytechnique museum
Joffre, as Chief of the General Staff of the Army, led the French army from the start of World War I until late 1916, so during more than two years of outright war. He was particularly noted for his leadership during the Battle of the Marne, for which he became renowned worldwide. Like Foch, he had been deeply affected by his country's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. At the time, Joffre was a student at the École Polytechnique and he served as a lieutenant in an artillery regiment.
Maurice Pellé: a general and a talented artist
As a military attaché to Berlin from 1909-1912, he could sense that war was approaching. When it broke out, he was made Major General at the General Headquarters, with Joffre. He performed outstandingly throughout World War I and was promoted to head a division. In 1919, he led a French military mission in Czechoslovakia and was named supreme chief of the armies during the conflict with Hungary. In 1921, he was appointed as High Commissioner of the French Republic in the East. He was a diplomat by career, but also an artist. He drew every day, sketching well known military and political figures. He was from the 1882 year group.
The establishment of large companies still operating today
École Polytechnique students have contributed to industrial development with companies still operating today. André Citroën (1898 year group) was the founder of the Citroën car manufacturer. His factory on the Quai de Javel in Paris contributed to the war effort by building munitions, engines, and vehicles of all kinds. It reverted to carmaking in 1919 and by 1929 had become the second biggest car manufacturer in the world (400 vehicles per day).
Conrad Schlumberger: an invention with industrial applications
He invented electrical prospecting, which allows geologists to detect geological formations through a comparison of measurements of underground resistivity. Conrad Schlumberger was part of the 1898 year group and began carrying out his measurements in 1911 before working with his brother Marcel to develop his inventions for industrial use. In 1927, measurements made during a petroleum survey yielded the location of hydrocarbon-producing formations.
Eugène Freyssinet: inventor of a revolutionary concrete
This invention revolutionized the art of construction in the 20th century by enabling longer and more resistant works of art to be built using reinforced concrete. This civil engineer (from the École Polytechnique's 1899 year group) also invented thermal treatment of concrete, the flat actuator, prestressing through a voltage-controlled hydraulic actuator, and the use of a climbing cone in braced concrete.
Outstanding engineers promoting technical innovation
Raoul Badin, a pilot and École Polytechnique alumnus (1900 year group), was involved in building the first seaplane in 1910, together with the engineer and aviator Henri Fabre. He was also part of the first year group to study at the Supaéro school of application, and is best known for his 1911 invention of the airspeed indicator, which bears his name. Called the Badin, it allows the measurement of the speed of an airplane in relation to the air it is moving through, so pilots can fly in low visibility conditions in a controlled manner. In 1923, this device was made obligatory in the civil aviation sector. His inventions were used in numerous airplanes, including the twin-engined Caravelle, the crown jewel of French civil aviation.
Bienvenüe and the Paris Metro
Fulgence Bienvenüe (1870 year group) was the father of the Paris Metro. In 1881, he lost his left arm in a train accident. As head of the technical service at the city's metropolitan railway (1898), he oversaw construction of the first line, Vincennes-Maillot, built in time for the 1900 Paris Exposition.
Fulgence Bienvenüe (2019) by Ecole polytechniqueÉcole Polytechnique
This graduate from the 1899 year group was a great specialist in reinforced concrete, designing all kinds of constructions, such as the Jean Bart Theater in Saint-Nazaire and the Donzère bridge (a prototype of the cable-stayed bridge, where the deck is suspended from cables, themselves supported by pylons). In the field of aeronautics, he designed the Caquot observation balloons (1914), giving the Allies the upper hand in this area. As the technical director of aviation in 1918, he led France to become the world's biggest producer of airplanes. He also established France's Air Museum. In 1931, he worked with French sculptor Paul Landowski to design the internal structure, using reinforced concrete, for the statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooking the bay in Rio de Janeiro.
Gustave Ferrié helps save the Eiffel Tower
Following its use in the 1889 Paris Exposition, the Eiffel Tower was planned to be dismantled in 1909. However, Gustave Eiffel, a friend of Ferrié, funded a project to use the tower to support an antenna. Thus, in 1904, the Eiffel Tower officially became a military radio transmission station. His work increased the Eiffel Tower's range of transmission from 250 to 3750 miles (400 to 6000 km). This resounding success gave great strategic benefits and ultimately saved the tower from destruction. Ferrié (1887 year group) had previously worked on the creation of a high-spec wireless telegraph system.
Making their mark on history
In 1894, alumnus Alfred Dreyfus (1878 year group) was hit by one of the most significant political scandals to ever occur in France. Wrongly accused of having written a note announcing that military documents would soon be sent to Germany, he was found guilty, demoted from his military rank, and deported for five years to the penal colony on Devil's Island in French Guiana. Before the affair, he was Commander of the 31st Artillery Regiment and had become second-in-command at the Central School of Military Pyrotechnics (explosives). The scandal was known as the Dreyfus Affair and put his career on hold for more than 10 years. Having been found innocent by the Court of Appeal in 1906, he was made an Officer of the Legion of Honor on the day he was demobilized in 1919.
Sadi Carnot: French President, assassinated
A student in the 1857 year group, he was the grandson of Lazare Carnot (known as the Organizer of Victory from 1793-1794) and the nephew of Léonard Sadi Carnot (an alumnus of the 1812 year group who invented thermodynamics). His time as President was marked by the agitation of the Boulangist movement, the Panama scandals, and anarchist violence. He was assassinated by an anarchist in Lyon on June 25, 1894.
Gaston Moch was part of the same year group (1878) as Alfred Dreyfus. He was also actively involved in the movement demanding a review of the latter's famous trial. Moch was a highly original pacifist and supporter of human rights, using the constructed international language Esperanto. He chaired the International Institute for Peace (Institut International de la Paix, Monaco ). His excellent knowledge of languages and certain technical matters served him well at the start of his career in the army, enabling him to become an intelligence officer and then second-in-command of the technical section for artillery at the Ministry of War. He resigned from the army in 1894, but returned voluntarily during World War I, for which he was made an Officer of the Legion of Honor in 1919.
Rossel: a supporter of the Paris Commune
An alumnus of the 1862 year group, he was the commander of an engineering section of the army in Metz in 1870, and opposed the encircled city's surrender. As such, he left the besieged city to join the Government of National Defense in Tours. He subsequently offered his services to the Paris Commune on March 19, 1871 and was appointed as a war delegate. However, after disagreeing with the leaders of the movement, he resigned. Arrested by pro-Versailles elements, he was court-martialed. Refusing the offer of exile, he was shot in Satory on November 22, 1871, at the age of 27.
Ferrus: Jiujitsu devotee
An alumnus of the 1875 year group, he contributed to the development of martial arts in France, particularly jiujitsu, and introduced close combat techniques to the armed forces. He produced French translations of the writings of Harrie Irving Hancock, one of the first Westerners to become initiated into judo, as early as 1905. An officer in the Department of Automotive Transportation Services during World War I, he introduced General Estienne to the manufacturer Schneider, which resulted in the production of the first tank.
Marc Sangnier: social campaigner and pacifist
Just four years after entering the École Polytechnique (1895), Sangnier took control of Le Sillon, a journal founded in 1894 by Paul Renaudin. He campaigned for a socially minded form of Christianity and then established the Young Republic movement (1912), before launching the daily newspaper La Démocratie. He fought for peace and against racism. In 1929, he founded the French League of Youth Hostels. In politics, he was a member of the French National Assembly from 1919 to 1924 and then again in 1946.
Gariel: a medical doctor
A member of the 1861 year group, he was a civil engineer before becoming a medical doctor in 1869. He also published important texts on medical physics and biological physics. He was a physics professor at the School of Civil Engineering, as well as at the Faculty of Medicine (1886). In addition, he was the Director of the School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris, President of the French Association for the Advancement of Science, and became President of the Academy of Medicine in 1882. His publications include Traité de physique médicale (Treatise on Medical Physics) and Traité pratique d’électricité (Practical Treatise on Electricity).
Poster and program for the shadow play, March 1897 (1897) by Jacques Théodore SaconneyÉcole Polytechnique
The School being reserved to male students at that time, the students will never stop imagining what it could have been like if it had been open to women - in this image, women are represented in charge of a shadow play. It was only in 1972 that women were admitted. They made a remarkable entrance, the first woman admitted, Anne Chopinet, graduating as valedictorian of her class.
The class of 1871 (1873) by Franck (François Marie Louis Gabriel Gobinet de Villecholle)École Polytechnique
The École polytechnique of the second half of the 19th century has never ceased to assert its multidisciplinary character and to provide training for all careers, from the President, to the engineer, to the musician.
Historical Resources Center/Mus'X