Why is it called “Polytechnique”?

Scientific instrumentation: discover the first-rate techniques to which the adjective Poly-technique refers. Take a journey from past to present, through the school's collection.

View of the Van Marum machine by Jérémy BarandeÉcole Polytechnique

Theory and practice

To understand why there are so many pieces of equipment from the past in the École Polytechnique's collection, we can refer to the original intent of the founders of the École Polytechnique. They found it unthinkable to establish a school without giving the students access to laboratories for practical physics and chemistry classes.

Reconstruction of Louis-Joseph Gay-Lussac's laboratory (2018) by Jérémy BarandeÉcole Polytechnique

Students will have access to laboratories

What might seem obvious today was not at the time. So much so that Fourcroy, a chemist and founding member of the school, had to explain the reasoning behind the idea to the highest level of government—the National Convention—on September 24, 1794: “The school's teaching on public works, which will combine the knowledge needed by all types of engineers, will have two main components: math and physics. These two exact sciences need to constitute solid foundations for the studies needed for all kinds of construction. Physics and chemistry have been shown only theoretically in France. In special laboratories, the students will repeat the main operations in the field of chemistry and they will become familiar with finding maximum simplicity in procedures and maximum perfection in results.”

Magny's microscope today at Mus'X (2018) by Jérémy BarandeÉcole Polytechnique

Magny's microscope has come to symbolize the Mus'X collection. It came from the collection of the Royal Academy of Sciences and is said to have once belonged to Louis XV.

The imposing bronze base of the Magny microscope, made by Jacques Caffiéri (1678-1755) (2009) by Jérémy BarandeÉcole Polytechnique

Marine compass known as Father Nollet (1744) by Le Maire sonÉcole Polytechnique

Putting together scientific facilities to meet the needs of teaching

The teaching was therefore based on direct experience: for this purpose, a variety of scientific objects were needed. As a product of the French Revolution, the École Polytechnique naturally utilized national stores to set up their own initial collections: goods confiscated from prohibited religious and royal institutions like the Royal Academy of Sciences, and items belonging to noble émigrés. Later, the teachers persuaded major builders of scientific instruments in Paris to purchase or design new devices.

Lane bottle (c. 1850)École Polytechnique

Returning to the origins of electricity

The Lane jar is a Leyden jar, which is the precursor of the electrical capacitor. It is charged by an electrical friction machine which works on the principle of electrostatics. This bottle was built in around 1800. At around the same time, Alessandro Volta invented the first battery, which produced electricity by means of chemical reaction. Shortly afterward, Napoleon ordered a large battery to be built at the École Polytechnique, consisting of 600 copper and zinc plates, each measuring 14 square inches (90 square centimeters). The entire battery had a surface area of 581 square feet (54 square meters).

Discover the electrostatics showcase at the museum of the Ecole polytechnique

Experimental electromagnetic motor (1900/1910)École Polytechnique


Experimental electromagnetic engine. The principle of this engine is to cause the rotation of a disk (here with pointed metal rods) placed in an electromagnetic field generated by an électromagnet.

Experimental electromagnetic motor (2019/2019) by Le graphiste 3DÉcole Polytechnique

Demonstration of an electric motor inspired by Barlow's wheel where the permanent magnet is replaced by an electromagnet. An unusual instrument made by Breton Frères, supplier to universities, high schools and scientific schools, in Paris, circa 1851-1863.
Based on the Barlow wheel (1828) and the Faraday machine (1831), the device allows the rotation of a disc placed in the magnetic field generated by an electromagnet. Many electric motors work on this principle.
1. Mercury containers
2. Electromagnet
3. Rotating disc

High frequency current generator or high frequency resonator or universal machine (1864/1935)École Polytechnique

High frequency current generator

This electrical device designed for medical usage is the fruit of the labor of Doctor Arsène d’Arsonval, who established the electrotherapy department at the Paris hospital La Salpêtrière. The effect of these currents is to produce broad vascular dilatation, thereby reducing blood pressure. The device came from the workshops of Ducretet, one of the biggest builders of scientific instruments at the time. Trained at the workshops of Gustave Froment, a former student of the École Polytechnique, he is also known for having made the first wireless telegraph communication in France, between the Eiffel Tower and the Pantheon.

Precision voltmeter in case (1900) by Jules CarpentierÉcole Polytechnique

Precision voltmeter

This device allows you to measure differences in potential, from an electrical perspective, with a high degree of precision. It was built in the workshops of Jules Carpentier, a former student of the École Polytechnique and a member of the Academy of Sciences.

Ecole polytechnique, physics experiments (c. 1905) by Jules DavidÉcole Polytechnique

Experiments at the dawn of the 20th century

The students photographed here are carrying out physics experiments, at the start of the 20th century.

Ecole polytechnique, chemistry experiments (c. 1905) by Jules DavidÉcole Polytechnique

The students photographed here are carrying out chemistry experiments, at the start of the 20th century. Part of this collection of jars is still kept in the museum's storage facility.

Module applied in a physics laboratory (2014) by Jérémy BarandeÉcole Polytechnique

Today's laboratories

The École Polytechnique's first modern research laboratory dates back to 1937. Today, there are 23 research centers covering the main fields of science. Twenty-two of the school's laboratories are run jointly with the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). This photograph shows students of Physics Modal (Module Applied in Laboratory), which is a compulsory module for all students doing diversified studies.

Collective scientific project in robotic mechanics (2019) by Jérémy BarandeÉcole Polytechnique

Students in contact with science ...

A student's optional scientific internship at the Applied Optics Laboratory, which works on high-speed, intense, ultrafast lasers and applications: laser developments, laser-plasma interaction, sources of radiation, and ultrafast particles, with applications for both the academic community and general society.

Applied teaching module at the Reaction Mechanisms Laboratory (2011) by Jérémy BarandeÉcole Polytechnique

Applied teaching module at the Laboratory of Reaction Mechanisms

Femtosecond lasers at the Optics and Biosciences Laboratory (2009) by Philippe LavialleÉcole Polytechnique

From laser radiation ...

Femtosecond lasers, which produce impulses of several dozen millionths of billionths of seconds, make it possible to reach considerable power crests, precisely because their energy is concentrated in a very brief time interval. This makes is very easy to enter into a nonlinear regime, where the interaction between matter and light allows us to convert the length of the radiation wave, in other words to change its color. This laser is used at the Laboratory of Optics and Biosciences.

Laser strip (2008) by Philippe LavialleÉcole Polytechnique

Experimental room of the LULI2000 installation and interaction chamber "Milka". (2015) by Jérémy BarandeÉcole Polytechnique

... to laser beams

The experiment room of the LULI2000 installation, and the "Milka" interaction room, which has laser beams focused inside it. The powerful laser installation LULI2000 and its associated experimentation equipment are used by numerous teams of scientists. Their studies take in areas such as laser inertial fusion, high density energy matter, laboratory astrophysics, internal geophysics, physics and materials processing, and in general the physics of plasmas created by lasers and their applications.

Laboratory of Condensed Matter Physics (2020) by Jérémy BarandeÉcole Polytechnique

A student testing a Mars spacesuit made in group work (2017) by Jérémy BarandeÉcole Polytechnique

Heading for the future ...

These instruments have been used for more than 200 years by students to pursue their dreams, and to help science continue advancing.

Credits: Story

Ecole polytechnique (2020)
Historical ressources center/Mus'X

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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