Polytechnique was founded in 1794, in the midst of revolutionary turmoil, with the purpose of compensating the shortage of engineers. For the first time, young people were selected to join the school without distinction as to their social origin, property or status.
A product of the French revolution, whose origins lie in the past
The École Polytechnique is one of the institutions founded by the Convention Nationale (National Convention) and is still in existence today. When it was founded, the intent was revolutionary. The teaching would be non-specialist, multi-disciplinary, and poly-scientific. The idea was to give all kinds of engineers a common grounding, regardless of their future specialization, and with increased student numbers. The founders, who included Gaspard Monge, were inspired by two schools founded a few decades earlier: the École Royale du Génie de Mézières (Royal School of Engineering in Mézières) and the École des Ponts-et-Chaussées (School of Bridges and Roads). The school was initially referred to as the École Centrale des Travaux Publics (Central School of Public Work) under a decree dated March 11, 1794, before being renamed the École Polytechnique on September 1, 1795.
Gaspard Monge, the founder
Despite his modest background, Monge's talent earned him teaching roles at the École Royale du Génie de Mézières, which trained the elite nobility of the Ancien Régime (the Old Regime—the political and social system until the French Revolution). While at this school, he invented a new discipline—descriptive geometry—which was later taught at the École Normale and the École Polytechnique. Enthused by the new ideas of the French Revolution, he contributed to designing the École Polytechnique from the summer of 1794 and continued to follow its developments until the end of the Empire, as director and teacher.
Descriptive geometry: the science of engineering
For Monge, descriptive geometry—as an exact science of the representation and mental manipulation of all kinds of objects—should allow the French nation to be released "from the dependence it has had until now on foreign industry."
Republican recruitment based on merit
The school's first students in 1794 were selected through a national competition that was open to all males between the ages of 16 and 20, whose program included arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and an examination on morality. The first year was 400 students strong, a recordbreaking figure at the time. Coming from all over France, these young men received a travel allowance so they could make their way to Paris.
Starting on December 21, 1794 and lasting three months, revolutionary classes were taught. These accelerated, preliminary classes served a twofold purpose: One was to present an abridged form of the classes that the students would study in-depth over the following three years, and the other was to allow the school to split the students into three different groups. After these three months, the three groups of students would continue their studies either for one year (for the most advanced students) or for two or three years (for the less advanced students). Fourcroy (Antoine François) had spoken in favor of this idea of accelerated classes before the National Convention in September 1794.
Renowned, prestigious students
To provide the teaching, the school called on the greatest scientists of the time. Thus, the inaugural ordinary class on mathematical analysis was taught by Joseph-Louis Lagrange, who was considered one of the top European scientists. The formal start of ordinary classes took place on the date 5 Prairial, Year III of the French Republican calendar (May 24, 1795).
Brilliant, young teachers
Joseph Fourier, who had studied under Monge, Lagrange, and Laplace at the École Normale, was recruited at 27 years of age to teach at the École Polytechnique, where he gradually replaced Lagrange.
Joseph Fourier (2019) by Ecole polytechnique, Yann Plantier, and FlabÉcole Polytechnique
Bust of Joseph Fourier at the École polytechnique museum
Portrait of Berthollet (1864) by Alexandre-Marie ColinÉcole Polytechnique
Besides mathematical sciences, the teaching included physics, chemistry, drawing, architecture, and military arts.
The students from the first intake
Accomodated in the homes of carefully selected people— sensitive parents—the students attended classes at the Hôtel de Lassay. There, as well as studying in lecture halls, they also had practicals under the direction of an advanced student, known as the chef de brigade (head of brigade). Living in the heart of Paris, the students experienced the era's political agitation and economic crisis from close quarters.
Science exclusively for men?
Since access to teaching was exclusive to men at the time, it took much perseverance and determination for a woman, Sophie Germain, to benefit from the education available at the École Polytechnique. Having appropriated the family name of an actual student, Leblanc, she used it to enter into correspondence with Lagrange and benefit from his advice. Lagrange was surprised by the excellent level of this Leblanc student and ended up arranging a meeting with Sophie Germain, after which he became her mentor. Eventually, Sophie Germain lent her real name to a theorem of arithmetic.
Students with promising futures
In February of 1795, a journalist for La Décade Philosophique, Littéraire et Politique wrote, "There is no doubt that the students of the École Central des Travaux Publics, after having received such lessons, will go on to improve the arts whose methods they will have studied ... and we have to assume that the precious and unique teaching they are going to receive in the field will develop geniuses among them who will push back the limits of the sciences."
École Polytechnique (2020)
Center of Historical Resources/Mus'X