Zurich Federal Polytechnic history


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This article gives a brief overview of the history of the Federal Polytechnic in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is by no means meant to be a comprehensive historical survey. More information on the first 150 years of the ETH can be found in the very readable book Die Zukunftsmaschine. Konjunkturen der ETH Zürich 1855 - 2005 by D Gugerli, P Kupper and D Speich, Chronos-Verlag, Zürich, 2005.


The origins of the Federal Polytechnic in Zürich are closely linked to the foundation of modern Switzerland as a federal state in 1848. The Swiss Confederation was founded in 1291, although it has to be said that the three founding cantons Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden merely renewed an already existing confederacy. Not going into any details, the origins of Switzerland are often glorified by the general public. Suffice it to say that the old Confederacy had little in common with modern Switzerland. As an example, the reformation caused a rift between catholic and protestant cantons. The aftermath of this was still felt by the founding fathers of modern Switzerland, and, by extension, of the Polytechnic.

As a result of Napoleon's Helvetic campaign the Helvetic Republic replaced the old Confederacy in 1798. This republic was based on the French model and did not suit the Swiss at all. After five years of conflict Napoleon reconstituted a confederacy, but he restricted the privileges of the upper classes [4, p. 115-116]. However, after Napoleon's defeat the Swiss founded a new Confederacy, which comprised 22 cantons and was based on the pre-Napoleonic model. Most importantly, the cantons were granted full sovereignty and the ruling classes enjoyed a privileged status once again. As an aside, Switzerland chose neutrality at the same time, in 1815. Whilst the Confederacy became neutral in 1515, it was more out of necessity than choice as the conflicts between the different cantons did not allow for any external military engagement. However, some cantons signed capitulation treaties with European powers and Swiss mercenaries continued to fight across Europe.

Returning to the Swiss Confederation, the so-called Restoration (1814-1830) was followed by a Regeneration period. Liberal parties and societies were founded, people called for popular sovereignty, representative democracy and a separation of church and state. Furthermore, liberal groups wanted to improve education at school and university level, and introduce uniform coinage - different coinages hindered economic growth at a time when the textile industry in particular expanded rapidly [cf. 4, p. 121-122]. These developments led to a rift between liberal cantons, which were predominantly urban and protestant, and conservative cantons, which were predominantly rural and catholic. Tensions between the cantons resulted in two so-called "Freischarenzüge" in 1844 and 1845, respectively: Volunteer troops of radical Liberals attempted to overthrow the catholic government of canton Luzern and demanded that Jesuits should be banished from the country. These demands were triggered by the fact that Luzern appointed Jesuits to teach at cantonal schools in the 1840s.

The radical troops in the Freischarenzüge were defeated, but as a consequence the catholic, conservative cantons Fribourg, Luzern, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Uri, Valais, and Zug joined forces in a so-called "Sonderbund" ("Separate Alliance") to protect their interests. However, this violated the 1815 Federal treaty. After fruitless discussions the Tagsatzung, the predominantly liberal Swiss legislative and executive council, decided that the alliance should be disbanded and that the Federal treaty should be revised [2, p. 658-659]. In October 1847 the Tagsatzung empowered General Henri Dufour, Supreme Commander of the Federal troops, to disband the Sonderbund by means of force. The campaign lasted less than a month and was the last armed conflict on Swiss territory.

After numerous discussions the Swiss Federal Constitution was adopted on 12 September 1848, and thus Switzerland became a federal state. During the negotiations religion and languages were particular matters of dispute. As a result of the Constitution the cantons lost some of their sovereignty - as an example, customs between cantons were abolished; federal customs, a uniform currency and postal service were introduced. However, the cantons retained authority in a number of areas, including education, direct taxes, social welfare, the police, and regional infrastructure. The Confederation on the other hand was responsible for all matters of a federal nature, such as foreign affairs and defence.

These responsibilities are detailed in Articles 1-20 of the Constitution. Article 22, however, concerned higher education at a federal level:  The Confederation is authorised to establish a university and a polytechnic school' [quoted in 5, p. 21]. The idea of a federal university had been around since 1798, when the Swiss Minister for Culture, Philipp Albert Stapfer, called for a Swiss polytechnic based on the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. But, as Gugerli et al write [5, p. 22-24], there was no central policy on education in Switzerland, and the cantons had different ideas regarding a federal university. The work of the statistician Stefano Franscini, a member of the Bundesrat who collected data on aspects regarding education in Switzerland and led the project of implementing article 22, reflects this [5]. However, Franscini's colleague Alfred Escher soon became the leading figure in this project [5, p. 27].

It soon became apparent that it was quite a controversial topic, and that many people did not approve of a federal university. The reasons for this highlighted more profound issues: Gugerli et al explain that cantons in West Switzerland feared that German would become the dominant language, cantons that had their own universities feared competition and having to give up sovereignty, conservatives feared that a university would help the Bundesrat consolidate its power, and others again just disliked Escher [5, p. 29].

In August 1853 the Nationalrat Jakob Stämpfli reported that the government had a substantial budget surplus, which could be used to establish higher education institutions. A four-day long heated debate in parliament that took place in January 1854 eventually ended in a vote in favour of the project. However, the issues listed above still remained, and the Ständerat voted against a federal university, but in favour of a polytechnic that would also teach arts subjects [5, p. 33-34]. A polytechnic would not be a rival to the already established cantonal universities. It was decided that a federal polytechnic would first and foremost produce engineers, chemists and foresters, but that supplementary subjects such as mathematics, natural sciences, modern languages, history, and politics would also be taught [5, p. 36]. The aim was to provide the thriving Swiss industry with well-educated native experts. Previously these had to be "imported" from abroad. Zurich was chosen as it had not been made Swiss capital. Incidentally, Karl Kappeler, member of the Ständerat and the future School Board President of the Polytechnic, was instrumental in speeding up discussions and taking the matter to parliament [5, p. 35].

A working group established a vision and regulations for a polytechnic. Franscini collected data from various polytechnics in Germany, France and Italy, and Escher looked for suitable models. German institutions remained the main influence during the 19th century, and Swiss secondary education was divided into classic and realist strands as it was in Germany. A number of polytechnics were founded in Germany from 1825-1836, and then again from 1860 onwards [5, p. 44]. However, the Polytechnic set itself apart by offering natural and social sciences (see also below). Many German academics applied for the first lectureships, which were advertised in October 1854. The architect Gottfried Semper, who designed the Polytechnic's main building in the 1860s, was the first professor to be appointed to the Polytechnic. A high percentage of foreign staff and students remained an integral feature of the Polytechnic during its first few decades. In some years more than half of the student cohort came from outside Switzerland [8]. Apart from Germany, large numbers came from Austria-Hungary and Russia [8]. The Polytechnic also profited from the repressive governments in Germany, which caused many academics to relocate, among them Semper.

In the autumn of 1855 the Federal Polytechnic opened its doors for students. Joseph Wolfgang von Deschwanden, a schoolteacher, became the first director, and the politician Johann Konrad Kern became the first School Board President. Despite having been built out of nothing the institution soon began to thrive and quickly established an excellent reputation, notably also abroad. It served as a model for other institutions, e.g. the polytechnic in Prague [5, p. 43]. As mentioned above, the Polytechnic valued mathematics and natural sciences, which were often regarded as auxiliary sciences elsewhere. Furthermore, the wide variety of elective subjects added a unique competitive advantage. The Polytechnic originally comprised six Departments, or Schools, that covered: Construction, Engineering, Mechanics, Chemistry, Forestry (all of these with an engineering focus), and the Arts. From 1866-1899, the period that is of most interest for this thesis, there were eight Schools:

  1. School of Civil Engineering
  2. School of Engineering
  3. School of Mechanics
  4. School of Chemistry
  5. School of Forestry; from 1871 School of Agriculture & Forestry, comprising subdivisions for forestry, agriculture, and cultural engineering
  6. Department for Mathematics and Science [i.e. Physics] Teachers
  7. Department for Elective Subjects
  8. Preparatory Course in Mathematics, until 1881
In 1899 the Department of Military Sciences was established, before then courses in that area were taught as elective subjects. The main language of instruction was German, but in some subjects, including mathematics, native French speakers were appointed to specially created chairs. These professors taught in French only.

Departments VI and VIII are of particular importance as they are proof of the School Board's farsightedness with regard to education and to mathematics. The School Board recognised early on that well-educated teachers would produce well-educated school leavers, which in turn would become well-qualified graduates and employees. They established the Teaching Department with the aim of educating future teachers, but in fact they achieved much more. In addition to excellent schoolteachers, the department produced a number of renowned research mathematicians. The School Board, particularly its presidents Kern and Kappeler, respectively, understood the importance of mathematics as a subject in its own right. As a result, mathematics research was given a privileged position, certainly when compared to other polytechnics across Europe. During the 1890s, when a number of engineers demanded that the mathematical content of engineering degrees should be reduced, the Polytechnic continued to support the discipline, in particular pure mathematics (see appendix E.3.2 for Geiser's summary of this so-called "Ingenieursbewegung" or "anti-mathematical movement"). However, as experiments became a more integral part of engineering degrees mathematics was one of the subjects that were cut back [5, p. 87]. Nevertheless, in 1912 about 10% of Polytechnic professors were mathematicians. This high percentage is partly explained by the fact that they also taught in other Schools [3, p. 1], but nevertheless shows the importance that was attached to mathematics.

Furthermore, the School Board Presidents had a particular gift for recognising talent. Kappeler in particular is said to have attended lectures of promising candidates in order to gain an independent opinion. Guggenbühl notes that Kappeler attached great value to  a suitable personality and teaching abilities' [6, p. 83], but asked for advice on subject-specific qualifications. Despite not being able to offer a high salary in its first decades, the Polytechnic attracted a large number of exceptionally talented staff. For many German mathematicians a teaching post at the Polytechnic served as a springboard to a prestigious chair in Göttingen, Heidelberg, or Berlin. Among the mathematicians who taught at the Polytechnic in the 19th and early 20th centuries we find, in chronological order: Joseph Ludwig Raabe, Richard Dedekind, Elwin Bruno Christoffel, Carl Theodor Reye, Hermann Amandus Schwarz, Heinrich Weber, Georg Ferdinand Frobenius, Friedrich Schottky, Adolf Hurwitz, Hermann Minkowski, Hermann Weyl, and George Pólya. The Polytechnic must have fostered research and provided a stimulating, supportive environment. As a result, future mathematics teachers were taught by some of the world's leading mathematicians.

It is interesting to note that the majority of the above mathematicians pursued research in what would today be classed as pure mathematics. This illustrates the level of support that the School Board gave to mathematics as a discipline, which was certainly not the case at other polytechnics. In other subjects this extraordinary amount of support manifested itself in the form of research laboratories. The School Board recognised that whilst future engineers and chemists needed a solid background in theory and mathematics, experiments were a key component of their training. During the 1880s and 1890s Chemistry and Physics moved into new buildings equipped with state-of-the-art laboratories, and a mechanical engineering laboratory was established in 1900. Moreover, a laboratory for material testing was founded in 1880 as part of the Polytechnic; it has since developed into the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (German acronym: EMPA). The Polytechnic was able to bridge the gap between theoretical research and applications, and in doing so became one of the world's leading technical higher education institutions.

However, the development was anything but smooth. Whilst the Polytechnic attracted large numbers of foreign applicants it struggled to admit home students. This was partly down to the low standard at Swiss secondary schools. Traditionally education had been a privilege and there were a number of old-established cathedral and private schools. School education was improved from the Helvetic period onwards, but it was very much the responsibility of individual cantons. From 1832 the Zurich School Law (Zürcher Schulgesetz) regulated primary and secondary education in canton Zurich. Many German-speaking cantons followed this model; in the French-speaking cantons similar laws were introduced. The 1848 Constitution granted the cantons jurisdiction in educational matters. Whilst more and more schools were founded across the country, in particular in rural areas, the standards and curricula differed considerably [see 7].

The Polytechnic maintained rigorous entry requirements and entrance examinations - too rigorous for many candidates. In order to increase the number of entrants, entry requirements were lowered to a certain degree in 1859; students were now examined in 6-7 subjects, had to write an essay in their native language and submit evidence of proficiency in the languages of instruction. Prerequisite knowledge was specified, in mathematics this included:

Full knowledge of elementary mathematics and geometry, of trigonometry and of elements of analytic geometry and algebraic analysis; elements of descriptive and practical geometry; [knowledge] of elements of physics, chemistry, mechanics and natural history; furthermore skills in drawing freehand and with a ruler.[5, p. 63]

However, in order to meet these revised requirements secondary school education had to be improved. The Polytechnic developed two strategies: negotiations with secondary schools and, as an interim measure, establishing a Preparatory Course in 1859. The one-year-long Preparatory Course was designed to provide students with the necessary knowledge in mathematics and natural sciences, and was generally referred to as "mathematical preparatory course". It proved very popular with students, notably also those from abroad. The aim of negotiating with secondary schools was to improve the standard of teaching and to enhance the curriculum so that pupils would fulfil the Polytechnic's entry requirements. In return pupils from vetted schools did not have to sit entrance requirements. As Gugerli et al write these negotiations were hard work, as many schools saw them as a limitation of their rights [5, p. 64-65]. However, the Polytechnic's strategy made a significant contribution to raising the standard of Swiss school education.

As a federal institution the School Board was directly responsible to the Bundesrat. The Bundesrat appointed the School Board (whereas the School Board president appointed academic staff), and approved the Polytechnic budget. As a result, Polytechnic was heavily dependent on government funding [see 5, p. 59]. For several decades it also shared resources - staff and rooms - with the University of Zurich, which had been established in 1833. Most of the University's staff also came from Germany, but the institution focused on arts. In the early decades of the Polytechnic there were a number of profitable agreements between the two institutions. Students from either institution could attend lectures taught at the other one -- if lectures were not already taught jointly -- some staff held positions at both institutions simultaneously, and the two institutions shared their buildings. Initially the Polytechnic used rooms in the University and the Kantonsschule of Zurich. When it moved into its own building in 1864 the University was given its own area. The University only moved into its own building 50 years later, which is located right next to the Polytechnic. However, Kappeler began to withdraw his support for the collaboration with the University in the early 1860s. In his opinion the University's professors did not cater enough to engineering students. As a result the University lost talent to the Polytechnic, which offered more attractive conditions, but the Polytechnic lost the close connection to a "proper" university, which were generally seen as superior [5, p. 79].

The Polytechnic and the University also had very different understandings of academia and higher education. Most courses were compulsory; the Polytechnic's governing bodies maintained strict discipline and punished transgressions accordingly. Polytechnic students were not granted the same freedom as their University counterparts, both with regard to academic matters and expected code of conduct. As a result of these differences a rivalry between the two different cohorts developed, which even led to duels [5, p. 106-109]. In 1881, partly due to a petition by its alumni association GEP, the Polytechnic revised some of its regulations. Students were given more flexibility in their final year of study, the School Board now consisted of seven members, and academic staff could elect the Director. Furthermore, the Preparatory Course was abandoned and agreements with secondary schools were rescinded. The School Board had to re-negotiate agreements in the following decades.

More comprehensive reforms were only implemented in the early 20th century. German polytechnics had become truly academic institutions, on a par with universities. The German Emperor awarded the Institute of Technology in Charlottenburg, Berlin (today University of Technology Berlin) the right to confer doctorates in 1899, and many German polytechnics followed suit. In Zurich this happened only ten years later, after years of debates. The School Board also introduced academic freedom and separated the Polytechnic completely from the University of Zurich. To mark the end of the old ways the Polytechnic was renamed as Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. As the American William K Tate wrote in 1913:  The Polytechnic School at Zurich ranks among the world's greatest technical universities' [1; quoted in the original]. This is certainly still the case a century later.


Article by: Stefanie Eminger (University of St Andrews


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