The setting up of the Grandes EcolesMacTutor Index

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The Royal Engineering Schools of the Eighteenth Century

The first steps in the creation of the Grandes Ecoles system were the foundation of the engineering schools, Ecoles d'Ingénieurs, in the 18th century. At the close of the 17th century the State was undertaking a great effort of modernisation and industrialisation. Large investments were made in the development of the industrial sector and in the building of a network of infrastructures. Great works like the building of a canal between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean were undertaken. Parallel to that and perhaps more important to the French Monarchy, the evolution of warfare in that period gave a new importance to the work of the military corps of engineers. For example during the reign of Louis the XIV the almost incessant state of war led to the construction by Vauban of a large network of fortress to secure the border of the country.

The need for a pool of qualified engineers to provide the necessary technical expertise was the reason for the creation by the royal administration of a number of engineering schools. According to the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D'Alembert, one can distinguish between three main types of engineers: one for warfare, specialising in the knowledge of attacking and defending military positions, one for the sea, specialising in the knowledge of naval construction, and thirdly one for civil work, that is the building of roads, bridges and water works. Those types were mirrored in the schools created by the state: L'Ecole Royale du Génie de Mezières founded in 1748 was in charge of instructing the officers of the engineers corps of the royal army, L'Ecole des Constructeurs de Vaisseaux founded in 1672 in Nantes aimed to train naval engineers and the L'Ecole Royale des Ponts et Chaussées founded in 1747 was in charge of the training of civil engineers. These engineering schools were the educational models of the Grandes Ecoles.

We look in more depth at the training given by the Ecole Royale du Génie de Mezières and at the Ecole Royale des Ponts et Chaussées.

L'Ecole Royale du Génie de Mezières was founded in 1748 to cater for the specific need of the engineers corps of the army for specialist engineers, especially after the battle of Fontenoy in 1745 showed the importance of defensive work and preparation on the battlefield. Recruitment to the Ecole was through a difficult mathematical exam; only a quarter of the candidates were admitted. The elitism of the school was apparent not only in the highly competitive entry selection process but also in the restriction of entry to members of the aristocracy. This particular constraint would be severely questioned during the French Revolution, but the difficulty of entrance and the importance of mathematics in the selection process were both important to the Grandes Ecoles system. The teaching was spread over six years: one year was dedicated to the learning of the theory, the second year to military exercises. The student then spent two years in a regiment and a further two years to complete the study was spent learning the practicalities of the job alongside an older engineer officer. This format set the pattern, first in the length of study and more significantly in the importance given to the link between the student and the former graduates of the school.

After four years as a draftsman in the school, Gaspard Monge was appointed lecturer in descriptive geometry in 1769, and instructor in experimental physics. Monge was an important character in the creation of the Grandes Ecoles system and of the Ecole Polytechnique in particular. From his time in Mezières, Monge not only developed his mathematics and lecturing skills but more significantly gained valuable experience in the running of an engineering school.

L'Ecole Royale des Ponts et Chaussées was founded in 1747 to provide the Corps de Ponts et Chaussées created in 1716 with qualified civil engineers. The entry selection was by interview with Rodolphe de Perronet, the school director from 1747 until 1794. The school had a very specific format and took in about fifty students at any one time throughout the eighteenth century. The length of the study varied from 4 years to 12 years. There was no teacher as such, as the lectures were given by the older students. The assessment and the course format gave equal importance to practical work and theoretical knowledge. Geometry and algebra formed the basis of the theoretical learning alongside applied sciences like mechanics or hydraulics, underlining the importance of mathematics in the teaching.

The education provided by the school changed completely during the Revolution under the influence of a number of prominent scientists to make theoretical learning as the most important aspect of the teaching. In particular, under the directorship from 1798 till 1839 of De Prony, who graduated from the school as best student in 1799, the school developed as an important part of the Grandes Ecoles system This development was mirrored in the formation of the Grandes Ecoles system: under the influence of the great scientists of the time and in particular of well-known French mathematicians, the engineering schools set up by the state in the eighteenth century to counteract the corporations and guilds in their hold of technical expertise, moved away from specialised and practical education towards what is referred to as 'l'enseignement magistral', multidisciplinary science education with a strong emphasis on mathematics and abstraction.


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(Introduction)
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M Ayel May 2002