Origins of the Polytechnic

The heritage of institutions of higher education which offer programs in the liberal arts can be drawn directly from the Islamic and European universities of the Middle Ages. Polytechnic Institutions and technical colleges, however, originated from a different time and place in European history.

By the seventeenth century in England the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge had been formed in 1663 to address the necessity of having to "to complete the knowledge about the matters of nature and to improve all of the useful arts, manufacturing processes, mechanical proceedings, machines and inventions by experiments." To this end, it was clear that institutions for instructing students on the engineering and "useful arts" had to be established apart from the institutions that offered courses in the traditional disciplines such as theology, metaphysics, moral, politics, grammar, rhetoric or logic. By 1799 this vision was realized in the founding of the Royal Institution of Great Britain at 21 Albermarle Street for "the promotion, diffusion and extension of science and useful knowledge." Instruction consisted of lectures given three times a week as well as sessions in what was then considered to be a "state of the art" laboratory. Prior to the opening of the Royal insitution, however, the Collegium Carolinum had opened its doors to students in Brunswick over fifty years earlier in 1745.

Throughout Europe as different countries began their expanded voyages across the globe in search of raw materials it became clear that factories had to be built, machines designed and mechanisms invented to power these machines. In 1707, Christian Joseph Willenberg (1655 - 1731) requested permission from Emperor Leopold I to start a college of engineering in Prague. It would be ten years before Willenberg was able to receive sufficient financial support to open his school. His first class had only twelve students, but by 1779 the enrollment reached over two hundred. Willenberg's school, the Institute of Engineering Education, was renamed the Prague Polytechnic in 1806.

In the mean time, France began moving also toward industrialization and with this came the demand for trained technicians and engineers. In 1745 L'Ecole Polytechnique de Paris established what would become the prototype of the technical college. Other polytechnics quickly opened all over Europe during the early part of the nineteenth century: L'Ecole Polytechnic de Paris in 1806, Vienna in 1815, Karlsruhe in 1825, L'Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in 1829 as well as the Polytechnic Institution at 344 Regent Street in London in 1834. Between the 1820's and 30's alone, Polytechnic schools were opened also in Dresden, Stuttgart, Munich, Darmstadt, and Hanover.

In each of these institutions the focus was on the "useful" or practical disciplines. This emphasis was both the catalyst and the result of the industrial revolution which would inevitably also be known as "the age of engineering." The demand of the age was not for skills in a single science, but for multiple applied sciences and skills, hence the institutional designation of "polytechnic--" from the Greek words "poly" meaning many, and "technic" meaning arts.

Across the Atlantic ocean, Rensselaer Polytechnic insitutute became a pioneer in the area of the applied sciences when it opened its doors in 1826 as the Rensselaer School. It was the first private technical school in the United States and the first to use a lab approach to teaching. In 1835, Rensselaer graduated its first class of engineers.

The focus on science, engineering and the applied sciences is only one of the differences between the polytechnic and the traditional university. From its inception, the polytechnic with its laboratories and workshops differentiated itself from the traditional institutions of higher education in its approaches to teaching and learning. In addition to lectures, the pedagogy of polytechnics always included the insistence that students engage in "hands on" appraoch to learning. The emphasis on praxis was particularly essential in the early history of engineering as most engineers had to not only intellectually understand their subject material, but to be able to make their own instruments, tools and machines. In several cases, particularly where communities of skilled mechanics or technicians already existed, polytechnics became the means through which those already familiar with the practical side of engineering could formalize these skills in an institutional setting. This was particularly so in the case of the Liverpool Polytechnic, founded in 1823, which had begun as the Liverpool Mechanics and Apprentices Library.

By the 19th century, the idea of the polytechnic was also to provide the working classes with an education which emphasized the practical skills as opposed to the education of the upper classes whose children were destined for administrative careers via university education at institutions such as Oxford or Cambridge. By 1882, for instance, the Royal Polytechnic Institution had broadened its mission to include the cultivation of "the whole man" particularly as it referred to students from working class backgrounds. Likewise, the University of Huddersfield (formerly known as Huddersfield Mechanics' Institution, and later still as Huddersfield Polytechnic) was an outgrowth of the Young Men's Mental Improvement Society an oraginzation dedicated to improving the minds of the working classes.

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