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ETHistory 1855-2005 | Sightseeing | Times | 1848-1855 |

1848-1855: Polytechnical realization of an old dream

Some dates

1848 Founding of the Swiss Federal State
1851 Setting up of a commission under federal councillor Stefano Franscini

February 7: Law on the founding of a “federal polytechnical school in association with a school for the advanced study of the exact, political and humanistic sciences”

October 16: Classes begin in various premises in the city of Zurich

The book on the history of the ETH


On February 7, 1854 the federal councillors enacted the law on the “federal polytechnical school in association with a school for higher education in the exact, political and humanistic sciences”. In autumn 1855, the Polytechnic opened its doors.

The constitutional law was a new beginning but it also marked the conclusion of a lengthy debate. Back in the 18th century, enlightened thinkers such as Isaak Iselin had nurtured patriotic dreams of higher education for their fellow-countrymen. During the Helvetic Republic, around 1800, Minister Philipp Albert Stapfer drew up the concept of a university for the whole of Switzerland. The founding of the Federal State in 1848 gave fresh impulse to these ideas. In its second session, the new Parliament argued at great length about whether there should be a national university alongside the existing cantonal ones. Higher education thus became an issue in the difficult relations between cantonal authorities and the Federal State.

Several committees of experts tackled the question but it took years of negotiations before a solution was found. The bill was an extremely controversial one because of Switzerland being a multilingual country. Furthermore, the Catholic and the rural cantons wanted to avoid a cultural dictatorship on the part of the Protestant urban centres of Geneva, Berne, Basle and Zurich, who in turn were worried about the competition from a national university as they already ran their own cantonal ones. The project only managed to secure a majority when it was amended to focus on technical subjects.

So the founding of the Polytechnic in 1854 can undoubtedly be described as the political realization of the old Helvetic dream of a national university.

Dispensing with the classical range of subjects of a university was not simply the essential prerequisite for getting the project off the ground. It also tuned in with the mood of the modern era of technology and industry. The federal polytechnic was intended to generate the knowledge required to build up a national infrastructure for the future. It was also intended to provide an unequalled range of courses that would make the national elite more professional and improve their career opportunities.

© 2005 ETH Zurich | Credits | March 31, 2005 | !!! This document is stored in the ETH Web archive and is no longer maintained !!!