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ETHistory 1855-2005 | Sightseeing | Times | 1855-1904 |

1855-1904: Between School, Factory and Laboratory

Some dates

1864 Occupation of the main building designed by Gottfried Semper
1866 Introduction of the course of study for teachers of mathematics and natural sciences
Founding of the society of former Polytechnic students (GEP)
1871 Founding of the department for agriculture
1878 Introduction of military sciences
Opening of the Federal Institute for the Testing of Building Materials (later known as EMPA) as an annex of the Polytechnic
1886 Opening of the new chemistry building
1888 Founding of the department for land management
1890 Opening of the new physics building
1900 Opening of the mechanical engineering laboratory

The book on the history of the ETH


After the stormy debate on its founding, the new institution entered on a stable era of consolidation. By the turn of the century, it had found its place in the political and economic landscape of Switzerland, pledging to build up and sustain forward-looking national infrastructures.

The Polytechnic acquired and secured knowledge, placing it at the disposal of a wide variety of objectives. It was a matter of carefully weighing the requirements of the running of the school, the needs of industry and the growing interest in research. Teaching the body of theoretical knowledge and instructing the students in practical questions were two goals which proved difficult to combine.

Syllabuses had to be worked out, professors brought in and students recruited. In its early years, the Polytechnic benefited from the repressive atmosphere prevailing in Polytechnic schools in other European countries. Attracted by the newly appointed professors, including such renowned figures as Kinkel, de Sanctis, Vischer, Cherbuliez, Clausius, Culmann, Reuleaux and Semper, students came to Zurich from all over Europe.

However, the establishing of norms and standards took quite a long time. For example, in 1879, the diploma, which could have documented the fulfilling of a norm, was acquired by barely one third of the students.

What was to be the focal point to be in the working out of the syllabuses? Technical drawing, measuring, mathematics or the practical matters of industrial production? The generating, securing and, not least, the applicability of the knowledge at the Polytechnic all depended on how these questions were answered.

Teachers such as Reuleaux had some success in formalizing the practical construction activity which they saw in industry. When the laboratories were rebuilt in the 1880s and 1890s, an attempt was made, in the interests of better teaching, to deepen this fund of theoretical knowledge in scientific experimentation. At the same time, it was important to make abstract forms of knowledge adaptable to industrial practice. The construction programme in the first stage of the history of the Poly bears testimony to this balancing act between school, factory and laboratory.

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