The French Engineering Tradition

Design of a bridge

(see also the Continental Proto-Marginalists)

The French Engineering tradition refers to the 19th Century engineers, many of them trained at the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées (ENPC) in Paris, who contributed to economic analysis in the course of their work.

France has probably the oldest engineering tradition in Europe.   It was initiated by Louis XIV's brilliant military engineer, Sebastien de Vauban.  Vauban separated his Corps de Genie from the regular army and began recruiting and rigorously training soldiers specifically for engineering tasks.  In 1690, Vauban established a highly-competitive public examination system for entry.  Over time, the corps embraced civil engineering projects like road, bridge and canal-building, flood-control, harbor management and (eventually) railroad construction.  Members of the Corps obtained prestigious and well-paid positions in the civil service during and after their military service.   

In 1747, a permanent, training school for the Corps was established in Paris under the leadership of Daniel-Charles Trudaine, the leading French state engineer and head of the inspectors of bridges and roads and Enlightenment figure Jean-Rodolphe Perronet.  It was renamed in 1776 by Turgot as the École des Ponts et Chaussées (EPC).  The school was the best place to acquire a rigorous technical education.  It was a magnet for the most capable students in France, and graduates of the École soon acquired a reputation as perhaps the best-trained professionals in Europe.  Given the EPC's success, the French government established several more technical training schools for other branches of the armed forces, such as the École Militaire and the École d'Artillerie.  A mining school, the École Supérieure des Mines (ESM), was established in 1778, on the same model as the EPC.

During the post-1789 period, a new university, the École Polytechnique was established.  As designed by Napoleon Bonaparte, the École Polytechnique was supposed to provide the general "undergraduate" scientific and mathematical education (plus a dose of republican idealism) for students on their way to the specialized (and now purely post-graduate) technical training schools like EPC, ESM, etc.  In this manner, the Grandes Écoles "system" was set up which completely circumvented the classical route of the traditional French universities like the Sorbonne.

After the fall of Napoleon, both the Bourbon monarchs and the July monarchy eschewed the Bonapartist Grandes Écoles and, instead, doted on the traditional French universities, like the Sorbonne.  Although modernized, the French universities were packed with favorites and subjected to political winds.  In economics, the French Liberal School was given the prime positions in the university system. Happily ignored, the Grandes Écoles continued to march on to their own drum.


 

 

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