Perronet and the Enlightenment (1747-1797))
In France, the building of roads, bridges and canals was for a long time the sole prerogative of aristocrats, merchant associations or monastic orders. With Colbert, more effective policies emerged, but technicians were recruited on an ad hoc basis. It was not until 1716 that a properly appointed corps of engineers was created by royal order: the Corps des Ingénieurs des Ponts et Chaussées.
The introduction of a specific training programme for this corps was decided by the Royal Order of February 14, 1747, the School’s founding act. And until 1794, the School was marked by the personality of its director, Jean-Rodolphe Perronet, engineer, talented administrator and erudite scholar who contributed to the production of Alembert and Diderot’s Encyclopaedia. At this time, the School had around fifty students (Lebon, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Méchain, Brémontier…) and not one teacher. Indeed, the students taught themselves and each other to obtain a theoretical grounding in geometry, algebra, mechanics, hydraulics…
The theoretical instruction was underpinned by a fairly intense practical training through annual assignments to provincial construction sites or through collaborations with scientists and aristocrats. This practical aspect of the training was also reflected in the requirement on the students to take part in the mapping of the Kingdom.
Assessment was based on a number of factors: work rate, previous studies, outside courses, the annual assignments, classes taught and examination results. The period of study could therefore last from 4 to 12 years.
An applied school
The education gradually became structured and Ponts et Chaussées engineers steadily increased their prerogatives, obtaining a virtual monopoly over planning and development. With the Revolution, the authoritarian nature of this policy came under attack, and the idea emerged of creating a powerful school bringing together students from Ponts, Mines and Génie. The École Polytechnique thus came into being in 1795 and Ecole des Ponts was retained as an applied school.