The Careers of Graduates of the Ecoles d'Arts et Metiers in the French Automobile Industry, 1880-1940

By Day, C. Rod | Canadian Journal of History, August 1994 | Go to article overview

The Careers of Graduates of the Ecoles d'Arts et Metiers in the French Automobile Industry, 1880-1940


Day, C. Rod, Canadian Journal of History


This article examines the careers of graduates of the Ecoles Nationales d'Arts et Metiers employed in the French automobile industry from the late nineteenth century to 1940. Since publishing a book on the Ecoles d'Arts et Metiers in 1987 (translated and published in France in 1991), I have found a list of 527 graduates of the school who worked in the auto industry and its precursors from 1840 to 1914, compiled in 1983 by Pierre Lucien Pouzet, a graduate of Cluny (1938).(1) This list together with other material makes possible a statistical analysis of engineers and technicians employed in the new automobile industry during its first generation of existence. By using data from the alumni association of the Ecoles d'Arts et Metiers, the career analysis of graduates can be extended down to 1940.

The original Ecoles d'Arts et Metiers were founded by Napoleon at Compiegne in 1803 (transferred to Chalons-sur-Marne in 1806) and at Beaupreau in 1811 (transferred to Angers in 1815). A third school was established by the July Monarchy at Aix-en-Provence in 1843 and three more by the Third Republic at Cluny, 1891, Lille, 1900, and Paris, 1912. A seventh school was organized in Bordeaux in 1964. The schools were officially intended to train skilled mechanics and foremen for the machine and metal trades, but their graduates frequently became industrial engineers through promotion on the job, and a good many successfully established their own companies. As a result of the tireless efforts of the alumni association (organized in 1847), and in recognition of the achievements of graduates, the government transformed the schools into engineering institutes in 1907. Despite the engineering credentials, the Ecoles d'Arts et Metiers were ranked as secondary schools. They were subsequently promoted to the university level in 1945 and to grande ecole status in 1974.

The students at the schools, or gadzarts as they were called (gars des arts), were frequently of modest origin, the sons of skilled workers, artisans, technicians, and workshop owners. They were sought after by industrialists in the automobile industry because of their practical training, their capacity for bard work and problem solving, and their long association with the machine and metalworking trades. In the schools they received a solid grounding in mechanics, physics and chemistry, applied mathematics, drafting, and machine and metal shop work. They did not have the mathematical formation of the students in the technical grandes ecoles, notably the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures, which trained mainly the sons of industrialists for executive engineering posts in industry, and the Ecole Polytechnique, which formed upper class young men for high level technical posts in the public and military services and increasingly for private business as well. The Ecoles d'Arts et Metiers ranked just below the applied science institutes founded in university science faculties (notably at Grenoble, Nancy, Lille, Lyons, and Toulouse) from around 1890 to 1914.(2) In practice, about one-fifth of gadzarts continued their studies in the Ecole Centrale or the Ecole Superieure d'Electricite (with the aid of an extra year's study of mathematics) or in the applied science institutes.(3)

As James Laux has noted, France was the first home of the automobile industry. Although overtaken in production by the USA. around 1905, France led Europe in output until the 1930s and maintained world supremacy in auto exports until the First World War. The success of this major new industry, was perhaps surprising in view of France's reputation for industrial backwardness. In fact, France did surprisingly well in several other industries, in aviation, aluminium and metal alloys, synthetic fibres, and in certain areas of electricity.(4)

Laux concludes: "In the 1890s the auto industry began in France due to the efforts of some alert and venturesome businessmen-engineers who together supplied a mastery of the technology and the financial resources to put cars on the good roads and streets of their country. …

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