In the footsteps of Chalmers and Ørsted

The students of higher technical education in Sweden and Denmark, 1829–1929

Latest presentation

Danish Society for Economic and Social History annual meeting
3 November 2023: Copenhagen Business School

Nick Ford
Lund University

In 1829, two institutions of technical education opened: what are today the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), and Chalmers University of Technology (Chalmers) in the western Swedish city of Gothenburg. Both started with a focus on applied natural sciences, which evolved to engineering later in the century.

In contrast to the traditional fields of academic study (for example, theology and law), science and engineering were perhaps the first clear examples of fields geared towards the economic demands of the age. This paper examines the backgrounds of the first polytechnic students. To what extent did the socioeconomic backgrounds of the students of Chalmers and DTU differ?

Notwithstanding their common origin in time, the two institutions had some key differences. Institutionally, DTU was something of a spin-off from the University of Copenhagen, with the physicist Hans Christian Ørsted — a professor at Copenhagen — as its first rector (president). Chalmers was established as a private institution financed by the estate of (and named after) William Chalmers, a business leader who died in 1811. Chalmers started as an industrial school for poor children, but quickly became a leading polytechnic institute.

To enable this comparative study of educational attainment in Denmark and Sweden, I draw on novel source material: graduate biographies written to commemorate the respective centenaries of DTU and Chalmers. Using machine-learning techniques, I extract key information from around 7000 biographies. The goal is an individual-level database that charts the family backgrounds and educational profiles of the graduates of DTU and Chalmers between 1829 and 1929.