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Chap. 1

The birth of the INSA model


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November 12, 1957: two newly constructed buildings with nothing opposite them. 289 engineering students, including just 13 females, started their academic year before the decoration was even finished.Only one lecture theater was available, there were no tables, we simply had a slab of plywood to write on... recalls a former student. Fall had arrived in Villeurbanne, and the Doua campus (which at this point was still a wasteland bordering the north of the conurbation) was shrouded in fog. 

The conditions at start of the 1957 academic year were difficult remembers Françoise OberlisI grew up in the south of France and it was awful arriving at this campus in the cold and fog. What’s more, it was a construction site covered in mud. The lecture theater was a kind of hangar and we had hardly any equipment.

La naissance du modèle INSA. INSA Lyon 57/17
                       The Auditorium - December 1958 ©INSALyon

But history was in the making: the National Institute of Applied Sciences had opened its doors once and for all.

We were all in the Vannier lecture theater, as it is called today, but in fact at the time it was the only one that existed, explains Jean-Louis Sauvonnet, also recalling his first day at the school. The girls were seated in the front row. A group of men came in, headed by the director, Jean Capelle. He was very tall, in fact he towered over everyone. We were then introduced to the INSA teaching staff made up of professors hand-picked by Jean Capelle himself. An extraordinary director... 

He was like some kind of demigod adds Françoise. What with his stature, his great height and his white hair. He reigned over INSA and we all respected him a lot. He was an impressive man, we saw him as the founding father of INSA.  

Together with his friend Gaston Berger*, a philosopher who was very actively involved in the industrial sector, he dreamed up an engineering school that was ‘one of a kind’. In 1957, at a time when France was suffering from a lack engineers, their concept did not go unnoticed by young high-school leavers in need of suitable training. I always admired Rector Capelle because he was a remarkable character specifies Jean-Louis Sauvonnet. He had already thought things out carefully. He was a rector in Dakar and was certainly contacted to come back to France. His idea was to set up an engineering school based on the principle of studying and self-discipline, his hobbyhorse. It was the first time we’d seen that! And in my opinion, it worked really well adds Jean-Louis. 

Le préfet et le Recteur Capelle
The prefect with Rector Capelle

This former student from the Jura region, winner of the Martinière prize for excellence at the Minimes school, was brilliant yet reckless. His father, a math teacher, had sent him to boarding school to force him to work. He had just managed to scrape a place in the entrance exam to Arts and Métiers, an elite arts and crafts school, when he discovered in the press that a new school was opening. The advert was enlightening: ‘new studies’, ‘new teachings, ‘selected professors’ and ‘self-discipline’. 

Self-discipline was one of the very cornerstones of INSA confirms Guy Berthier, who was also a student in the school’s first year group. We had to appoint a ‘head of the household’ and a ‘floor head’ in the residence halls, we had to regulate our activities. We soon created a student association and right from year one, we drafted a self-discipline charter. We learned to be democratic. 

For Jean-Louis Sauvonnet, who ended up turning down his place at the Arts et Métiers school, joining INSA Lyon was a very enticing opportunity.  It was revolutionary! My dad told me I was crazy for wanting to join this institute, but I had done my research. I had always been passionate about hydraulic power, but like pneumatics, these were new techniques that weren’t yet even taught in schools, apart from at INSA. So I sent in my application, attracted by the area of expertise, and I was called for an interview with a professor, a psychologist and an engineer. I got a place! recalls Jean-Louis. 

289 students in total got through this first stage. There was no entrance exam, no random selection. The only criterion was to have a high-school diploma.

La naissance du modèle INSA. INSA Lyon 57/17
Students from the first year group arriving at the residence hall - 1957 ©INSALyon

Going to INSA was a pragmatic choice for me reveals Françoise Oberlis. I had a scientific mind, but I didn’t want to be a teacher – the path that was mapped out for many girls who went on to study at that time. I wanted to be an engineer. I was looking for a study program that was fast and efficient. INSA was offering a four-year program and recruiting students based on its values. They were looking to train lots of engineers in France and that seemed like an intelligent way of doing it to me. 

The admission interview took care of the rest. It was innovative at the time, and risky adds Guy Berthier. Without an entrance exam, it was hard to consider INSA as a prestigious ‘grande école’. But its model was clear: the first year was a foundation year, and in the second year, we would specialize depending on our place in the rankings. We could choose between chemistry, physics and mechanics. INSA soon adapted in line with scientific and technological developments. Then, as our training program progressed, there was a scuffle to get our diplomas. We weren’t sure if we were going to have an engineering diploma, a ‘Technologist A’ or a ‘Technologist B’ diploma ».

La naissance du modèle INSA. INSA Lyon 57/17
    Graduation ceremony - Auditorium, July 1961 - ©INSALyon

The school’s first year group arrived at the end of its four-year program. This takes us to the beginning of summer, 1961. At the end of the first year, a selection had to be made: half of the year group had to be directed towards an engineering diploma and the other half towards a higher technician diploma. Before the graduation ceremony, Mr. Capelle had a brainwave inspired by German tradition: INSA would award the title of ‘design engineer’ to the engineering half of the year group, and ‘production engineer’ to the other half» recalls Robert Arnal, an optoelectronics professor who was recruited to embark on the INSA adventure by René Bernard (a close friend of Gaston Berger and Jean Capelle) during a congress in Stockholm 

Jean Capelle was conspicuously absent from the very first graduation ceremony. The Ministry’s intentions put paid to the rector’s action on the ground, and as a result the INSA ship got caught up in its first tidal wave. 1961 marked the beginning of a challenging period for the institute, and its future as an engineering school looked very uncertain.

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First years on the campus

The birth of the INSA model INSA - Résidence A« We sometimes went to eat at the Doua barracks, but the food was disgusting... We lived in Hall A. The first floor was for girls only, and boys weren’t supposed to venture in there. I felt right at home there, I had always lived in a mixed environment as I only had brothers. But that wasn’t the case for all of the other young girls. Most of them weren’t used to it because they had been separated from the boys at high school. And as for the boys, it was a real attraction to have us girls there! We became the target of many a tasteless joke! But we were more than happy to put up with it! » 
Françoise Oberlis, one of the 13 female students in INSA Lyon’s first year group

INSA engineer then doctor

Guy Berthier was one of the 15 graduates who went on to write a thesis at INSA to obtain the title of ‘engineering doctor’. He achieved good results and on his graduation day, he was approached by Lucien Eyrault, professor of physics, who encouraged him to pursue a PhD. Berthier decided to follow his professor’s advice and was backed up by grants from Solvay, the firm where his father worked.« I worked on my thesis in the field of thermodynamics at a fast pace for three years, then I had the urge to work in industry. I wanted to find a job that would value both my electronics studies and my engineering doctoral degree. During my studies at INSA, I was fortunate to have taken advantage of an opening towards something different. I took lessons in German, my first foreign language at high school, and English, and I had an appetite to learn. This international opening, which was marvelous at the time and characteristic of the INSA model, enabled me to become ‘Asia man’ at Rhône-Poulenc. I worked in their application laboratory. I travelled a great deal and worked abroad during my career.». 
Guy Berthier

The INSA spirit

« It’s mainly characterized by a sense of humility: we had to fight and yet, even today, I don’t think there’s much arrogance among INSA engineers. Another key aspect is the fighting spirit. The humanities are a fundamental aspect: teaching the humanities right from the start, and the development of sport. Last but not least, there’s a family spirit: we were all boarders, we lived together as a family. INSA brought together people from all walks of life and helped to create links between them. The INSA spirit was born from those went to fight in industry and from the INSA teaching staff. » 
Guy Berthier

The 'Greasers' 

During INSA Lyon’s early years, a group of rebels from certain neighborhoods of Villeurbanne didn’t think much of all the students arriving at the Doua site. These rebels, known at the time as ‘Greasers’, carried out knife attacks on INSA students, both as individuals and groups. On Saturday evenings, for example, when the INSA engineering students used to go the movies in Lyon, they would arrange to wait for each other at the ‘Antonins’ bus stop of the no. 27 line, at the corner of rue des Antonins and boulevard Roger Salengro. From the bus stop, they would then return as a group along rue des Antonins to the main entrance of INSA Lyon.

The ‘Greasers’ would often wait for them, armed with broken bottles that they got hold of from a wine merchant on rue des Antonins. Students were regularly injured (stabbings in their stomachs, bottle injuries, etc.). This gave rise to a number of organized punitive expeditions: several dozen students went to confront these gangs. The police, however, hardly ever got involved: that was official policy! The problem stopped when the ‘Greasers’ gangs started to disappear towards the end of the 1970s.

The Algerian war

Jean-Louis Sauvonnet had just obtained his engineering degree. The Algerian War was in full swing and he was enlisted a 2nd class officer in a disciplinary camp. He went away for two years.« I met my wife at INSA. She was one of the 13 female engineering students in the first year group. Before she graduated in June ‘61, she was hired as a materials chemistry engineer. Before I started my military service, I did a four-month internship at a firm and during the Algerian War, they wrote to me to let me know that they had kept my place for me. When I returned from Algeria, I started out as an engineer for that company, working on very high power hydraulic machines. I then went on to become head engineer, production engineer for the entire plant, plant manager for 10 years then managing director in Paris. While I was ‘semi-retired’, I had a plant built in China for the group - which was TREFIMETAUX, incidentally. In those days, you would join a company with the aim of staying there throughout your entire career. » Jean-Louis Sauvonnet

Click here to view a report (in French) by the French National Audiovisual Institute (INA) on the beginning of the Algerian War.

Ski camp

This event took place right from the very first year and, according to those who remember it, it was quite extraordinary. The week-long ski camp was mandatory in 1957. The idea was to take all of the engineering students to a small ski resort located below Tignes. The schedule included a lecture every evening, with economics or even humanities classes. Learning to ski was something of a rarity in those days, so it was a real revelation for the young students, many of whom ended up in hospital on their first day in the snow! For financial reasons, the ski camp is no longer free of charge or a mandatory part of the program (participation is now on a voluntary basis).

BAPSO : The Graduation Ball

BAPSO: a ball that became an unmissable gala! Once upon a time, the fairer sex would go to this ball to find themselves a husband! The prestigious event was held in various locations on the school site, including the two dining rooms of the Large Refectory, which were decorated each year by teams of volunteers.  


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