In ancient times and well into the Middle Ages, builders were known as architects or mechanics. The name "engineer" first appeared around the twelfth century: those who were involved in the maintenance of roads and waterways and the construction of the first registers were called public aestimatores, libellatores aquarum and inzigneri. A decree of Lodovico il Moro made a distinction between the magistri fabrorum, engineers and architects and aestimatores meaning surveyors, establishing lower rates for the latter.
From the mid-sixteenth century the State of Milan charged the Board of Engineers with the task of "licensing" engineers. This corporate body was responsible for protecting the profession and verifying that the candidate possessed the necessary professional skills (gained through internships) and the birthright (a member of a socially distinct family) required to practice the profession. With the arrival of Napoleon, the Board of Engineers was suppressed and engineers received their scientific training at universities and were required to perform an internship at the firm of a certified engineer.
The evolutionary ferment that swept across Lombardy in the 1830's, dampened nonetheless by numerous political, social and economic limitations, caused intellectuals who were more attentive to what was happening in Europe to see intelligence as an economic factor on par with capital, labour and infrastructures. Groups of business owners more aware of the needs of modern agriculture and the growing manufacturing activities, in addition to intellectuals and economists committed to promoting the country's modernisation process were in favour of developing technical and scientific education, referred to as "one of the main sources of progress". Upon its establishment, Politecnico became the hub of all educational and outreach initiatives in the technical and scientific world, the dynamic centre of applied research and a place where businesses could turn to for third party experimentation and testing.
On November 29th, 1863, Francesco Brioschi, a politician, distinguished mathematician and hydraulic engineer, already the rector of University of Pavia and secretary general of the Ministry of Public Education, in his dual role as chairman of the board of the Scientific-Literary Academy, the original nucleus of the future university and founder and director of the Instituto Tecnico Superiore, the first Politecnico in Italy, inaugurated the two universities emphasizing their "common and special purpose" and correspondence with "the country's intellectual and material needs". On the same occasion Francesco Brioschi indicated the two elements that characterised the institution as a coordinator between the basic scientific teachings and technical teachings and the specificity of the latter two, a principle that prefigured the division of the study programme into specialisations. The Instituto Tecnico Superiore was based on the model of the German and Swiss polytechnic institutes and promoted a technical and scientific culture focused on specialization and the ability to contribute to the country's development. Initially limited to three years of study and two areas of study in Civil and Industrial Engineering, in 1865, on the initiative of Camillo Boito and through interaction with the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera, the institute was joined by the School of Architecture and in 1875 was completed by the two-year preparatory school.
Giuseppe Colombo, Brioschi's successor at the helm of Politecnico, remembers his predecessor as a great mathematics scholar "the true, great passion of his life [...] to which he dedicated all his free time; which awaited him late at night, finding in his favourite studies, the most difficult that the human mind can conceive, true rest, compensation for the annoyances, difficulties and struggles of life and actually drawing from the pure source of science the strength to overcome them."
For the severity with which it was managed and its strict disciplinary provisions, the Istituto Tecnico Superiore was soon renamed the "Brioschi Asylum" by students. Attendance was mandatory and absences had to be justified by parents or a doctor whose signature had to be authenticated by the mayor of their town of residence. Students were required to attend classes, which were held from Monday to Saturday afternoon, to participate in the laboratories, defined as "manipulations", in practical exercises, in written tests and in "science journeys", educational trips to factories, industrial centres and civil constructions, in addition to international industrial exhibitions and cities of art. During these visits, students observed the most innovative production processes that were later discussed in class.
In the beginning, the study programme was limited to three years and, in order to be accepted, the candidate must have attended and passed the exams of a two-year university programme in the schools of Physical Sciences, Mathematics and Natural Sciences, since 1875. With the implementation of the two-year preparatory requirement, candidates were enrolled immediately after graduation. In the first year of the institute's activity, "due to extraordinary circumstances" lessons began on December 1, but the academic year normally lasted from mid-November to the end of July "limiting vacations to holidays and an additional ten days during Carnival and around the Easter holidays." Examinations were held between late July and the first week of August with graduation examinations in the middle of August. These were held in the shadow of the portico of the chapel of Palazzo della Canonica, where:
on simple benches sat the professor examiners in their ceremonial dress - of a frock and top hat. Francesco Brioschi placed a top hat in the centre filled with rolled sheets onto which the exam questions were written. In the courtyard, in the sunlight, on identical benches sat the examinees waiting to be called in alphabetical order, at which time they would extract a certain number of sheets containing arguments on which they were to demonstrate the extent of their expertise. After a brief huddle between professors, the student stood before the examiners, to be judged and, if deemed worthy, awarded a degree.
Graduation was accompanied by the custom of the portrait, a group photograph of that year's graduates which was first displayed in the windows of shops in the centre of Milan, then, according to the testimony of the engineer "electrician" Carlo Emilio Gadda, placed in the corridor of administrative office of the Piazza Cavour location, or "in the room [of the Board] in great honour" in the new location in Piazza Leonardo da Vinci.
In the first year the university counted approximately thirty students plus seven auditors, students admitted to individual courses "for the purpose of acquiring those requisites, for the lack of which they could not be accepted this year as students and to prepare themselves for the following year". The first graduates, dating back to 1865, were 25. The number of students and graduates progressively grew in subsequent years leading up to World War I. Towards the end of the 1880's, coinciding with the launch of the industrialisation process, the number of industrial engineers (a minority up until then) began increasing and, at the end of the century, their numbers equalled and surpassed that of civil engineers. During the same years the first female students attended the school. The first female student, Tatiana Wedenison, enrolled in 1888. However, the first woman to graduate in civil engineering, Gaetanina Calvi, did not come until 1913. A few years later, in 1918, Maria Artini received a degree in industrial engineering, the first female electrical technician in Italy. In the field of architecture, the first female graduates, Carla Maria Bassi and Elvira Morassi, date back to 1928. In the years that followed, the attendance of female students at Politecnico was a regular presence although in limited numbers and in the mid-1940's out of approximately nine thousand five hundred graduates, the number of women was only one hundred or so.
More generally, the growth in the number of graduates in the twentieth century was irregular: marked by an increase during the Giolitti period, followed by a surge in the years 1919-22, due to the benefits granted to students that were war veterans, followed by a period of decline attributable to both the application of the Gentile law on the university system, which limited access to higher education from high school students and introduced the obligation of the state professional examination to exercise a profession and also to the economic recession of the early 1930's. A "boom" in enrolment and, to a lesser extent, graduates, was also experienced in the second half of the 1960's, with a consolidated growth characterised by an overall presence of female students that was limited in engineering (albeit with the exception of Biomedical Engineering, Management Engineering and Territory Engineering), most significant in the field of Architecture, where in the early nineties the so-called "pink overtaking" occurred, when women accounted for 50% of the students registered in Industrial Design at the end of the 1990's.