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Recycled illuminism

The Royal Military Academy in Rio de Janeiro was founded in 1810 to train military officers and men of science

Building where the academy operated, on Largo de São Francisco de Paula, depicted in an 1856 lithograph by Bertichem

Reproduction of the Polytechnic School on Largo do São Francisco – Birthplace of Brazilian Engineering. FAU/USP LibraryBuilding where the academy operated, on Largo de São Francisco de Paula, depicted in an 1856 lithograph by BertichemReproduction of the Polytechnic School on Largo do São Francisco – Birthplace of Brazilian Engineering. FAU/USP Library

The arrival of the Portuguese court to Brazil in 1808 made possible the establishment of institutions of higher learning that helped organize the educational system and overcome the historical deficiency in that field. In that same year, the first courses in medicine were offered in Bahia and Rio de Janeiro, and in 1810, the Royal Military Academy, which offered a course in engineering, was founded. The intent was to train not only engineer officers, but geographers, topographers, and technical personnel who could build roads, ports, bridges and buildings, and penetrate further into the backlands in order to accurately mark boundaries and make maps. The establishment of an academy that would also be used for training men of science was shaped by the illuminist ideals of Dom Rodrigo de Sousa Coutinho (1755-1812), the most influential minister in the court of Dom João VI and a beloved disciple of Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal (1699-1777). “The academy became the home of the enlightened reformist views of Pombal, recycled by Dom Rodrigo,” says physicist and science historian Thomás Haddad, of the School of Arts, Sciences and Humanities (EACH) of the University of São Paulo (USP-East Campus).

To be admitted to the Royal Military Academy, a candidate needed only to be able to read and write and perform the four basic mathematics operations. Originally, its engineering course took seven years to complete and placed a heavy emphasis on mathematics. It incorporated instruction in chemistry, mineralogy, and natural history, which were not part of the curriculum in similar courses in Portugal. Rodrigo Coutinho recognized the vital importance of establishing a policy for exploiting natural resources in both Portugal and Brazil. Classes began at the Casa do Trem – which is now part of the National Historical Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Starting in 1812, classes were held in the unfinished facilities intended for Rio de Janeiro’s cathedral on Largo São Francisco de Paula. The UFRJ Institute of Philosophy and Social Sciences now occupies that building.

Cover of the manual by Araújo Guimarães...

BROWN UNIVERSITYCover of the manual by Araújo Guimarães… BROWN UNIVERSITY

In order to produce competent personnel in a short time, some adjustments had to be made to make pedagogical procedures more uniform. These involved standardizing the curriculum, the grading procedures, and teaching methods. Scientific manuals became an important tool in this effort. “The professors themselves translated the books that were used to support the classes,” notes Luis Miguel Carolino, professor of history at the University Institute of Lisbon and a researcher at the University of Lisbon’s Museum of Science. “That was required by the academy’s statutes.”

Astronomer, translator, and professor Manoel Ferreira de Araújo Guimarães published his Elementos de Astronomia para uso dos alunos (Elements of Astronomy for Student Use) for the Royal Military Academy in 1814. The manual presented a compilation of translations of classical teachings in astronomy and served as a textbook in spherical (or positional) astronomy, a branch of astronomy that deals with the locations at which celestial objects are seen, without taking distance into account. Those observations made it possible to determine the geographical coordinates of the observation points from Earth and were vital for cartography and navigation. Using his manual, Guimarães prepared students for work on military or civilian missions.

Despite the efforts of the professors, few students were willing to take the seven-year engineering course. “At least during its first 15 years, the academy produced very few engineers in comparison to the number who had enrolled,” says Rogério Monteiro de Siqueira, a specialist in the history of mathematics in the Graduate Program in Cultural Studies at EACH.

... and drawings he made for the spherical astronomy course

Brown University … and drawings he made for the spherical astronomy courseBrown University

The illustrious body of knowledge in the field of education and the general trend toward greater appreciation of technical education initiated by Pombal with the 1772 reform of the University of Coimbra had been taken by Rodrigo Coutinho to Brazil, but it was already too late for Portugal. “In 1822, with Brazil’s independence, the Portuguese empire began to break up. And the academy ultimately became something other than what Dom Rodrigo, Pombal’s political heir, had in mind,” Haddad says.

“The Academy had been through 11 curriculum reforms by the mid-1870s and during its existence there had been debates about how the students, should be educated in terms of the division between scientific and military training, Siqueira recalls. The last reform took place in 1874 and permanently separated the academy into two schools, military and civilian. That was when the Polytechnic School (Poli/USP) was established, which accepted only civilian students.