Department of Mechanical Engineering

Anders Olivier Saelan

Every Finnish engineer could be considered an heir to the ideals and skill of Anders Olivier Saelan. Saelan is Finland's first domestic representative of the engineer's trade, the founder of the profession in the country.
Anders Olivier Saelanin muotokuva
Anders Olivier Saelan, Aalto University collections. Photo: Rauno Träskelin.

Every Finnish engineer or engineering graduate could be considered an heir of Anders Olivier Saelan in terms of ideals and skill. Saelan was the first representative of the Finnish engineering profession, the founder of the whole profession in the country.

The quiet and, according to contemporaries, kind Andreas Olivier Saelan was born on 18 January 1818 in Antrea on the Karelian Isthmus to a priest's family, and he spent his youth in the Hiitola parsonage.

As a student of natural sciences new to Helsinki, Saelan earned an income by working as a tutor. He found a place for himself in the Furugård manor in Mäntsälä, known as the home of the influential Nordenskiöld and von Haartman families.

Saelan's employers were pioneers of Finnish industrial culture. Nils Gustaf Nordenskiöld was appointed to lead a mining development project that was started in the 1820s and was named superintendent for mining. Lars Gabriel von Haartman, a senator from 1830 onward, held a position comparable to the modern-day prime minister, with responsibilities that included the development of the economy.

In the 1840s it was decided that an independent Finnish education system should be created for the development of industry and business within the grand duchy. Another reason for the initiative was to avoid sending students to France or Germany for their education, as these countries were seen as revolutionary. This was particularly true in technological fields, where formal education was still in its infancy. Saelan was a perfect fit for the project.

Foundational engineer

Helsinki Technical School (Helsingin Teknillinen Reaalikoulu, HTRK) was established by decree on 9 June 1847. During the following autumn and winter, Saelan completed a number of additional studies at the university and was appointed the school's first director on 5 September 1848. The school was housed in a stone building at Aleksanterinkatu 50, rented from the master upholsterer Jonas Litonius. Saelan was given a long-term apartment on the third floor of the building.

Teaching in the school began on 15 January 1849.

In a report sent to the Manufactory Board – a distant predecessor of the modern Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment – in the summer of 1849, Saelan emphasised the need to take a more practical approach to the school's curriculum. The new curriculum, based on mathematical and scientific research, was introduced in 1858. A theory-based curriculum would be adopted ten years later.

Saelan was personally responsible for the reforms, which were seen as radical.  He traveled to Germany and Switzerland for the latest methods in engineering education. From then on, the development of technology education in Finland would go hand in hand with educational institutions in the German-speaking region of Central Europe.

Finland's first steps to modernisation

A. O. Saelan was appointed to the Manufactory Board in the end of 1856. This connection between the school and the board – and their subsequent institutions – would remain until 1972. During the 1860s, Saelan took part in modernising the governance and economic life of Finland. He also saw his school gradually turn into a technical college.

HTRK was renamed the Polytechnic School in 1872 and the Polytechnic Institute in 1879. The latter change is also considered the origin for the teaching tradition that would be carried on in the later Helsinki University of Technology. By that point, primary and secondary education had been established and the feudal corporation system abolished in Finland. In 1908, the Polytechnic Institute became a university.

Soon after resigning as the school's director in 1872, Saelan fell ill. He died in 1874.

Following Saelan's death, a fund was set up to raise money for a monument in his memory on the grounds of the Old Church in Helsinki. The project never came to fruition, and the monument fund was merged with other funds.

The kind and unassuming Saelan never boasted about his role as the founder of Finnish engineering and technology education, and his role was largely forgotten by the beginning of the 1900s.

Literature

Nykänen Panu. Saelan, Anders Olivier (1818–1874). Suomen kansallisbiografia, osa 8, s. 545. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 2006

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