Royal Commission of 1850

Although there was provision for the study of both natural sciences and the arts at Cambridge in the late seventeenth century (i.e. at the time of Sir Isaac Newton's discoveries), mathematics came to dominate studies and the term Tripos came to mean 'examination in mathematics'.

No Cambridge undergraduate could sit the Classics Tripos until he had first obtained honours in the mathematics tripos. The tradition was that a good man should read mathematics and having obtained a first in it should then turn to the subject in which he wished to specialise.

This continued until the start of the nineteenth century when there was a strong movement towards reform. Prince Albert was the Chancellor of the University, 1847-61. A petition signed mostly by Cambridge graduates, was presented to the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, declaring that the two universities of Oxford and Cambridge were failing in their duty to promote the advancement of learning.

In 1850 a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into the two ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge and its recommendations led to the introduction and examination of new studies, with the Natural Sciences and Moral Sciences Triposes being approved as early as 1851. Ten new chairs were suggested, including one in Practical Engineering.

For more detail on the beginnings of engineering at Cambridge see 'The Cambridge Engineering Tradition' by Donald Welbourn.