When Coppe was born in 1963, it was named Master's Course in Chemical Engineering from the University of Brazil – the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ)’s former name.
The “Course” gave rise to the largest research and education institution in engineering in Latin America, thanks to the initiative and determination of Professor Alberto Luiz Coimbra Galvão and the support of some fellow pioneers.
Coimbra, a chemical engineer and professor at the National School of Chemistry, was unsatisfied with the quality of the undergraduate courses in engineering in Brazil. He thought that the expansion of the industrial sector and the country's development needs demanded the further development of technology and projects methods. It was necessary, therefore, to combine the basic scientific principles of mathematics, physics and chemistry to the practical spirit of the engineers, so that a true engineering science was practiced. Otherwise, the Brazilians would be forever condemned to import technology – in an ever larger scale and not always suited for our specific needs.
Coimbra, having obtained in 1949 his master's degree at the Vanderbilt University, knew well the American graduate system, which combined teaching with research – something barely seen in Brazil at the time. He was convinced that this was the fastest and most efficient way to improve the training of engineers in the country, as the standards of quality and the rigor of graduate studies would trickle down to undergraduate courses.
In the early 1960s, Coimbra chose three of his best undergraduate students that were close to finish their courses in Chemical Engineering - Affonso Silva Telles, Giulio Massarani and Maurício Leonardos - and managed to obtain scholarships from the Organization of American States (OAS); consequently sending them off to the United States to a master's course at the University of Houston. Upon their return, they became professors of the graduate course Coimbra would create. Such a course, he dreamed, would help to change the Brazilian university environment and, with that, Brazil itself.
In the early 1960s, Brazilian universities were unaware of the graduate system with master's and doctoral programs that existed in the United States. Moreover, with few exceptions, they did not do research. Higher courses were viewed for teaching exclusively. There were some graduate courses, but in general they were short, specialization courses, the kind that would later be called lato sensu post-graduation. In the area of engineering, professors worked part-time; teaching was only one of their occupations and therefore it suffered from the competition with the activities they performed in their offices, companies and other institutions.
This situation was very different from that of the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1957, the Soviets astonished the world by taking the first manned vehicle into space. Caught by surprise, the Americans mobilized to recover the lost time and undertook a major reform of its education and scientific and technological research system.
Fascinated by the Russian practice of strongly basing the study of engineering on mathematics principles and by the prompt reaction of the American universities to overcome the technological gap, Professor Alberto Coimbra realized that the time was ripe to try something similar in Brazil.
By then the country was experiencing the euphoria of the “developmentalism”, which started at the end of the Vargas years and was intensified in the second half of the 1950s during the government of Juscelino Kubitschek. Spurred by the slogan "Fifty years in five," the new capital, Brasília, was built, and the country made a bet on its industrialization through the import substitution development strategy. In the arts, at the same time, the Cinema Novo (New Cinema) and bossa nova took the name of Brazil to the world stage.
It was in this context that Coimbra looked for support to create a Master's degree in Chemical Engineering. Frank Tiller, who had been his master's advisor at Vanderbilt and was at the time leading the Department of Chemistry at the University of Houston, has committed himself to go to Brazil to give some lessons in the new course. He would also try to convince other American professors to do the same and contact foreign foundations to obtain scholarships for students. Athos da Silveira Ramos, President of the Institute of Chemistry of the University of Brazil, gave Frank Tiller two small rooms on the sixth floor of the building of the School of Chemistry at the old campus in Praia Vermelha (Red Beach).
In March 1963, the first class began its course. The teachers were the very Coimbra, Donald Katz and Louis Brand from the United States and Nelson Castro Faria, Affonso Silva Telles, and Giulio Massarani, all three from Brazil. The last two had only recently received their master's from the University of Houston, where they studied on a scholarship Coimbra obtained. The students were Gileno Amaral Barreto, Walmir Gonçalves, Tulio Bracho Henriques, Jair Augusto Miranda, Carlos Augusto Guimarães Perlingeiro, Paulo Ribeiro, Nelson Trevisan, Edgard Souza Aguiar Vieira and Liu Kai. They came from different undergraduate schools in Brazil and were selected among the brightest.
Coimbra began repeating a kind of mantra that in the following decades would become one of the pillars of the institution: full-time and exclusive dedication both from professors and students. Conditio sine qua non, he said, to ensure the quality leap that will change the scenario of universities in Brazil. He himself set the example. Coimbra quit six of the seven jobs he had and fully committed himself to the university.
To ensure the permanence of professors and brilliant students in full-time and exclusive dedication, it was necessary to pay salaries comparable with those offered by the private sector. The grants from different Brazilian and foreign institutions indeed helped to attract students, but were not enough to keep them at the university as professors. Moreover, it was necessary to set up adequate laboratories in order to perform research.
At that time, Coimbra met the economist José Pelúcio Ferreira, head of a division in the then National Economic Development Bank (BNDE), still without the "S" (indicative of "Social") that would later be added.
Created in 1952 with the purpose of promoting the development of the country by encouraging its industrialization, the BNDE financed the installation and the expansion of industries. It had also a budget to fund the training of companies’ employees. However, the money was not used because training of human resources was by then an unknown concept to Brazilian companies.
Pelúcio and Coimbra jointly suggested the BNDE to direct the bank’s resources to non-refundable loans aiming at the formation of high level professors and researchers in universities. Thus in 1964 the Technical and Scientific Development Fund (Funtec) was created, and its first loan was for the Master's Degree in Chemical Engineering.
The creation of Funtec encouraged Coimbra to introduce the second course in master’s level in 1965, this time in Mechanical Engineering. It was necessary, therefore, to come up with a name that would include the two courses and the next that would be created in the future. So was born Coppe’s name - Coordination of Graduate Programs and Research in Engineering.
Coimbra devised a method of recruiting students: two professors were sent in a mission to the cities where there were undergraduate courses in Engineering. The envoys would put an ad in the local paper, inviting students who were about to finish their studies to introduce themselves in a hotel at a certain time. They would explain what a master’s course was, describe Coppe and interview those who were interested. If the young student looked promising, he or she would be informed that there was a scholarship in Rio de Janeiro.
Growth was rapid. In 1967, when Coppe moved to the larger premises in the University City (Cidade Universitária) on the Fundão Island, it already had seven departments (Programas). In 1968, when the Ministry of Education overhauled the university system, graduate studies were regulated in Brazil along the lines already practiced by Coppe.
In 1969, the Ministry of Planning, inspired by the BNDE experience with Funtec, created the National Fund for Scientific and Technological Development (FNDCT). José Pelúcio was called to manage it at the Financier of Studies and Projects (Finep), a public company linked to that ministry. It greatly expanded the amount of resources available to finance the scientific and technological research.
When the decade ended, 7 of the 13 graduate courses that now form Coppe were already functioning. Many dissertations were written, doctoral courses were beginning, and companies began to look for Coppe’s professors to ask for solutions to their technological problems.
Coppe was so powerful that not even the anticommunist ideology of the military regime installed in Brazil since 1964 prevented it from doing what it thought best for their academic excellence. For instance, going after the stars of the Soviet science to have them teach on Fundão. In 1968, while the government was editing the Institutional Act No 5, which suppressed civil liberties and tighten the grip of the military dictatorship, Soviet professors were invited by the founder and director of Coppe, Alberto Luiz Galvão Coimbra, with the blessings of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Soviet embassy in Brasília. Victor Lenski, international genius in the field of materials resistance, and Dimitri Vastvoscev, a recognized name in naval engineering, also came to Coppe.
However, the same success that Coppe attained in its early years would be the root cause of the crisis that befell upon the institution in the next decade -- and almost ended it.