The Politecnico was founded on 29 November 1863 by Francesco Brioschi, secretary of the Ministry of Education and rector of the University of Pavia. It is the oldest university in Milan. Its original name was Istituto Tecnico Superiore ("Higher Technical Institute") and only Civil and Industrial Engineering were taught. Architecture, the second main line of study at Politecnico, was introduced in 1865 in cooperation with the Brera Academy.
There were only 30 students admitted in the first year. Over the decades, most of students were men: the first female graduate from the university was in 1913.
In 1927 the Politecnico moved to piazza Leonardo da Vinci, in the district now known as Città studi(City of Studies), where Politecnico's main facilities are still today. At the time, it was named Regio Politecnico ("Royal Polytechnic"). The word Regio was removed as Italy was proclaimed a republic at the end of World War II. The historical building still in use today was designed and built by engineers and architects all graduated in the Politecnico itself.
The present logo, based on a detail of the preparatory sketch of Raphael's School of Athens, was adopted in 1942. Until then, there was no official logo for the institution.
In 1954, the first European centre of electronic computation was opened in Politecnico by Gino Cassinis and Ercole Bottani. In 1963 Giulio Natta received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research on crystalline polymers, polypropylene in particular. In 1977, the satellite Sirio, jointly developed by Politecnico and other companies, was launched.
Since the end of the 1980s, the Politecnico has begun a process of territorial expansion that would have resulted in the opening of its satellite campuses in Lombardy and Emilia Romagna. A university programme in industrial design was started in 1993. In 2000, the politecnico's faculty of design was created with new courses in undergraduate and postgraduate programs of graphic & visual, fashion and interior design along with the already existent industrial design.
In April 2012, the university announced that, beginning in 2014, all graduate courses would be taught only in English.