The present-day standard textbook narrative on the history of growth theory usually takes Robert Solow’s 1956 contribution as a key starting point, which was extended by David Cass and Tjalling Koopmans in 1965 by introducing an intertemporal maximization problem that defines the saving ratio in the economy. However, the road connecting Solow to the Ramsey-Cass-Koopmans model is not so straightforward. We argue that in order to understand Koopmans’s contribution, we have to go to the activity analysis literature that started before Solow 1956 and never had him as a central reference. We stress the role played by Edmond Malinvaud, with whom Koopmans interacted closely, and take his travel from the French milieu of mathematical economics to the Cowles Commission in 1950-51 and back to France as a guiding line. The rise of turnpike theory in the end of the 1950s generated a debate on the choice criteria of growth programs, opposing the productive efficiency typical of these models to the utilitarian approach supported by Malinvaud and Koopmans. The Vatican Conference of 1963, where Koopmans presented a first version of his 1965 model, was embedded in this debate. We argue that Malinvaud’s (and Koopmans’s) contributions were crucial to steer the activity analysis literature toward a utilitarian analysis of growth paths.

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