Founding and Development


„Mens agitat molem – The Mind Moves the Mass“

old postcard of the main building and chemical laboratory Copyright: © Hochschularchiv

The higher education institution does not produce fully qualified practitioners and specialists, but enables its students to assume these roles via the shortest route possible and thereby acquire the necessary science in order to establish themselves.

General advice for people interested in attending a polytechnic. Appendix to the publication Programme des Königlichen rheinisch-westphälischen Polytechnikums zu Aachen. Aachen, 1871, p. 6.


It is Monday, October 10, 1870: a bitter battle is raging in Artenay, France in the midst of the Franco-German war. Meanwhile, in Aachen, a group of young people are entering a new and very peaceful phase of their lives. They are the first to attend Aachen’s polytechnic, Königliche Rheinisch-Westphälische Polytechnische Schule zu Aachen, an innovative higher educational institution that will prepare them for their professional future. In the industrializing society of the time, the institution expands the traditional humanistic educational approach with one that is highly practical and oriented toward science.

Mens agitat molem, the mind moves the mass, which is carved in stone at the polytechnic’s chemical laboratory, evokes this idea to society and the concept clearly seems to meet a need. The institution started its first academic year in 1870/1871 with a total of 201 students, listeners, and guest students. At that time no one would have guessed that 150 years later it would have turned into the largest technical university in the German-speaking world in terms of student numbers.

The path to this success was however not without its obstacles and this was already apparent in the founding phase. The first ideas on the polytechnic date back to at least 1857, when several cities in the local Rhine area were competing to acquire the attractive educational institution. Aachen was publicly promoted for this since 1858 as the city was the center of Germany’s most important industrial region. Cologne and Aachen finally competed head-to-head. The key factor in the decision in Aachen’s favor was the outstanding commitment of an equally innovative institution.

Founded in 1825, the Aachener Verein zur Beförderung der Arbeitsamkeit, roughly translated as the Aachen Association for the Promotion of Industriousness, combined progressive civic commitment and entrepreneurship to create a very modern holistic concept. It optimized the industrialization process by linking education and financial returns. The association therefore provided enormous financial backing for initial and follow-up financing. The location was officially settled when the King signed an agreement for Aachen to acquire the sought-after institution on November 14, 1863.

The institution’s foundation stone was laid on May 15, 1865, but its specific educational focus was not yet fully established at this point. When it eventually opened, it already had nine departments: mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, pharmacy, civil engineering, surveying, mechanical engineering, and metallurgy. Mining and electrical engineering followed as the first additions later on.

From the very beginning, teaching was structured on a par with other universities. Consequently, ten years after its foundation, it is reestablished as a technical university with a constitution from the Rector’s office and the right to pursue a Habilitation, or postdoctoral teaching qualification. Technical universities did not fight for the right to award doctorates until the end of the 19th century, marking a further milestone in their educational emancipation.

RWTH’s Journey to Becoming a "Scientific Enterprise”

From 1898 onwards, a two-year course of study in trade was occasionally part of the curriculum. This may well be understood as the origin of industrial engineering; the term was already familiar at the time. Lecturers also had practical experience; mixing theory and practice was expressly desired and already recognized as a promising combination.

In 1899, the Laboratory for Machine Tools was launched, immediately representing a milestone on this journey. Its first director was Hugo Junkers, who, even at this early stage already exemplified the interdisciplinary, integrated approach, which, more than a century later, was decisive in RWTH’s successful application as a University of Excellence. Lufthansa, founded by the scientist-turned-entrepreneur Junkers, embodies the RWTH motto "From Idea to Product".

In 1902, the first Prussian doctoral regulations came into force and the academic degree of "Diplom-Ingenieur" was also introduced.

In winter semester 1909/10, the first two female students enrolled at the polytechnic in Aachen, after the Prussian Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs had also guaranteed women access to universities. From 1921, women could also pursue a post-doctoral lecturer’s qualification (habilitation) in Germany, with the first woman at TH Aachen, as it was then known, successfully completing it in 1923. The liberal democracy of the Weimar Republic was bearing encouraging fruit. The rise of the Nazis, however, put an abrupt end to this brief period of liberalization, which was followed by leaden heaviness in the unresisting service of the unjust totalitarian regime. When the City of Aachen surrendered on October 21, 1944, 70 percent of the University site was destroyed – just like scientific freedom had been during the Nazi period. With the second new beginning for German democracy, teaching at the University recommenced with around 250 enrolled students at the start of January 1946.

In the same year, the University founded a further training institute as a branch office at Haus der Technik in Essen, thus taking a further step toward practical orientation. In 1948, another branch office was opened, this time in Wuppertal. And since 1963/64, natural scientists and engineers have had the option of taking an additional course of study in economics.

Shortly after, RWTH opened a new chapter in the digital optimization of companies with the professorship for Corporate Research (Operations Research) in 1967.

The drive of the German Federal Republic's economic miracle at this time was reflected in the University site itself: by the early 1960s, it had expanded to 88,000 square meters, compared to 33,000 square meters before the Second World War. Numerous new buildings were constructed as a sign of a significant expansion of research activities and teaching offers. And student numbers increased more rapidly here than at any other German university; by the end of 1960, it was the largest German technical university, with over 10,000 enrolled students.

The University was essentially divided into four faculties from 1922 to 1960. In the 1950s, numerous new professorships and a diversified range of teaching and research were added, in line with changing requirements. New subjects and new faculties created new structures. Electrical engineering broke away from mechanical engineering in 1961 to become its very own discipline, and in 1965 and 1966, the establishment of a Faculty of Arts and Humanities and a Faculty of Medicine turned the institution into a traditional university.

At that time, driven by globalization, relocations led to the death of the "old" industries, in other words: the textile, needle, and heavy industries. RWTH’s expertise helped close the "technology gap" of the mining area in the restructuring process. The cooperation between RWTH Aachen University and the regional economy, which was instigated in the mid-1970s on the initiative of the Aachen Chamber of Industry and Commerce (IHK), explicitly focused on the topic of start-ups and the new magic words "technology" and "innovation transfer” for the first time. This led to so-called spin-offs in IT and a nationwide groundbreaking cooperation agreement between IHK and RWTH to promote transfer into practice.

In 1984, the first European technology center opened in Aachen, operated by the "Aachener Gesellschaft für Innovation und Technologietransfer mbH", AGIT for short, sponsored by the association "Rheinische Gesellschaft zur Förderung innovativer Existenzgründungen und des Technologietransfers e.V.", RHEGIT for short.

Venture capital came from the regional Sparkasse banks alongside a venture capital exchange. Technology and business parks were created as follow-up offers for the successful spin-offs.

The alliance of IHK, Sparkasse, and RWTH had long since proven its worth when it added a start-up center to the structures in 2000, systematically serving the holistic coaching of teachers and students.

In 2003, the portfolio was topped off with courses of study in industrial engineering and management, including the professorship Business Administration and Sciences for Engineers and Natural Scientists with a focus on entrepreneurship. By this point, 239 new businesses had already been founded in Aachen, almost exclusively by RWTH graduates.

The highly dynamic Melaten campus, featuring numerous registered companies also acts as a beacon for transfer into practice. The result: in 2019, RWTH generated third-party funding to the sum of 427 million euros, of which 103 million euros from industry cooperations. The total amount is the highest of all universities in Germany.

Since 2008, RWTH’s extraordinary success in Germany’s Excellence Initiative has demonstrated how highly valued the hybrid concept of science and practice is. In light of the rapid digitalization of science, economy, and society, this approach is more on topic than ever today. Accordingly, RWTH Aachen University is committed to a sustainable, interactive transfer of innovation and technology that extends far beyond the Aachen region. A basic prerequisite for this is constantly optimizing excellent teaching, including teaching methods and crucial reflected agility with research activities, which the University will consistently continue to develop. The University feels this is its duty toward its students, who, in winter semester 2019/20 numbered 45,628 (with 11,280 coming from abroad), as well as its 10,000 employees and, last but not least, society as a whole.

    Play Video
    #150JahreRWTH: Opening Speech by August von Kaven


    View of the main building and chemical laboratory

    Authors of the German Text

    Paul Thomes and Tobias Dewes


    • Gast, Paul (Hg.), Die Technische Hochschule zu Aachen 1870-1920. Eine Gedenkschrift. Aachen, 1920.
    • Habetha, Klaus (Hg.), Wissenschaft zwischen technischer und gesellschaftlicher Herausforderung: die Rheinische-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen 1970-1995. Aachen, 1995.
    • Klinkenberg, Hans Martin (Hg.), Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen 1870|1970. Stuttgart, 1970.
    • Ricking, Klaus, Der Geist bewegt die Materie. Mens agitat molem. 125 Jahre Geschichte der RWTH Aachen. Mainz, 1995.
    • University Archive: homepage, history of RWTH, timeline; RWTH Course Catalogues (from 1870)