Founding and Development

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

Mens agitat molem – The Mind Moves the Mass

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.


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)