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Brief History of D-MAVT


ETH Main Building by Gottfried Semper, around 1890.


Original Mechanical Engineering Building, 1900.


Students at the three-cylinder steam engine, early 1900's.


Todays ML as well as the new CLA building in the front.



General Information | The Department | The Buildings | Changes in Research | Changes in Education | Further Historical Details and Link


General Information1

In 1855, seven years after the Swiss Confederacy was founded, the Federal Polytechnic Institute opened its doors in Zurich. Right in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, this fulfilled the long-held dream of creating a national university to educate the Swiss elite. It was intended as a school for engineers, tailored to fit Swiss needs to accelerate the development of a technical Infrastructure and improve the career chances of Swiss youth. At the beginning, the university was comprised of six sections, including architecture and engineering, which covered road, train, bridge and shipping construction and the mechanical-technical section for mechanical engineering. (discover ethz.history and travel through 150 years of institute’s history). Already by 1924, the number of sections had increased to twelve. Today there are sixteen departments (18 as from January, 2012), which function as educational and research units. In the beginning a degree course lasted only four semesters, by 1930 this had increased to eight and today the standard is four semesters for a bachelor degree and nine or ten for a master degree.


The Department

The Department for Mechanical and Process Engineering, D-MAVT, came into being in 1999 and consists basically of the pre-existing department of mechanical engineering – which had existed since the beginnings of the university – and its additional institutes. There are nine institutes in the department, three independent professorships and more than 35 professors. In total, more than 3000 young people study in the department and this number is rising. Every year approximately 60 students complete their doctorate.


The Buildings

Since the main building of the former “Polytechnikum” was soon bursting at the seams, the machine laboratory on Sonneggstrasse was completed in 1900. The new laboratory was equipped with steam and combustion engines, a cryogenic machine and steam turbines. In the 1980’s, the machine laboratory was renovated, enlarged and modernized, and the CLA building on Claudiusstrasse was opened. In 2009 D-MAVT moved into the LEO on Leonhardstrasse and starting in 2014, a part of the departement moved in the new LEE-building “Upper Leonhard” (Oberer Leonhard), which is also situated on Leonhardstrasse. The Department has satellite stations in CAB on Universitätsstrasse, in the so-called Technopark, with IBM in Rüschlikon and in First on Hönggerberg.


Changes in Research

Switzerland’s economic development (deindustrialization and a strong shift to the service industry), networking with national and international universities and the formation of new departments at ETH Zurich has changed the research directions within the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering. After professors retired, fields such as precision mechanics, hydraulics, refrigeration and textile machinery were discontinued.

Over time, research into machine parts and appliances has lost some of its significance, while systematic approaches and process engineering aspects have come to the fore. Instead of time-consuming experiments, researchers make more use of computer-based modeling and simulations – however, experiments still take up a large part of Department financing budgets, since new methods like laser technology etc. are very expensive.

Interdisciplinary fields of knowledge extend the fields of research, e.g. mechatronics and robotics (combining mechanical and electrical engineering and informatics), process engineering (mechanical engineering, chemistry and biology) and electrical engineering (mechanical engineering, physics and chemistry). Additionally, economic and social aspects and effects on the environment play a greater role. Today’s research at D-MAVT is closely connected to scientific basics, bioscientific processes, information technology, mobility, mechatronics and sustainability.


Changes in Education

Economic changes and the introduction of technical colleges has extended and enlarged vocational education in engineering and natural sciences and made academic studies more and more scientific. An important change occurred in 2002, when the diploma study was changed with the introduction of bachelor and master degrees in order to harmonize European certificates and thus increase students’ mobility. Upon completion of the bachelor degree, the department currently offers its students a choice of seven different master programs. A choice of tutor and interdisciplinary cooperation offer additional possibilities.

Today degrees in mechanical and process engineering generate generalists with a broad and interdisciplinary education. The aim is to enable graduates to devise and realize solutions for complex systems and their components in the fields of mechanical and process engineering. The courses therefore link classical disciplines such as mechanics, mechanical elements, thermodynamics, control and fluid dynamics with the natural sciences (physics, chemistry and biology) and new technologies like electronics, information technology and material sciences. Entrepreneurial skills such as marketing, finance, law, management and social competence to work in international teams are essential. in the future it will be necessary to continue to adapt the courses to social and technical changes in order to prepare students for their professional lives.


Further Historical Details and Links

Professor Aurel Stodola is one of the most important scientists who has worked in D-MAVT. A report about him, his life and work at ETH can be found on the Aurel-Stodola-Webpage.


1 Using as sources: 1) "Aurel Stodola (1859-1942), Wegbereiter der Dampf- und Gasturbine." Verein für wirtschaftshistorische Studien Meilen. 2) The writings of Fritz Widmer, emeritus Professor of Process Engineering in D-MAVT: Maschinenbau und Verfahrenstechnik (MAVT). Maschinenbau und Verfahrenstechnik. Aufgaben im Wandel.




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© 2015 ETH Zurich | Imprint | Disclaimer | 13 March 2015