Franz Reuleaux established mechanical engineering on the principles of mathematics and the natural sciences.

Among experts, Franz Reuleaux (1829-1905) is seen as the technical scientist of his time. He liberated mechanical engineering from technical experiments and established it on the principles of mathematics and the natural sciences. Reuleaux’s keen and eloquent critical broadsides made him a well-known figure in 19th century Berlin and he did not shrink before the authorities, lobbyists or public opinion. If technical science was his profession, then civil and moral courage were his passions.


Professor and rector at the Königlich Technische Hochschule zu Berlin

Franz Reuleaux was born on 30 September 1829 as the son of an engineering works owner in Eschweiler near Aachen. He studied mechanical engineering at the Polytechnikum Karlsruhe before going on to Bonn and Berlin to study philosophy and natural sciences. Aged 25, he published a “Theory of Design for Mechanical Engineering” together with some fellow students. This was to cause him some difficulties as the work was based on notes taken in lectures. He received his first offer of a professorship from the Eidgenössisches Polytechnikum in Zürich. In 1864 he took up the chair of mechanical engineering at the Gewerbeinstitut zu Berlin. Just four years later he became director of the Gewerbeakadmie, the successor institute of the Gewerbeinstitut. In 1879, this merged with the Bauakademie to create the Königlich Technische Hochschule zu Berlin, of which Reuleaux was a member until 1896 and of which he was rector in 1890/91.

Enough of cheap junk, we want quality products

But it was not through his theory of machines that Reuleaux made a name for himself in Berlin but rather his “Letters from Philadelphia”, in which he reported on the World’s Fair of 1876. In particular, he wrote about the poor quality of the German industrial products displayed there. Summing up his thoughts, he wrote: “German industry is based on the principle of cheap and poor quality.” This went down like a bomb at home. He was accused of treason against the fatherland. The sense of outrage knew no limits. The expression “cheap and poor quality” became a byword for German products. The saying “made in Germany”, introduced by the British, at that time meant: “Beware! German products are cheap and inferior”. Only a few people supported Reuleaux. One of these was the producer of high technology products, Werner von Siemens, who coolly remarked: “The person who provides the best products is the one who ultimately succeeds and I always prefer to let the quality of the products speak for themselves.” Through his critical comments, Reuleaux achieved a new focus on quality products rather than cheap junk and on quality rather than quantity in industry in Germany and Berlin.

A culture of thinking in technical science rather than a focus on practice

Reuleaux engaged in a “seven years’ war” of words with his colleague Professor Alois Riedler on the perennial issue of whether to have more practical training or more theory in technical education. In 1890, this essentially meant: a machine laboratory or mathematics. Reuleaux did not wish to see a culture of thought in technical science being sacrificed to practical training. However, Riedler got his laboratory and Reuleaux left the Königlich Technische Hochschule zu Berlin voicing his protests. Franz Reuleaux died on 20 May 1905 in Berlin. He is buried in the Alter Zwölfapostelfriedhof in the Berlin district of Schöneberg.