History of RTU dates back more than 155 years. The establishment of RTU, then Riga Polytechnicum (later – Riga Polytechnic Institute), was closely connected with the economic and political changes in Europe in the middle of the 19th century: rapid development of manufacturing and railway transport, erection of bridges and other engineering constructions. Riga was rapidly transforming itself into a developed industrial centre. The main task of the school was to educate and train technical intelligentsia who would be capable of working with new manufacturing equipment and proposing new ideas for new achievements.
After taking into account recommendations made by numerous representatives from German universities, a decision was made to support the establishment of a private polytechnic higher school in Riga. It was the first higher education establishment in the current territory of Latvia, then part of the Russian Empire.
A permission from the Russian Tsar Alexander II to establish a higher school was received in May 1861, and on 14 October 1862, the first students enrolled in preparatory course and commenced their studies. This day is celebrated as RTU's birthday.
The first instructors came mainly from Germany, Switzerland and Austria-Hungary, and German was the language of instruction. Physicist Ernst Nauk became the first Rector of the higher school.
By a decree of the emperor Nikolay II on 6 May 1896 the higher school became a state owened institution – Riga Polytechnic Institute (RPI). From the turn of the century and in the first decade of the 20th century RPI flourished. The institute played a major role in turning Riga City into a modern metropolis, its professors and graduates taking part in developing gas and electricity supply systems, as well as a tramcar transport system. Hundreds of brick houses were built, including real gems of Art Nouveau mainly designed by local architects – graduates of RPI School of Architecture. People associated with RPI facilitated the advances of the most modern technical fields in Riga, such as aviation and automobile industry. PRI graduate Friedrich Zander became one of the founders of the rocket and space science in Russia.
Many other prominent scientists worked at the Institute: August Toepler, Étienne Laspeyres, George Armitstead, Wilhelm Ritter, Mikhail Dolivo-Dobrovolsky, Engelbert Arnold, Paul Walden and Wilhelm Ostwald – the only Nobel Prize Laureate from the Baltic States. The work of the Institute was interrupted by World War I. Political regime changed several times, and along changed the name of the Institute. By 1918, RPI faculties were included into a newly established Latvian Higher School (University of Latvia, State University of Latvia).
Riga Polytechnic Institute renewed its work on 1 September 1958 and in the mid-1970ies RPI became the largest higher education institution in Latvia.
In March 1990, RPI was renamed as Riga Technical University (RTU). On its way to the united European education area RTU had already in 1991 started educating and training international students as well as provided its academic staff and students the opportunity to work and study in different European universities. Gradually the system of higher education was transformed into a three-level higher education format at Bachelor, Master and Doctoral levels and RTU fully integrated into the European Higher Education Area.