Department of Mechanical Engineering

Profile: Axel Ahlfors


Karl Axel Mauritz Ahlfors was born on 7 April 1874 in Mariehamn. He completed his secondary education in 1892, and four years later he graduated from the mechanical engineering department of the Polytechnic College. He began his career in engineering as a structural designer at the A.B. Sandviken shipyard in Helsinki, but in 1897 he moved to Tampere to work in the engineering department of Finlayson & Co. 

After the death of Rudolf Kolster in 1901, Axel Ahlfors was assigned to serve as his substitute from 1 September onwards as mechanical engineering teacher, until a permanent replacement could be found. In practice, this gave Ahlfors an opportunity to pursue postgraduate studies. A year later, his teaching duties were interrupted as he left for Europe to further his studies, focusing on the theory and practical use of water turbines. During 1902 and 1903, Ahlfors worked at the Zurich polytechnic institute (now ETH Zürich) and the workshop of the Th. Bell and Co. turbine factory. The latter was a metal industry conglomerate founded by goldsmith August Bell in the 1850s in Kriens, Switzerland. The company specialised in bridge structures, textile and paper manufacturing equipment and water turbines. After becoming qualified in water turbine construction, Ahlfors returned to Finland in the summer of 1903 to work for A. B. Sandviken. 

On 7 December 1905, Ahlfors was appointed to a permanent position as teacher of mechanical engineering. When the Polytechnic College became the Helsinki University of Technology in 1908, he was appointed professor of turbine construction. He would later make additional study trips to Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland and Russia.

In 1905, he published his work “Turbiner och turbinpumpar, deras beräkning och konstruktion” (Turbines and turbine pumps, their design and construction). 

Ahlfors served as the university's rector for a three-year period from 1913 to 1916. He was the only HUT professor to be captured by the Red Guards during the Finnish Civil War: Ahlfors and his wife Helene were taken captive in the spring of 1918 by a patrol who assumed he was still the head of the university and could be held for ransom. Once it became apparent no ransom would be paid, he and his wife were released unharmed. 

Ahlfors’s influence over the development of Finnish mechanical engineering is undeniable. He served as the head of the mechanical engineering department from 1910 to 1913 and again from 1922 to 1934. In the final years of his career, he was responsible for the development of laboratories for mechanical engineering. He was able to build a strong bond between the university and industry, which in turn brought Finnish hydroelectric expertise to the very cutting edge. Many of his inventions and patents never made it past the drawing board, however, mainly due to the limited resources that industry could allocate to developing new technology in Finland at the time. No risk capital was available in Finland to fund the pilot phase of new applications. For example, the Tampella company had to partner with Swedish companies to develop new Kaplan turbines.

K. Axel M. Ahlfors died at the age of 87 on 22 May 1961.

History of mechanical engineering in Finland

Department of Mechanical Engineering
Department of Mechanical Engineering
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