The «Building materials test institute» started work in 1880 in the cellars of Zurich's polytechnical university, the forerunner of ETH Zurich. In its first years of activity, the new institute was involved in wide-ranging quality testing of building and structural materials for the Swiss National Exhibition of 1883.
Intensive research work by the co-founder and first director, Prof. Ludwig von Tetmajer, gave rise to the first publications on the testing and standardisation of building materials and metals. Tetmajer was also commissioned to investigate the cause of the collapse in 1891 of a railway bridge constructed by Gustav Eiffel at Münchenstein in Switzerland. His investigation of this collapse, which was at that time the largest railway disaster to have occurred in Europe, revealed that Euler's formula, which had hitherto been used to calculate such structures, needed to be corrected for slender bars.
Over the following years, the institute developed into a general purpose testing institute for the construction and mechanical engineering sectors. In 1928, the Swiss Federal Fuel Testing Institute was incorporated, as was, in 1937, the textile testing organisation «Swiss Test Institute, St. Gallen», which had been founded in 1885. The establishment was named the «Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research for Industry, Construction and Commerce» in 1938, but had already long been known by the acronym Empa.
Since 1988, Empa has focused less on materials testing and more on research and development; routine testing, which provides little scope for interdisciplinary synergy, now plays second fiddle to applied research and development.
In 1994, the takeover of a specialist section of the Armaments Services Group, which had previously carried out military materials testing, gave Empa a third site at Thun to augment its existing sites at Dübendorf and St. Gallen. Now, the workload of the Materials Technology Section at Thun is almost exclusively civilian.