Fortress Chelyaba, from which the city takes its name, was constructed on the site in 1736; the city was incorporated in 1781. Around 1900, it served as a center for the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. According to official statistics the population on 1 January 1913 was 45,000 inhabitants.
During the Soviet industrialization of the 1930s, Chelyabinsk experienced rapid growth. Several industrial establishments, including the Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant and the Chelyabinsk Metallurgical Plant, were built at this time. During World War II, Joseph Stalin decided to move a large part of Soviet factory production to places out of the way of the advancing German armies in late 1941. This brought new industries and thousands of workers to Chelyabinsk—still essentially a small city. Several enormous facilities for the production of T-34 tanks and Katyusha rocket launchers existed in Chelyabinsk, which became known as "Tankograd" (Tank City). Chelyabinsk was essentially built from scratch during this time. A small town existed before this, signs of which can be found in the centre of the city. The S.M. Kirov Factory no. 185 moved here from Leningrad to produce heavy tanks — it was transferred to Omsk after 1962.
A serious nuclear accident occurred in 1957 at the Mayak nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, 150 km north-west of the city, caused deaths in Chelyabinsk Oblast but not in the city. The province was closed to all foreigners until 1992.