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In the Middle Ages, the area around Tampere was inhabited by the Pirkka tribe, a devil-may-care guild of hunters and trappers which collected taxes as far north as Lapland. At that time, the 'town' consisted of a number of Swedish-run estates around the forests and the two lakes that surround Tampere. Modern Tampere was founded in 1779 during Gustav III of Sweden's reign.

In the 19th century, the Tampere Rapids, or Tammerkoski, which today supply abundant hydroelectric power, were a magnet for textile industries. Finnish and foreign investors flocked to the busy town, including the Scottish industrialist James Finlayson, who founded the cotton mill in 1820.

The Russian Revolution in 1917 increased interest in socialism among Tampere's large working-class population. It became the capital of the 'Reds' during the Civil War that followed Finnish independence.