He was born in Pforzheim, the son of a small factory owner. He studied engineering in Karlsruhe and the School for Advanced Technical Studies in Munich. He took part in WW I, initially with the infantry and then as an observer with the airforce, winning the Iron Cross. Post-war he finished his studies in 1920 and joined the civil engineering company Sager & Woerner. He joined the NSDAP in 1922. He became an Oberführer in the Sturmabteilung in 1931 and also completed his doctorate (on "Fehlerquellen beim Bau von Landstraßendecken aus Teer und Asphalt").
Following the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor, Todt became Generalinspektor für das deutsche Straßenwesen (Inspector General for German Roads) and was involved in the new building company for the motorways (Reichsautobahnen). He later became Leiter des Hauptamts für Technik in der Reichsleitung der NSDAP and Generalbevollmächtigter für die Regelung der Bauwirtschaft. In 1938 he founded Organisation Todt, joining together government firms, private companies and the Reichsarbeitsdienst. In 1940 he was appointed Reichsminister für Bewaffnung und Munition and oversaw the work of Organisation Todt in the occupied west. After the invasion of Russia he was appointed to manage the restoration of the infrastructure.
He became increasingly distant from the commanders of the Wehrmacht and from Hermann Göring in 1941. After an inspection tour of the Eastern Front he complained to Hitler that without better equipment and supplies it would be better to end the war with the USSR.
On February 8, 1942 while flying away from a meeting with Hitler at Rastenburg his aircraft exploded and crashed. He was succeeded as Reichsminister by Albert Speer, who had narrowly missed being on the same aircraft.