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In 1866, Werner von Siemens made his most important contribution to electrical engineering. Building on the work of Michael Faraday, he discovered the dynamo-electric principle and constructed a dynamo machine, the forerunner of modern, large-scale electric generators. Unlike other researchers in the field who were working on the same problem, Werner von Siemens recognized the economic significance of his invention and, in 1867, took out patents to ensure his right to commercialize it.
After roughly 10 years of development and testing, the dynamo was ready for series production in 1875. Its launch marked the start of a new era in the history of electrical engineering. The ability to generate and distribute large amounts of electrical energy at low cost gave a major boost to the economy. High-voltage engineering began its triumphal march.
The first areas of application were electric lighting and drives technology. On March 1, 1879, the Siemens villa in Charlottenburg became Germany’s first private residence to be lit by electrical energy. At the Berlin Trade Fair a few weeks later, Siemens & Halske presented the world’s first electric railway powered by an external electricity supply.
In 1868, Siemens & Halske embarked on a capital-intensive project that was both technologically and logistically demanding: the construction of a telegraph link between Europe and India.
The project was preceded by tedious negotiations. The Siemens brothers benefited, however, from their multinational setup: William managed the negotiations in London, Werner in Berlin, Carl in St. Petersburg and Walter in Tehran.
Construction of the line, which was commissioned by the Indo-European Telegraph Company, began on Russian territory and took place in three phases stretching from the Prussian-Russian border to Tehran. For the first part of the line, which extended from London to the Prussian-Russian border, it was possible to use previously existing lines.
After only two years of construction, Siemens put the “Indoline” into operation in April 1870. Instead of 30 days, it now took only 28 minutes to transmit messages from London to Calcutta – a sensation at the time.
The successful implementation of this major project earned the Siemens brothers international acclaim and marked a high point in their business activities.
In October 1872, on the occasion of Siemens & Halske’s 25th anniversary, Werner von Siemens announced the creation of a pension, widows and orphans fund for company employees. Members of the workforce were now entitled to a pension based on their length of employment. Few companies at that time offered such benefits, which gave highly qualified employees, in particular, a strong incentive to remain at Siemens & Halske. The benefits were also intended to facilitate the establishment of piecework at the company and counter the influence on the workforce of the emerging social democratic movement.
In 1873, Siemens & Halske introduced the nine-hour workday in Berlin. In 1891, it reduced daily working time by another half-hour. While a 10-hour day was standard at most other companies, Siemens employees now worked only eight-and-a-half hours a day.
In the early 1870s, Carl von Siemens strongly advocated the construction of an intercontinental submarine cable in order to take advantage of a new, clearly lucrative market. There were already three telegraph cables between Europe and the U.S. These were operated very profitably by a monopoly in the hands of British entrepreneur John Pender. To break this monopoly, the Siemens brothers founded the Direct United States Cable Co. Ltd., a sponsoring company for their new major project, in 1873.
In 1874, the company began laying a cable from Ireland to the North American coast via Newfoundland using the Faraday, a purpose-built steamship. On several occasions, the project nearly failed due to accidents, torn cables, false reports and intentional acts of sabotage by competitors.
In September 1875, the telegraph line went into operation. The link’s outstanding quality brought a large number of follow-up contracts. By the end of the 19th century, Siemens had laid nine of the 16 transatlantic cables then in existence.
When Siemens & Halske was transformed from a general partnership into a limited partnership in 1890, Werner von Siemens retired from active management of the company at the age of 74. His younger brother Carl and his sons Arnold and Wilhelm were subsequently responsible for the company’s growing business.
Werner von Siemens died on December 6, 1892, a few days before his 76th birthday.
At that time, the company he had founded was generating nearly 20 million marks in revenue and had 6,500 employees, 4,775 of whom were in Germany. Siemens and electrical engineering were now synonymous.
In the mid 1890s, Siemens & Halske began construction of South Africa’s first public power plant for the Rand Central Electric Works Ltd., London. Located in Brakpan, the plant was to supply electricity to the gold mines on the Witwatersrand in the Transvaal and to Johannesburg, which was 40 kilometers away.
At the end of 1897, after two years of construction, the three-phase power plant went into operation using generators that were among the largest of their day. The electricity generated in Brakpan was transmitted to end consumers via high-voltage lines.
The expansion of the gold mines and the establishment of cities and communities in the Witwatersrand area led to an increase in power consumption in the region. As a result, the Siemens & Halske South African Agency, which was founded in 1895 and headquartered in Johannesburg, was subsequently awarded a large number of contracts. In 1898, the agency was transformed into Siemens Limited Johannesburg.
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