At the beginning of the 20th century, there were several small laboratories within the Siemens production facilities in Berlin. To ensure that it maintained a solid footing in the areas of technology and innovation over the long term, the company supplemented these facilities by establishing its first central laboratory in July 1905. The further development of this research organization, which is the predecessor to what is now the Corporate Technology department, forms an interesting chapter in the history of science.
Outstanding achievements in basic and materials research – Establishment of the first central laboratory
Since 1905, scientists at Siemens have been concerning themselves with the future as part of their work at the company’s central research department. The history of a research department run independently of a company’s operating units began nearly 60 years after the founding of the "Telegraphen-Bauanstalt von Siemens & Halske" in 1847. At that time, the production facilities in Berlin and the Siemens & Halske (S&H) production facility in Vienna maintained small, independently operating laboratories, where researchers carried out application-related experimental work.
One of the most important researchers of that time was Werner Bolton, a chemist. In 1896, Bolton began working at Siemens’ Glühlampenwerk, where Wilhelm von Siemens commissioned him to further develop the plant’s products, incandescent lamps. In 1903, Bolton became the first person to successfully replace the carbon filaments that had been used in incandescent lamps up until that time with stabile metal filaments made of tantalum. In 1905, the production of the tantalum lamps based on this innovation enabled Siemens to achieve a breakthrough in electric lighting. In July of the same year, Werner Bolton was appointed to head the first laboratory that operated independently of the company’s day-to-day business; in this capacity, he reported directly to the physicist Emil Budde, chairman of the S&H managing board.
The Bolton Experimental Laboratory was initially located in the so-called Bohneshof, a building on the banks of the river Spree (now Kaiserin-Augusta-Allee No. 101–106). Just one year later, the laboratory moved from the Moabit section of central Berlin to the northern part of the city and was renamed the Physikalisch-Chemisches Laboratorium (Laboratory for Physics and Chemistry).
In a new building on the grounds of what would later become Siemensstadt, scientists such as physicist Hans Gerdien conducted research at Siemens in the natural and materials sciences. Gerdien wrote scientific history by developing a process for measuring ionization in the upper layers of the atmosphere – a technique that now bears his name.
After Bolton’s death in the fall of 1912, Hans Gerdien became head of the Laboratory for Physics and Chemistry and developed a concept for continuing the development of corporate research. His plan called for constructing a new building to house a total of seven laboratories, including their own experimental facilities. In the process, some “progress work” was to be removed from the laboratories that were part of production facilities, and basic research was to be shielded from the influence of day-to-day business as well as from the interest of the individual plants in immediately exploiting its outcomes. In the spring of 1914, the Managing Board approved Gerdien’s proposals; the groundbreaking ceremony for the new central laboratory took place in 1916.
While World War I was still underway, work began on the construction of the new industrial laboratory, and the premises were gradually occupied from 1920 on. Siemens made a major investment. By 1923, the company had spent a total of 26 million German marks on the prestigious building complex at the Wernerwerkdamm location. At first, the new laboratory still bore its old name.
In early October 1924, however, it was renamed the Forschungslaboratorium der Siemens & Halske AG und der Siemens-Schuckertwerke GmbH, a designation reflecting the names of both parent companies. The number of employees was also increased: 68 white collar workers and 90 blue collar workers were employed at the facility.
A two-track process to drive success – Knowhow transfer between centralized and decentralized research facilities
In a parallel move, the company established its first central unit for scientific and technical research, the Zentralstelle für-wissenschaftlich technische Forschungsarbeiten (ZfE) in 1919. Headed initially by chemist Carl Dietrich Harries, the ZfE coordinated the transfer of knowhow between the company’s centralized and decentralized research and development facilities. It also concerned itself with external communications: the central unit organized scientific lectures for the “Siemens company’s academically educated personnel,” and beginning in 1920, it issued the “Wissenschaftliche Veröffentlichungen aus dem Siemens-Konzern,” a series of scientific publications on the company’s research results.
While numerous basic innovations were churned out during the years prior to 1914, the interwar period was marked by fewer spectacular breakthroughs and by a stronger focus on enhancing existing products and processes. Outstanding innovations included the first images of electron diffraction patterns, which G. P. Thomson and A. Reid produced in 1927 using fast electrons, and the Schottky diode, which physicist Walter Schottky used in 1938 to prove the existence of a barrier at the junction of a metal and a semiconductor. This discovery is considered the foundation of modern semiconductor technology.
Research and development after 1945 – Return to world leadership
After World War II, the headquarters of Siemens & Halske were transferred from Berlin to Munich and those of Siemens-Schuckertwerke to Erlangen; in both cases, secondary headquarters were retained in Berlin. The restrictions and prohibitions imposed by the victorious Allies initially hampered company efforts to reestablish research and development (R&D) activities. But when the Federal Republic of Germany attained complete sovereignty in 1955 and the Western occupying powers rescinded their development and production restrictions, it was time to blaze new trails: Siemens’ management decided to become immediately involved in the previously prohibited areas of data processing, nuclear energy and semiconductor technology.
Ten years later, Siemens celebrated the inauguration of what was then Europe’s largest private-sector research center focused on power engineering. Between 1959 and 1965, about 100 million German Marks – or one-sixth of Siemens’ annual R&D budget – was invested in the construction of the company’s research center in Erlangen. Now, 1,500 people were employed in the center’s research laboratory and technical development laboratories as well as in the field of reactor technology – generating a wealth of innovations in the area of power generation and distribution.
The research organizations of Siemens & Halske and Siemens-Schuckertwerke, which had been separate during the reconstruction period, were merged in 1969, three years after the establishment of Siemens AG. As a result, researchers in Erlangen focused intensively on power engineering, while their counterparts in Munich concentrated primarily on data and communications technology. In the summer of 1977, Siemens established another research location in the Neuperlach area of Munich. This “think tank for data technology” – as the local press dubbed the new facility – was home to the company’s Data and Information Systems Group and Central Technology Division. Over the years, the Neuperlach location developed into a microelectronics mecca that attracted engineers and computer scientists from all over the world.
Research phases during the post-war years
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Corporate Technology (CT), Managing Board member Claus Weyrich, who headed CT from 1996 to 2006, identified four phases of research in the post-war years. The 1950s and 1960s were characterized by the so-called technology push, a phase in which researchers had great freedom and few budget constraints. In the 1970s, the market began exerting a growing impact; accordingly, R&D activities became more applications-oriented, and research at Corporate Technology was geared more closely to the work of the development departments at the company’s individual Groups. Starting in the 1980s, with globalization making inroads, the focus was on turning research results into marketable products more quickly.
Of Siemens’ many innovations, several stand out as true milestones of technology: computed tomography (1974), the four-megabit DRAM chip (1988), single-cast wind turbine blades (2000), a record-setting gas turbine (2009) and PLM industrial software (as of 2013). Under the leadership of Roland Busch and his predecessor Siegfried Russwurm, Corporate Technology has become a strategic partner for Siemens’ operating units – a partner with a performance range that is ideally tailored to the requirements of the company’s businesses. Corporate Technology will thus continue to make major contributions to Siemens’ success in the future.
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Further reading (in German only)
- Wilfried Feldenkirchen, Industrieforschung in der deutschen Elektroindustrie. Das Beispiel Siemens (1919–1936), in: Bankhistorisches Archiv, vol. 34 (2008) 2, pp. 82–107
- Lothar Hack, Technologietransfer und Wissenstransformation. Zur Globalisierung der Forschungsorganisation von Siemens, Münster 1998
- Ulrich Marsch, Zwischen Wissenschaft und Wirtschaft. Industrieforschung in Deutschland und Großbritannien 1880–1936, Paderborn/Vienna 2000