Today’s Verband der Elektrotechnik Elektronik Informationstechnik e.V. (VDE) was originally founded in Berlin on January 22, 1893. Since that time, the VDE has developed into the most important representative of the interests of electrical engineering in Germany and one of the largest associations in Europe. In November 2018, the VDE celebrated its 125th anniversary – a perfect occasion for exploring the part that Siemens played in the association’s founding and the connection that still exists between Siemens and the VDE today.
Beginnings: Siemens and the precursors to the VDE
Electrical engineering experienced a turbulent upswing in the 19th century. In 1879, Werner von Siemens suggested that a separate association be established that would bundle the industry’s interests in a single powerful organization on a national level.
In addition to telegraphy … we see everywhere a serious striving to gain for electricity an important place in the old branches of industry .... All these activities have so far lacked a properly constituted focal point.Werner von Siemens to Heinrich von Stephan, February 5, 1879
Together with the General Postal Director of the German Empire, Heinrich von Stephan, and 34 other members of various professional groups, he founded the Elektrotechnischer Verein zu Berlin (ETV) on December 20, 1879. Nevertheless, the ETV was unable to represent the interests of the entire electrical industry because the Berlin-based telecommunications operations associated with Siemens & Halske dominated the scene and a number of uncoordinated regional associations and societies were being founded at the same time that were in competition with one another.
First electrotechnical certification standard – the founding of the VDE in Berlin
In the face of such a proliferation, a new attempt was made to create an industry association on the national level. On the initiative of Arthur Wilke, a former Siemens engineer and advocate for power engineering, and the professor of electro-technology Adolf Slaby, the Verband der Elektrotechniker Deutschlands was founded on January 22, 1893 with headquarters in Berlin. Its managing board included AEG director Emil Rathenau and Wilhelm von Siemens, Werner von Siemens’ second son. Thus, the VDE’s top management represented the interests of both science and industry.
One year later, the association’s name was changed to Verband Deutscher Elektrotechniker (VDE) and the Elektrotechnische Zeitschrift was established as its publication medium. The VDE began to develop standards and safety specifications for the industry. In 1895, the first VDE regulation was issued: VDE 0100, which dealt with the safe construction of electrical systems. Some ten years later, the association published its first “Standards, Rules, and Guidelines” for the industry.
In 1920, a VDE testing center for electrotechnical products was set up and the VDE mark was legally registered and protected as an official certification standard. The main activities of the electrotechnical umbrella association were standardization, training, product testing, and scientific exchange.
International recognition – the VDE establishes its reputation
Members of the VDE included institutions such as ETV Berlin and companies such as AEG and Siemens, as well as private individuals like the Siemens engineer and subsequent Managing Board member Emil Budde. The physicist who promoted the founding of a “standards office” at Siemens in 1899, thereby significantly advancing internal standardization efforts, chaired the VDE for two 2-year terms, in 1904 and 1910. As of 1911, once again for a two-year term, he headed the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), which defined general framework agreements – for example, for voltages, frequencies, and electrical symbols – thus establishing itself as an international standardization body in the field of electrical engineering, which it remains to this day.
The association grew rapidly. Just two years after its founding, the VDE already had over 1,500 members. Its numbers passed the 10,000 mark for the first time in 1923 and by the end of 1942, it counted over 20,000 members organized in 43 VDE regional associations. The VDE’s activities were multilayered. The regional associations served as meeting places for lectures and the exchange of technological and scientific information. The annual meeting voted on the acceptance of VDE regulations developed by committees of expert economists, engineers, public authorities, and scientists. The purpose of these regulations was to prevent damage and promote the fault-free operation of electrical installations – for example, by defining state-of-the-art safety rules to prevent fires, as well as lifecycle and service intervals.
New beginnings after the war – Cooperation with the Deutsches Institut für Normung (DIN)
The VDE was not immune to the turmoil of the Second World War or the consequences of a divided Germany. It had to be reestablished, which was done on March 23, 1950. A few weeks later, the association held its first Annual General Meeting in Cologne. In the future, this multi-day event would not only serve to raise awareness of the association’s responsibilities, but would above all be a forum for electrical engineers to exchange scientific ideas in numerous specialized groups in the form of lectures and discussions. Now headquartered in Frankfurt am Main, as of 1952 the association was once again contributing fully to organizations such as the International Electrotechnical Commission – and becoming more international with its inclusion of ABB (1953) and IBM (1962).
Since 1970, the standardization work has been done by the Deutsche Elektrotechnischen Kommission (DKE), which is a joint organization of the VDE and DIN (Deutschen Institut für Normung) and is operated by the VDE. The two associations have been working together since the 1950s, with DIN responsible for standardization and the VDE for issuing safety and quality assurance regulations.
Win-win situation – No VDE without Siemens
Since its founding, the VDE has maintained close ties with Siemens. Starting with Wilhelm von Siemens and Emil Budde, top Siemens employees have always had a significant influence on the work of the standardization committees and have often gone on to head the VDE. These have included, for example, Siemens engineers Karl Küpfmüller, Ulrich Haier, and Dietrich Ernst, each of whom directed the VDE for a two-year period in the 1950s, 1970s, and 1980s.
One of the goals of our work … is to exert a timely influence on technological, scientific, and political developments, participate in the creation of universal guidelines, remove or prevent barriers to trade, and influence research policies.Siemens Managing Board member Ulrich Haier on May 23, 1977 in Munich
This commitment explains the high value that Siemens places on the technical standardization work of the VDE bodies. Such work mainly takes place in the VDE’s technical and scientific societies, including the Informationstechnische Gesellschaft founded in 1954 as the Nachrichtentechnische Gesellschaft in 1984, in which up to 40 Siemens employees are often serving simultaneously on various committees.
High-ranking Siemens employees often occupy top positions in the management of the Verband der Elektrotechnik, Elektronik und Informationstechnik (as the VDE has been called since 1998). Ralf Christian, Chief Executive Officer of the Energy Management Division, has been a member of the VDE Supervisory Board since March 2018.
Today, both Siemens and the VDE continue to benefit from 125 years of shared history. The VDE mark guarantees conformity to quality and testing guidelines, thereby protecting manufacturers, consumers, and public authorities – for example, through binding warranty claims – while the transparent certifications enable Siemens to benefit from more cost-efficient production, reduced testing costs, shorter lead times for delivery due to improved interchangeability and, consequently, a higher competitive edge – all in all, a classic win-win situation.