The start of an adventure in telegraphy

A precision mechanic and a military officer establish a global company

In 1847, the 33-year-old precision mechanic Johann Georg Halske joined artillery officer Werner von Siemens in founding the firm Siemens & Halske. This move laid the corner stone for a global company that now looks back on more than 170 years of history. But who was this man who, in comparison with his world-famous partner, tended to stay in the background? 

The art of mechanics – Being a precision mechanic as a calling

Johann Georg Halske was born in Hamburg on July 30, 1814, as the son of a merchant. At the age of nine, he went to live with an uncle in Berlin. There, beginning in 1825, he attended “Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster,” a secondary school for preparing pupils for university studies. After only four years, he left to take up a tradesman’s apprenticeship. Halske was first apprenticed to a Berlin machine builder, but then changed to the workshop of the precision mechanic Wilhelm Hirschmann – where he was in his element. Since Hirschmann worked primarily for scholars from the Berlin University, Halske came into contact with several physics professors while he was still in training.

After completing his apprenticeship, the talented precision mechanic spent the next few years acquiring professional experience. At the age of 30, he founded his own workshop together with the mechanic F. M. Boetticher in Berlin, where from 1884 on, he primarily produced apparatus for physiological experiments and precision instruments for numerous institutions from the environs of the Berlin University. Among those he supplied was the scientist Emil Du Bois-Reymond, a co-founder of the “Physikalische Gesellschaft zu Berlin” (Berlin Physical Society).

The start of an adventure in telegraphy – Johann Georg Halske and Werner von Siemens establish the “Telegraphen-Bauanstalt von Siemens & Halske”

It was also Du Bois-Reymond who introduced his two friends Halske and Werner von Siemens, who at the time was a Prussian artillery officer, to one another at the beginnig of 1847, knowing that the electricity pioneer was looking for a capable mechanic to construct the pointer telegraph he had developed. Within a few days, Siemens was convinced that “with the mechanics Boetticher and Halske, two young and knowledgeable people,” he had found suitable partners for the construction of the apparatus.

But it did not stop there: Halske, who tended to be skeptical, was so convinced of the potential of the telegraph that, in autumn of 1847, after carefully calculating the expected order volume, he gave up his previous workshop and took the risk of founding a joint company. The two men were equal partners right from the beginning. In a letter to his brother William in England in 1847, Werner von Siemens described the division of responsibilities as follows: “Halske, who is on a completely equal footing with me in the factory, manages the factory while I am responsible for the telegraph area, contracts etc.” In addition to running the workshop, Halske was responsible for developing, inspecting and testing his associate’s constructions, supervising assembly and procuring material. The “Telegraphen-Bauanstalt von Siemens & Halske,” a company for making telegraph equipment, was born.

“An admirable talent” – Skill, passion and precision as keys to success

There is no doubt that the workmanship, passion for good designs and technical precision invested by Halske in his partner’s inventions and constructions were one of the young company’s key success factors during the start-up phase. Werner von Siemens always made this clear. In his autobiography, he wrote that “The major influence that the firm of Siemens & Halske had on the development of telegraphy is largely due to fact that the precision engineer [Halske] … was in charge of construction.” Elsewhere, he praised his partner’s “admirable talent.” One thing is certain: without Halske’s important contribution, the joint undertaking would hardly have been successful. Yet this success also had a downside, as the master mechanic would learn several years later.

Perfectionism versus large quantities and growth – Mounting pressure

Within a few years, the Telegraphen-Bauanstalt had multiplied its revenue from 10,300 marks in the year 1848 to 253,100 marks in 1851. With the continuing expansion of the former 10-man workshop, however, the relationship between the two friends and business partners began to suffer. In particular, the high standards of the perfectionist Halske increasingly conflicted with the necessity of producing high quantities of products economically and meeting the deadlines. The financial risk entailed by the expansion of the portfolio and the international operations of the electrical engineering company also put the “cautious businessman” under pressure. In 1854, Halske wrote to his partner as follows: “I have no idea why a reasonable German business, aside from its scope and earnings, no longer gives the satisfaction it once did, I think the breakneck pace of the Russian business is behind it.” 

“I’m losing my character” – Halske’s departure from the company

Seven years and numerous disputes with the Siemens brothers later – including about the introduction of series production and the piece price system – Johann Georg Halske summed up the situation in a letter to his friend and partner of many years as follows: “We are both aiming at the same thing, our achievements speak for this and everyone says so; but the tree which bore these fruits and grew out of our mutual trust can’t thrive when the earth around its trunk is continually being ploughed up […] each of us has his own way of striving, I – as the weaker of the two, as I must consider myself to be – lose out through always having to accommodate myself and am at the mercy of a wave which threatens to engulf me.”

As a result, in December 1863, Johann Georg Halske withdrew first from the management of the English subsidiary. At the end of 1867, he then left the Berlin parent company – by amicable agreement with his former partner, with whom he was to remain friends until his death in March 1890. In order not to endanger the existence of Siemens & Halske, he left the bulk of his capital in the company as a loan until 1881. Halske also contributed 10,000 talers to the pension fund which was set up to mark the company’s 25th anniversary in 1872. The company was known as “Siemens & Halske” until 1966, and it was only with the founding of the present Siemens AG that the name of Halske was removed.



Sabine Dittler