In the age of e-mail, SMS texting and Twitter, it is hard to image that a fast and reliable way to transmit messages was one of the central questions of the 19th century. Werner von Siemens recognized this challenge and focused his technical experiments and studies on electrical telegraphy, starting in the mid-1840s. With the construction of his pointer telegraph, he lays the foundation for the founding of the company over 170 years ago
The idea came first
I have […] now practically decided to make a career of telegraphy.Werner von Siemens to his brother William, 1846
The foundations of this career were the improvements he had made to Charles Wheatstone’s electric pointer telegraph.
The Siemens’ pointer telegraph was far superior to the other apparatus of this kind until then, because it no longer worked like a clock mechanism. Instead it automatically controlled synchronization between the transmitter and the receiver – an entirely new solution in electric communications.
Together they pursue one goal
As Halske at first entertained doubts whether my apparatus would work, I myself set up a couple of automated telegraphs, composed of cigar boxes, tin plate, a few pieces of iron, and some insulated copper wire, which worked with perfect certainty.Werner von Siemens, Recollections
The thirty-year-old inventor entrusted the construction of the telegraph to a mechanic named Johann Georg Halske, whom he knew from the “Physics Society”, an association of ambitious young researchers. Halske produced experimental equipment for many well-known scientists of the day, as well as prototypes for inventions in the fields of precision mechanics, physics, optics and chemistry.
Werner von Siemens was able to convince the initially skeptical Halske of the potential of his engineering projects. Careful calculations of the anticipated order volume made Halske so enthusiastic about the young officer’s visionary ideas that he gave up his existing business in the fall of 1847 and accepted the risk of jointly launching a new company. Since the individual telegraphs were hand-crafted, there was no need to purchase large machinery – which meant that the amount of capital needed by the founders (neither of whom had much money) was equally small. Instead, Halske offered his “design talent”, while Siemens contributed his technical innovations and his network.
The startup capital of 6,842 talers was provided by Werner’s cousin, Johann Georg Siemens, a magistrate and the father of the later cofounder of Deutsche Bank.
The founding of the company
Lots of talent, little money, high risk
Werner von Siemens, Johann Georg Halske and Johann Georg Siemens signed a partnership agreement on October 1, 1847, the official founding date. Less than two weeks after the contract was signed, the “Siemens & Halske Telegraph Construction Company” began doing business in a building behind a courtyard in Berlin on October 12, 1847. This day has been celebrated as Founding Day since 1872. According to one story, the birth of Werner’s third and youngest son, Carl Friedrich von Siemens, is said to have left the child’s mother in such a weak condition that she felt too unwell to participate in the festivities on the company’s 25th anniversary. In consideration of her state of health, the festivities were postponed without further ado. Since that time, the company’s founding has been traditionally commemorated on October 12 instead of October 1.
In just a few years, the ten-man operation grew into an internationally operating electrical engineering firm. According to Werner von Siemens’ vision of an “enterprise of world standing comparable to that of the Fuggers,“ Siemens & Halske maintained an increasing number of branch offices in other European countries. The telegraph construction company earned international recognition by successfully carrying out large-scale projects that were technically complex and involved an enormous amount of business risk, such as the construction of the Indo-European telegraph line and the laying of the first direct transatlantic telegraph cable. At the time of Werner von Siemens’ death in 1892, his company was generating nearly 20 million marks in sales; Siemens employed 6,500 people worldwide, 1,725 of them outside Germany.
Werner von Siemens remains one of the most important innovators in electrical engineering even today, and his entrepreneurial spirit and his sense of responsibility continue to shape Siemens’ corporate culture and values.