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Werner von Siemens was a visionary entrepreneur who brought key advances in the electrical goods industry. The pointer telegraph he designed was the cornerstone of the telegraph construction company that he founded in 1847 – the “Telegraphen-Bauanstalt von Siemens & Halske” – which quickly evolved into an international enterprise. In 1866 he discovered the dynamo-electric principle, possibly his most significant accomplishment in the field of electrical engineering.
Werner von Siemens was born in Lenthe, near Hanover, on December 13, 1816. He was the fourth of 14 children in a family with a long middle-class tradition. Due to the family’s reduced circumstances, it was difficult for the children to obtain an education in line with their parents’ ambitions. As a result, Werner left secondary school without a degree in 1834. In the same year he joined the Prussian army, where he studied science and technology. The three-year training program at the Artillerie- und Ingenieurschule (army’s artillery and engineering school) in Berlin provided a solid foundation for his later work in the new field of electrical engineering.
Because Halske harbored doubts at first as to whether my device would even function, I created, from cigar boxes, tin, a few pieces of iron and some insulated copper wire, a few automated telegraphs that came together and functioned.
Werner von Siemens, "Recollections"
In 1847, Werner von Siemens built a pointer telegraph that was completely reliable and far superior to all previous systems of its type. This proved to be the cornerstone for the “Telegraphen-Bauanstalt von Siemens & Halske,” founded in Berlin on October 1, 1847, by Werner von Siemens and Johann Georg Halske, a precision engineer. Under their leadership, the electrical company quickly established itself internationally, in turn becoming one of the largest and best in the world.
In addition to his business activities, Werner von Siemens was intensively devoted to scientific research. In 1866, he made what is likely his most significant contribution to electrical engineering when, building on the work of Michael Faraday, he discovered the dynamo-electric principle and thus laid the basis for the use of electrical energy as a source of power. Heavy-current technology, as power engineering was then called, developed at a relentless pace. By constantly expanding the technology’s fields of application, Siemens’ inventions played a decisive role in its further development.
In 1879, Siemens & Halske demonstrated the world’s first electric railway with an external power source at the Berlin Trade Fair. Newly developed differential arc lamps from Siemens & Halske were installed for the fair in Berlin’s Kaisergalerie, a shopping arcade built on the Paris and Brussels models in one of Berlin’s central quarters. Three years later, the company installed Berlin’s first permanent electric street lights on Potsdamer Platz and Leipzig Straße. Electric lighting systems for train stations, office buildings, factories and harbor facilities soon followed. In 1880, Werner von Siemens constructed the world’s first electric passenger elevator. The next year, Siemens & Halske put the world’s first electric streetcar into operation in the Berlin suburb of Groß-Lichterfelde.
Aside from making a name for himself with his technological innovations and daring business undertakings, Werner von Siemens also earned the reputation as a progressive business owner through numerous social policy initiatives that were far ahead of the times. In 1872, for example, he set up the Pension, Widow’s and Orphan’s Fund – a pension scheme that predated the creation of Germany’s national pension system by more than a decade.
Not only did the fund serve a humanitarian purpose; it also supported the company’s personnel policies. In the face of acute shortages of qualified employees and high rates of fluctuation, Werner von Siemens was eager to build up and retain a permanent workforce of loyal, highly qualified experts at his ever-expanding company. In retrospect, he noted that the motives behind these voluntary benefits were “not just human concern, but essentially healthy egoism.”
A forward-looking corporate social policy remained a key concern for Werner von Siemens. In 1888, the company appointed its first medical examiner in the person of privy councilor Dr. Körte, the Siemens family’s long-time family physician. As Werner von Siemens stated in a letter to Dr. Körte, it was his aim for the company to “… establish a permanent arrangement with a reliably proficient doctor.” The physician had already been acting as “medical consultant” to the Siemens Pension Fund for a year and together with his son, over the following years he then took care of acutely ill or injured Siemens employees. Werner von Siemens’ letter can rightly be considered the founding document of the company’s medical services.
In addition to his scientific and entrepreneurial activities, Werner von Siemens also championed political causes. From 1862 to 1866, he represented the liberal Deutsche Fortschrittspartei in the Prussian state assembly. As an advocate for patent protection, he was appointed to the newly established Kaiserliches Patentamt (Prussian Patent Office, today’s German Patent and Trade Mark Office) in 1877. In 1879, he was a founding member of the Elektrotechnischer Verein, the German engineering society, which encouraged the establishment of electrical engineering professorships at technical universities. Werner von Siemens made a generous donation that helped establish Germany’s first public institution for fundamental research: When the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt (today’s Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt, PTB) was established, Werner von Siemens donated funds and land in the mid-1880s for the institute’s construction in Berlin’s Charlottenburg district.
During his lifetime, the pioneering electrical engineer received numerous honors in recognition of his services to both science and society. These honors include an honorary doctorate from the philosophy department of the University of Berlin (1860), an appointment to the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin (1873) and investiture as a member of the Prussian Order Pour le Mérite for Science and the Arts (1886). In 1888, he was raised to nobility by German Emperor Friedrich III. Werner von Siemens died in Berlin on December 6, 1892.
Dr. Frank Wittendorfer
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