A small rectangular box weighing about ten kilos marked the start of an impressive success story in the mid-19th century. With the construction of his pointer telegraph, Werner von Siemens ushered in a new era of electric telegraphy – and thus in 1847 established the Telegraphen-Bauanstalt von Siemens & Halske’s later global renown. From the very beginning, pioneering technologies and the business models developed from them have been Siemens’ foundation – innovations that, by their very nature, do not simply offer new ideas but actually set new market standards – right through to the present day.
“Almost all my undertakings failed" – Beginnings are always difficult
At the beginning of 1847, 30-year-old Werner von Siemens had some rather bleak years behind him. Looking back in January of that year, he wrote to his future father-in-law: “Almost all my undertakings failed, […] and with all our debts we were on the verge of ruin.”
During the 1840s, the Prussian officer struggled to make a living for himself and his younger siblings with minor inventions and the sale of patents. It was only when he turned his attention to electric telegraphy in the summer of 1846 that the tide gradually began to turn.
A new type of communication system – From optical to electric telegraphy
Prussia had not yet started to develop electric telegraphy, and in the early 1840s the country was still relying exclusively on optical systems. Official and military messages were transmitted character-by-character with pivoting signal arms attached to high masts. The first telegraphy devices that could transmit information electrically had been developed in the 1830s, but were technically still in their infancy. Nevertheless, the great potential of this novel communication system was already evident: electric telegraphy worked faster and more reliably than the optical version and operated independently of daylight and bad weather.
Although the military began trying to introduce the promising technology in Prussia in 1837, it was eleven years before work started on an electric telegraph line. The existing technical shortcomings had to be overcome first.
Tracking down technical problems – An innovative idea
As a soldier and inventor, Werner von Siemens took a keen interest in these developments. However, it was not until the summer of 1846, when his attempts to earn money with inventions were proving particularly unsuccessful, that he turned his attention to telegraphy. It was then, through a Berlin acquaintance, that he saw a Wheatstone telegraph for the first time, and soon realized what the technical problem was.
In 1837, two Englishmen, Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke, had patented a telegraph instrument with electrically driven needles that moved on a board with letters and figures, resulting in much faster transmission. The requisite electric power was produced by means of a crank mounted on the instrument. The weakness of the device was that this power had to be generated manually. If the telegraph operator didn’t turn the crank at the right speed, the electric current was too weak. If he or she turned it too fast, the needles stuck.
After studying the problem intensively for two weeks, Werner von Siemens developed a new device by electrically synchronizing the motion of two connected telegraph receivers. Each time the button for a particular letter was pressed during transmission, the flow of electricity was interrupted and the pointer on the receiving end stopped at exactly that letter.
Persuasive efforts bear fruit – The breakthrough succeeds
In the summer of 1846, Werner von Siemens succeeded in considerably improving Wheatstone’s and Cooke’s pointer telegraph. The next step was to test his construction in practice. However, Prussia still had no electric telegraph lines, and von Siemens knew no one who could build his apparatus and get it ready for series production. The Prussian military had set up a telegraph commission in 1844 for the sole purpose of testing electric telegraphy.
In 1847, the inventor managed to get a head start on his competitors by convincing the commission’s members, largely through his good personal contacts as an army officer, of the value of his device. He also found a suitable partner in the precision mechanic Johann Georg Halske, who constructed the pointer telegraph exactly to his specifications.
All his eggs in one basket – "a career in telegraphy"
With his sure instinct for technology, Werner von Siemens then focused his activities on one field alone: "I have decided to make a career in telegraphy," he wrote to his brother William in December 1846. And not only that: only five months after applying for a patent on his telegraph, he and Johann Georg Halske founded the "Telegraphen-Bauanstalt von Siemens & Halske". In the following year, the young company was commissioned to construct Prussia’s first electric telegraph line, which stretched from Berlin to Frankfurt am Main. When the line was completed in April 1849, news of the decisions made by the Frankfurt National Assembly – the first German parliament – was telegraphed to Berlin 500 kilometers away within an hour. In its day, this was a sensational event. Werner von Siemens’ pointer telegraph had survived its baptism of fire.
Ideas with business potential – Still a formula for success today
The story of this first trailblazing innovation is a clear example of how Siemens distinguished itself from the beginning with its innovative strength. From the very start, the company focused on relevant technologies and brought them to market maturity. Today’s engineers also combine scientific curiosity with entrepreneurial activities and make Siemens a company that sets standards in many fields, and that now dominates the electrification value chain like no other. Siemens currently holds some 60,000 patents worldwide and thus occupies a leading position in international statistics.
Dr. Ewald Blocher | Alexandra Kinter
You might also find this interestingFurther information on this topic
- Karin Petersen: Die elektrische Telegrafenlinie zwischen Berlin und Frankfurt am Main, in: Das Archiv. Magazin für Kommunikationsgeschichte 2009, 3, pp. 78–83 (available only in German)
- Werner von Siemens: Recollections, ed. by Wilfried Feldenkirchen, München 2008
- Reinhard Witzlau: Der Zeigertelegraf von Werner Siemens und Johann Georg Halske aus den Jahren 1846/1847, Gransee 2014 (2nd expanded edition, available only in German)