A gifted engineer

A portrait of inventor Friedrich von Hefner-Alteneck


When “Construkteur” Friedrich von Hefner-Alteneck left Siemens & Halske in 1890, the company lost one of Werner von Siemens' closest associates. The “Dosenschreiber” telegraph keyboard apparatus, the drum armature, the differential arc light – von Hefner-Alteneck’s inventions revolutionized many fields of electrical engineering, and were one of the cornerstones of Siemens & Halske’s success. Yet the engineer led a life of dissatisfaction, often quarreled with the Siemens family, and ultimately retired at the same time as Werner von Siemens – even though he was only 44 years old.

Inspired by the Paris Exposition ­– von Hefner-Alteneck joins Siemens 

Friedrich von Hefner (“Alteneck” was added to the family name only in 1856) was born in Aschaffenburg on April 27, 1845. We know little about his youth. It seems certain that he attended a university-oriented secondary school in Munich, where anecdote has it that he spent more time tinkering together all sorts of gadgets from scrap sheet metal than he did studying. His parents’ apartment was said to be full of clocks he had designed himself. Friedrich had even strung a telegraph line to the home.  In the end, his father was able to put a halt to the endless inventing activity only by confiscating his tools. All the same, it was a foregone conclusion that the boy would study mechanical engineering – at the Technical Universities of Zurich and Munich, as it turned out. 


On completing his university studies, Friedrich von Hefner-Alteneck finished a brief internship in Munich, and visited the Paris Exposition in 1867. There he saw products from Telegraphen-Bauanstalt von Siemens & Halske, and probably met Werner von Siemens. Impressed by the experience, he applied for a position with the firm as a draftsman. But the company turned him down. As yet, Johann Georg Halske was still lord and master over production; there was no design department yet at all, and thus no position for draftsmen. Von Hefner-Alteneck was not discouraged; he applied as a simple laborer, was hired, and began work in Berlin in mid-June 1867.


But when Halske withdrew from running the business a short time later, the company did in fact have to find itself a draftsman. At the recommendation of one of von Hefner-Alteneck’s former professors, they discovered that the right man was already in their own workshop.  As of September 30, 1867, Friedrich von Hefner-Alteneck was reassigned to the new drafting room, where at first he worked all by himself, designing new devices and redesigning old ones. Gradually more staff was hired, and as the design office grew, so did von Hefner-Alteneck’s sphere of influence. Ultimately he was appointed to head the office.  From 1872 he served as an assistant to Chief Engineer Carl Ludwig Frischen, who was in charge of general technical direction at the time. Five years later, von Hefner-Alteneck became Frischen’s deputy, as “Dirigent der Abteilung für Konstruktion” (Director of the Department for Design).

Von Hefner-Alteneck becomes Prokurist – And has his first differences with the Siemens brothers

Werner von Siemens considered the young engineer one of the pillars of the establishment. In 1879 he wrote to his brother Carl: “Hefner’s achievements are gradually earning him a place on a par with Frischen […]. The dynamo department will be placed entirely under von Hefner […], I think we will have to give Frischen and von Hefner powers of attorney next year.” As a “Prokurist” armed with a company power of attorney, von Hefner-Alteneck was to remain a member of corporate management for another ten years after 1880, finally as the head of the Charlottenburg plant.


During his tenure as a designer, the company logged a number of significant technical achievements. To name just a selection: his keyboard apparatus revolutionized telegraphy; his differential arc lamps were providing electric light in Berlin’s Kaiserpassage as early as 1880; his drum armature added a crucial improvement to Werner von Siemens‘ dynamo machine. The principle behind that design is still in common use today. 


Von Hefner-Alteneck was well aware of his own worth and what the company owed him. He and the Siemens brothers came to differences several times in the 1870s. As the surviving correspondence shows, William and Carl appreciated von Hefner-Alteneck’s accomplishments but were critical of him personally. By contrast, Werner von Siemens accepted his talented employee’s difficult personality as the pardonable eccentricity of a brilliant inventor. He repeatedly asked his brothers to make allowances. 


In 1878, the company founder reported in a letter that von Hefner-Alteneck had once again expressed a desire to leave Siemens & Halske: 

It’s mainly antagonism between him and Frischen that is driving him out. Unfortunately, he has become so single-minded and gruff that he has always been difficult to deal with. His departure would be a great loss to our company, because he is a very gifted designer, and altogether a very able and nobly disposed man in his field. But constant brooding and designing has affected him mentally and physically.

Von Hefner-Alteneck felt the same high level of esteem for his employer. In 1882, when the engineer received an offer to become General Director at the Edison Company, Siemens & Halske’s biggest competitor, he firmly declined. 

Werner von Siemens retires – And the great inventor leaves

The break did not finally come until it was clear that the founder would be cutting back his involvement in daily affairs. In mid-July 1889, von Hefner-Alteneck again stated his dissatisfaction, and threatened to resign if he was not given an owner’s stake in the company. Werner von Siemens wrote to Carl: “The main issue is presumably that he feels indispensable, and therefore believes that he could not work successfully under my sons as their subordinate.”  Unlike before, this time there could be no negotiating with the long-standing employee’s demands. A part ownership of the company was out of the question. So his departure was inevitable: “It will no doubt come to that, and better now than later.” 


Yet some years afterwards, Friedrich von Hefner-Alteneck himself gave different reasons for his resignation: 

A very painful ailment of the nerves, which had been very gradually intensifying for some time, was the principal cause that forced me to resign from my position at Siemens & Halske as of the beginning of the previous decade.

Whatever the reason, once the rest of the family had consented to his terms for resignation, Friedrich von Hefner-Alteneck left the company at the beginning of 1890 – and with a handsome pension: on condition that he would not work for any other company, he would continue to receive his full salary for the rest of his life. At the ceremony for von Hefner-Alteneck’s departure, Werner von Siemens also officially announced that he himself would be leaving corporate management. 


Von Hefner-Alteneck subsequently received many honors, including a membership in the Berlin Academy of Sciences and an honorary doctorate, in 1897, from Munich Technical University. That same year, he was seated on the Supervisory Board of Allgemeine Elektrizitätsgesellschaft (AEG), where he remained a member until his death. 


Despite all differences of opinion, Friedrich von Hefner-Alteneck remained on friendly terms with the Siemens family all his life. Early in 1904 he attended a hunting party held by Werner von Siemens’ son Wilhelm at Schloss Biesdorf. While there, he died on January 7 of a heart attack.




Dr. Florian Kiuntke