Inventions don’t stop at national borders. Which is partly why, 170 years ago, a hitherto unknown young man left Germany for England to market his elder brother’s patents. This was Wilhelm Siemens, a freshly minted engineer not quite 20 years old, setting off to seek his fortune in the capital of the British Empire. And thus it was under his leadership that in 1850, the Telegraphen-Bauanstalt von Siemens & Halske, founded in Berlin only three years before, got its first international sales agency. Wilhelm now became “William” in England; his involvement in science and technology, along with his entrepreneurial efforts, would ultimately get him established in British high society. And the London branch he founded would become a pillar of the company’s success.
Off to England – First steps in London
Before Wilhelm’s elder brother Werner founded his company, he worked as an inventor. Werner understood how important English patents were if his innovations were to evolve into business success. So he appointed Wilhelm to get an English patent for a galvanization process he had invented, and then to market the process. In March 1843 the younger man, not even 20 years old, made his first trip to London to explore the options for patenting and selling Werner’s invention. And it worked out – he was able to sell the patent at a profit.
Yet when Wilhelm tried to market other patents in England a year later, he met with considerably less success. That disappointment made no dent in his enthusiasm for the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, and around 1846 he reached a decision to put down roots in the British capital. The respect that the young “civil engineer” had earned from his British colleagues while marketing Werner’s patent made him even more eager to relocate. Besides, England was a pioneer in industrialization, and offered far greater opportunities than Germany for engineers to advance in technology – and in business.
Wilhelm began in 1848 by focusing on developments in machine construction and heating equipment, in concert with his brother Friedrich, who had come to join him in London. One of the most successful products from this period was a water meter, which later sold more than 200,000 units.
Double professional existence – Representative of the family firm and independent inventor
For the moment, though, William – the name he now went by in England – increasingly put his own interests aside for the sake of his brother Werner, so as to open a London office of Siemens & Halske on March 16, 1850. All the same, he did not entirely abandon his work as an independent inventor and scientist. His lifelong involvements outside the company bear witness to that – an activity that led to significant inventions like the Siemens-Martin furnace for making steel. He learned to organize a productive partnership between his private interests as an engineer and the interests of the company.
Even though William viewed himself more as a mechanical engineer than an electrical engineer, he continued to represent his brother Werner’s interests. He promoted Werner’s inventions and marketed them in the United Kingdom, presenting them to the trade world and ensuring they received the scientific attention they deserved. Among Werner’s achievements that William presented in Britain was the efficient application of the dynamo-electric principle, which William demonstrated to the country in 1866. This would eventually provide the foundation for electrifying transportation and entire cities – a trailblazing innovation in electrical engineering. And the growing familiarity of this principle among engineers and the general public also boosted the reputation of Siemens & Halske.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained – Siemens gets into the submarine cable business
The Siemens brothers’ investment in the English market paid off – the local sales agency performed extremely well, especially as new lines of business opened up. The brothers’ good relations with R. S. Newall & Co., the unchallenged market leader in laying submarine cables, led them to venture into this business as well in the late 1850s. Yet getting a foothold against heavy Anglo-American competition in the submarine cable business proved difficult.
Concentrating on its strengths, Siemens positioned itself in the market by highlighting its skills in electrical engineering. Its mastery of the tricky technology of electrical testing and monitoring for submarine cables won it a berth in many cable-laying projects. That seemed reason enough to turn the former London agency into a stand-alone company. Which came about in 1858 with the establishment of “Siemens, Halske & Co.” – renamed “Siemens Brothers” in 1865.
And events continued evolving at the same brisk pace. To insulate themselves better from the high risks of the cable-laying business, in 1863 Siemens built its own cable factory at Woolwich, and thus got into production. A major milestone in Siemens’ submarine cable business came in 1875, when the company laid a submarine cable across the Atlantic. William Siemens led the design of a cable-laying steamer specifically developed for the purpose: the Faraday.
London a bigger success than Berlin – But family ties remain strong
These business achievements in making and laying cables, as well as Siemens Brothers’ significant contribution to building the Indo-European Telegraph line (1868–1870), began giving signs that the London business might be more significant in some ways than the operations in Berlin. Nevertheless, through various structural reorganizations, Werner von Siemens was able to impose his concept of a “whole business” and kept the company family-based, even though it was now operating all over the world.
Meantime William Siemens was finding that London seemed more and more like his real home. Though never repudiating his German origins, in lifestyle and attitudes he felt British. In 1859 he married the Scotswoman Anne Gordon. And at the time of his marriage, as a further commitment to England, he also obtained British citizenship. He argued that it would be easier for him to get patents as a British subject. The company benefited too from the support William received from his wife, especially in mastering the English language. He was now able to publish articles in English journals, and soon earned admiration from his colleagues in the field for his fluency of expression – even as a non-native speaker.
Sir William Siemens – An indespensible player in Siemens' development in England
The growth that Siemens saw in England in the nineteenth century would scarcely be conceivable without William Siemens. In his contemporaries’ eyes, he was inseparably linked with all the company’s English projects. His technical and scientific achievements, which earned him a position of prominence in English society and the scientific community, lent glamor to the entire company. His many memberships and involvements in famed technical associations and societies brought him influence in the world of British engineering and science; his various awards and honorary doctorates testify impressively to the esteem in which he was held.
A particular signal of his acceptance and recognition in English society was the title “Sir,” which went with the knighthood bestowed on him by Queen Victoria shortly before his death in 1883.
Eyes firmly on the future – Siemens is well positioned in England for the 21st century
Today, 170 years after William Siemens opened the London office of Siemens & Halske, the company has 15 production sites and numerous offices in over 30 cities in the United Kingdom and Ireland, with some 16,500 employees. Every one of Siemens’ business areas is represented in the British Isles, and sales run into the billions each year.
On top of that, an extensive program of encouragement for the coming generation provides insurance for the company’s future creativity. Six hundred trainees begin their careers at the company each year. Just as in the past, Siemens thus stands for innovative ideas and new technologies in the United Kingdom, offering solutions that meet the needs of today and are also ready to handle the challenges of tomorrow.
Lars Sonnenberg | Dr. Ewald Blocher