Persistence brings rewards 

Werner von Siemens and the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt

On March 20, 1884, Werner von Siemens made the German imperial government a generous offer: he would donate half a million marks to the government if in return it would support the founding of a state-backed institution for research into basic science. And thus the entrepreneur contributed to the founding of the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt (the Imperial Physical Technical Institute), which today is still one of Germany’s most important research institutions.

“Putting science into technology” – No time to waste 

It would still take years before the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt became a reality in October 1887. The process of founding the institute had actually begun several years earlier, when German scientists and businessmen began vigorously lobbying for an institution to do basic scientific research. And here Werner von Siemens played a leading role. Like a number of other like-minded figures, he was concerned that Germany would lose its standing as one of the world’s leading industrialized nations if it continued to pay too little attention to research. 


The fact was that at the time, Germany had no scientific institute at all for basic research, either in academia or in industry. Even Siemens & Halske had not started building up fairly large research facilities until the 1880s – though Werner von Siemens himself had had his own small laboratory for quite some time, set up only a few years after the company was founded.


The company founder was certain that only by working together could science and technology lay a basis for economic and political strength. “Put science into technology” was his credo. And he knew what he was talking about – after all, it was his own research in telegraphy and electric power generation that had played a major role in making Siemens & Halske a leading global electrical engineering company.

International competition stiffens – First initiatives toward founding a national basic research institute

No wonder, then, that the entrepreneur campaigned hard from the very start to establish a state research institute. The first initiatives had begun as early as 1872, but met with no success; yet Werner von Siemens and his fellow crusaders never thought of giving up. The problem was that for years, the Prussian government lacked not just the political will, but enough funds to build such a facility. 


It took until 1883 for matters to get back into motion. More and more, Werner von Siemens became the driving force among the initiators. He drafted several memoranda to the Prussian government, laying out why a basic research institute should be founded at the national level. 


Another influencing factor in this connection was surely that France and England were starting to set up state research institutes of their own – and Germany had no wish to lag behind. 


But what really began tip the balance was Werner von Siemens’ 1883 decision to donate 12,000 square meters of his own private land in Berlin-Charlottenburg to the Prussian government, for the institute to be built on. He also offered 300,000 marks from the legacy of his brother William, who had died late that same year.

 Support from Bismarck – And a breakthrough

The turning point came at last on March 20, 1884, when Werner von Siemens repeated his offer for the equivalent of half a million marks. But since the Prussian government still balked at accepting his generous proposal, this time he turned to the government of the German Empire. 


Here he emphasized the nation’s special responsibility to its individual states, because, as he said, only on an interstate basis could “a state’s material interests” be promoted. That ultimately gained him the support of imperial Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. 


Though it would take another three years to overcome further obstacles – including partisan political opposition – this proved to be the breakthrough for founding the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt. And Werner von Siemens’ tireless commitment and numerous initiatives had made a key contribution.


In March 1887, the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament, approved a budget of 700,000 marks to establish the country’s first state institute for basic research. And thus an institution came into existence that even today – since 1950, named the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) – is one of the main pillars of scientific research in Germany.

Dr. Ewald Blocher

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Further information on this topic

Further reading

  • David Cahan: Werner Siemens and the Origin of the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt, 1872–1887, in: Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 12, 2 (1982), pp. 253–283
  • Rudolf Huebener / Heinz Lübbig: A Focus of Discoveries (2nd edition), Singapore, Hackensack, London, 2012