On October 23, 1879, under the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, Siemens & Halske (S&H) opened its first Technical Bureau on Magdalenenstrasse 12 in Vienna. It was initially headed by Arnold von Siemens, the eldest son of the company founder. Unlike earlier efforts to establish a foothold in the Habsburg Empire, this time the electrical engineering company’s efforts were successful. Now, 140 years later, Siemens Austria is one of the country’s leading technology companies employing around 10,700 people. What’s more, for over two decades Siemens Austria has been responsible for the CEE (Central and Eastern Europe) business region, which currently includes 21 countries with a total population of about 197 million.
“I liked Vienna quite a lot” – Werner von Siemens’ first trip to the city on the Danube
Werner von Siemens visited Vienna for the first time in late February 1855. One of his destinations was the Vienna Telegraph Office, which had recently been considering techniques for duplex telegraphy. His goal was to convince them to adopt the duplex telegraphy method he had developed using electromagnetic technology.
On February 23, the day of his arrival, he described his impressions of Vienna to his wife, Mathilde: “No Petersburg-Berlin regularity, no opulent Paris-London shops, but a cozy tidiness that coexists with complete originality, solid buildings, and splendid palaces.” The overall positive attitude that he expressed at the beginning of his stay threatened to be overturned in early March: “Things have been less satisfactory of late. ... I’m not making any headway.” The problem was that there were “several questionable phenomena that occur with duplex telegraphy itself that I need to thoroughly investigate – in short, there’s a great deal left to do but I no longer have any desire to stay.” Nevertheless, he hoped that his presence on site would benefit the company, since he’d at least stirred up the local telegraphy scene. Back in Berlin, he pointed out to his brother Carl that “Austria ... [seems] eager to place itself in our hands,” with the proviso that “everything happens so slowly there!” In fact, it would take another three years to establish the company – at least temporarily – in Vienna.
Failed first attempt – Siemens & Halske’s Viennese interlude
On January 7, 1858, Werner von Siemens returned to Vienna in the company of his business partner, Johann Georg Halske, for the purpose of acquiring new sales markets.
I am quite satisfied with this trip. We were courteously received by the ministers, telegraph directors, etc., and the prospects there seem to be brilliant. We will provisionally establish a branch in Vienna, and then see where our final focus will lie.Werner von Siemens to his brother William, January 19, 1858
An opportunity to set up various telegraph lines led to the purchase of a plot in Vienna’s Landstrasse district and the establishment of an office with a small workshop for telegraph construction at Kirchengasse 45-46 – now Apostelgasse 12. Werner von Siemens’ first choice to head up the new branch office was his brother Carl. But because Carl wanted to remain in Russia – most likely for family reasons – the Berlin assistant David Steinert was appointed confidential clerk, working side by side with chief engineer August Weyrich. Unfortunately, the two fell short of expectations. In August 1862, Johann Georg Halske had to travel to Vienna “to pull the business out of the mess that Weyrich has gotten it into,” as Werner von Siemens wrote to his brother William at the end of August. Almost two years later, the Viennese interlude ended with Johann Georg Halske closing the office and workshop and cancelling the commercial register entry dated October 12, 1858, at a loss of 30,000 thalers.
A new start – Technical Bureau founded in Vienna
In the summer of 1879, preparations were in full swing for the electrical engineering company to make a new start in the metropolis on the Danube, whose population was then at around one million. Werner von Siemens had already chosen the person he wanted to manage the new branch:
I would like to appoint Arnold head of this branch office. He’ll soon be 25 years old, is dependable and energetic, has a good eye and a clear understanding. ... I thought I’d give him a moderate salary of a 10% bonus from the Vienna business. Once he’s spent a few years there and developed the Viennese business, it will be time to bring him back to Berlin.Werner von Siemens to his brother Carl, August 21, 1879
Werner von Siemens and his eldest son arrived in Vienna on October 14, 1879. Nine days later, on October 23, they opened the “Wiener Technische Büro von Siemens & Halske, Berlin” – initially at Magdalenenstrasse 12, because the space that had been relinquished 15 years earlier was not yet available.
If, as Austrian author Stefan Zweig wrote in his memoirs, “the daily new wonders of science and technology” signaled progress under the Austrian monarchy in the late 19th century and “a general advance” was becoming “more marked, more rapid, more varied,” then S&H in general and the company’s Vienna branch in particular were major contributors. “At night,” wrote Zweig, “the dim street lights of former times were replaced by electric lights, the shops spread their tempting glow from the main streets out to the city limits. Thanks to the telephone one could talk at a distance from person to person. People moved about in horseless carriages with a new rapidity.”
Focus of admiration – S&H at the International Electrical Exhibition in 1883
The International Electrical Exhibition was officially held in Vienna from August 16 to October 31 but was ultimately extended to November 4, due its tremendous success and the brisk influx of visitors. A total of 575 exhibitors – all of whom were anticipating profitable business – gathered in the Rotunda that was built in the Prater ten years earlier for the World Exhibition. According to the press, however, one name was on everyone’s lips: Siemens.
“Perhaps the names most frequently heard during the Electrical Exhibition were those of the brothers Siemens, whose activities have been largely responsible for so much progress in electrical technology, culminating in an international exposition. This famous name was certainly the one that was most often repeated in the exhibition rooms.”
Wiener Vorstadt-Presse, November 10, 1883
This was hardly surprising, given that two heavy-current projects implemented by S&H were among the most frequently visited and most admired highlights of the exhibition: the Prater Railway, which transported a total of 269,068 passengers along its 1,500-meter track between August 28 and the close of the exhibition, and the first local, public electric railway in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, whose first section between Mödling and Klausen was inaugurated on October 22, 1883.
Among other things, the exposition included lectures on popular science. On August 27, 1883, the introductory lecture in the series – described by the Viennese press as “worthy” and “brilliant” – was delivered by William Siemens, who spoke on “The relations between temperature, light, and radiation, with remarks on the sun, and its connection with electrical phenomena.” The audience included his brother Werner, a voice of his time, who appeared to be highly amused by the spectacle of his brother delivering a lecture in German for the first time. “We won’t attempt to repeat all that Siemens had to say,” wrote the Neuer Wiener Tageblatt on August 28, 1883, “but we must bear witness to the modesty and reticence with which he spoke of his own inventions when it couldn’t be avoided, almost showing embarrassment when he mentioned the gas regulator, also being exhibited in Vienna, ‘designed by my brother.’ ”
From small offices to large factory complexes – The Fellinger era
Some two years before the International Electrical Exhibition, natural science scholar Richard Fellinger, who had worked for S&H since 1877, joined the Vienna Technical Bureau. When Arnold von Siemens returned to Berlin, Fellinger assumed management of the branch, which had been operating under the name Siemens & Halske Vienna since 1882. During that same year, the offices were relocated to the former site at Apostelgasse 12.
The purchase of the adjacent plot in 1883 made it possible to commence production in special workshops that ultimately became the Vienna plant. In addition to arc lamps, dynamo machines, and block and switch point systems, in 1890 the plant also began manufacturing cables. Because the electrification of the Dual Monarchy had more than filled the order books, and due to limitations in space and production capacities, it finally became necessary to partially relocate to Leopoldau, where a new cable plant was commissioned in 1897 and a mechanical engineering factory in 1900, thus forming the Leopoldau Works.
The steady increase in employee numbers was proof that business was flourishing under the leadership of Richard Fellinger. In 1882, twelve salaried employees and 19 laborers were working for S&H Vienna. By 1890, the Vienna plant had 900 laborers, which had already become 2,000 just six years later.
When Richard Fellinger took over the management of the Vienna plant in 1885, the Prater Railway was considered his first major success. Other projects from the Fellinger era also made the headlines. As of August 9, 1890, it was possible to ascend to the summit of the Mönchsberg in Salzburg in a double electric elevator, thanks to S&H technology from Vienna. The elevator’s cars were designed for 12 passengers and resembled first class railway compartments.
The ride was so quiet that passengers wouldn’t have been aware that they were moving if they hadn’t seen the city sinking beneath their feet. The new Salzburg attraction drew crowds. During its first week of operation alone, it carried 10,527 people. During the second week, the number of passengers rose to 12,730, and by the end of 1891, it had transported a total of 200,000. The only reason the figures weren’t higher was because the elevator ran only on Sundays and holidays from mid-October to the end of April.
While some ascended to airy heights, others were travelling beneath the streets just a few years later. On May 2, 1896 – two years after the project was approved – the world’s first electrically powered underground, which was built by the Vienna plant, entered operation in Budapest. Incidentally, the blue cars with yellow borders had two glass partitions in the upper section that divided the cars into three compartments: a larger middle compartment and two “end compartments being reserved for ladies and those who do not smoke.”
“The public is full of praise for the new means of transport. The cars are elegant and comfortable. The speed is almost twice that of the electric streetcars on the street level and there is no sensation of being ‘under ground’ – the air below is so pure and light.”
Pester Lloyd, May 3, 1896
Whereas the Hungarian press was thrilled with the new technological achievement, several Austrian newspapers claimed that there were serious technical faults that were supposed to have delayed its commissioning under the headline “An unsuccessful subway”. S&H was compelled to issue a reply: “As designer and builder of the Budapest subway, we ask you ... to announce that your information has been shown to be completely false and that the subway commenced regular operation in Pest on Saturday, May 2, and functioned to the public’s general satisfaction without any holdup, despite the tremendous amount of traffic, which it continued to handle as of the start of operation.”
Richard Fellinger was no longer there to witness the merger of S&H Vienna’s power engineering department with the Österreichische Schuckert Werke founded in 1897 on January 1, 1904. He died in the fall of 1903 at only 55 years of age. In an obituary, the Electrotechnical Association of Vienna honored the founder of Austria’s large-scale electrotechnical industry with the words, “Fellinger cannot be properly honored as an expert. He was more than an expert. He was a thoroughly distinguished, multifaceted, sincere, firmly grounded individual who made a deep impression on all those who met him.”
Brief side note – The private life of Richard Fellinger
Richard Fellinger and his wife Maria Regina, a visual artist, quickly adapted to life in Vienna and moved in the best circles. During their first year there, pianist Clara Schumann had already introduced the couple to the composer Johannes Brahms, who became a regular guest at the Fellinger home and debuted some of his works there.
The two men formed a close friendship that continued until Johannes Brahms’ death in 1897. The Siemens director provided the composer with financial advice and, for instance, arranged for his residence to be furnished with electric lights. For his part, the composer initiated the founding of the Vienna Siemens Men’s Chorus in January 1891 which – with interruptions – existed until 1972. Maria Regina Fellinger’s works include photographs and a bust of Johannes Brahms.
Dr. Claudia Salchow