Since the summer of 1846, Artillery Officer Werner von Siemens had been hard at work exploring how to transmit messages by cable. Those efforts led him to develop a model of a pointer telegraph that offered substantial mechanical improvements over previous versions. The model proved to be one of the essential bases for establishing a workshop for precision mechanisms. And the small venture that began operations in a rear courtyard in Berlin in October 1847 was the nucleus of what today is Siemens AG.
Blessed with inventive imagination – Artillery Officer Werner von Siemens
Werner von Siemens (the ennobling “von” would not be conferred until many years later, but for simplicity’s sake we use it here throughout) completed his training as an officer in 1838, after which he was required to serve at least six years in the Prussian Army. Since October 1, 1842, he had been assigned to the Royal Artillery Workshop in Berlin.
During his leisure hours there, he started out by exploring his “inventive speculations,” an assortment of ideas that ranged from building a governor for steam engines, to making artificial stone, to experimenting with nitrocellulose (“guncotton”). By the summer of 1846 he was delving deep into the design and operation of electric telegraphs. Within half a year he had firmly decided “to build a solid career in telegraphy, whether in or out of the military.”
The pointer telegraph he designed was built between January and June 1847 at the workshop of two precision mechanics, Johann Georg Halske and Friedrich M. Bötticher. Early in July it went through its first trial run on the overhead test line between Berlin and Potsdam, with representatives of the Telegraphy Commission of the General Staff of the Prussian Army in attendance. The test was a success:
My principle proved itself splendidly, and I hope that in time it will beat every one of the others.Werner von Siemens, 1847
Plagued by financial troubles – Werner as a brother and guardian
If Werner decided not to resign from the Prussian artillery when he became free to do so in 1844, that was primarily for financial reasons. He was not just supporting himself on his officer’s income – following his parents’ early deaths, he had taken responsibility for three younger brothers, Carl, Walter and Friedrich. Carl had been living with him since 1843; Walter joined them in 1844, and Friedrich came along a year later. Werner became the legal guardian for all three in 1845, responsible for all their expenses, and for financing their education. As he had no savings, and also no reliable earnings worth mentioning from his “inventive speculations,” his financial situation became acute. As he would write to his brother William in London at the beginning of August 1847, a shortage of funds was his main obstacle to really getting ahead.
An idea takes form – Preparing to found the company
Early that same August, Werner accepted the offer of a reassignment to the General Staff’s Telegraphy Commission. The change brought no improvement in his strained financial circumstances, but it would give him more opportunity than before to market his pointer telegraph, and to learn first-hand where the Commission was planning to lay new telegraph lines. Before the month was out, Siemens and Johann Georg Halske had decided to set up a machine construction company together to make telegraphs, ringer systems for railroads, and gutta-percha wire insulation. The company would open its doors a mere six weeks later. Its competitive position was excellent:
Until now there has been no company of this kind ever, so we are entirely without competition and also […] protected by my own influence, which is already rather considerable.Werner von Siemens, 1847
The two men were in agreement too on how to divide the work load. Halske, who had just left the precision workshop he had headed with Bötticher, and thus was abandoning a relatively secure lifestyle for an uncertain future, took over managing the workshop. Werner would be responsible for negotiating contracts and planning telegraph lines. He was already planning his first project – to lay an underground telegraph line for the Telegraphy Commission along the Berlin–Köthen test route.
The search for appropriate premises to house the machine construction company took time, but ultimately paid off. In September, very close to the Anhalt railroad station, two apartments were rented at Schöneberger Strasse 19 – one for Werner, the other for Halske and his family – along with a workshop with 300 square meters of space. Basic equipment for the workshop – such as machine tools – was estimated to cost 5,000 to 10,000 talers.
Since neither Werner von Siemens nor Halske had that kind of money, and Werner was around 2,000 talers in debt to boot, financial support from outside would be essential to get the company off the ground. Rescue from this financial dilemma arrived in the person of Johann Georg Siemens, a Berlin-based magistrate who was also a cousin of Werner’s; he contributed a loan of 10,000 talers in return for 20 percent of the profits.
A successful kickoff – The company is officially founded
By early October, events seemed to be arriving pell-mell. The new company was founded on October 1, with a partnership agreement among Werner von Siemens, Johann Georg Halske and Johann Georg Siemens. Werner moved into his apartment on Schöneberger Strasse on October 2 or 3. On October 7 he received the patent he had been anxiously awaiting for five months, “for a new kind of electric pointer telegraph and an associated device for printing telegrams.”
On October 9 the mechanical workshop was registered as a commercial establishment with the Royal Trade Tax Office, and according to Werner, it began operations just three days later, on October 12.
Werner was still an army officer, meaning that he was forbidden to work as a businessman at the same time. So only Halske could provide a face to the public as the owner and personally liable partner. For the same reason, for the time being the workshop bore only Halske’s name.
Gradually on track for success – The young company’s first weeks
This exciting start of the month was followed by weeks that took their toll on Werner’s patience. The work to lay the telegraph cable underground on the designated segment of the Berlin–Köthen route dragged on. Of the full line, which was planned to be scarcely two kilometers in all, only 400 meters had been laid by November 6. And things were slow at the workshop as well, because delivery of the machine tools the new entrepreneurs had ordered was delayed for several weeks. All the same, Werner was optimistic:
I have no doubt that I will prevail and thereby get all telegraphic matters in Prussia in my hands.Werner von Siemens, 1847
Dr. Claudia Salchow
On December 3, Werner could report to his brother William that within about two weeks the workshop would be making two telegraphs, three ringing systems with a new design for railroad signalman’s booths, several testing instruments, and a machine to insulate copper wires with gutta-percha. On December 4, Halske registered “his” independent commercial operation with the Police Headquarters in Berlin.
Looking back on the evolution of business in his last letter of the year, Werner gave William a thoroughly positive report. The telegraphs and signaling ringers on the Berlin–Köthen test segment were working “beautifully and reliably,” so that he hoped “within a short time to make [the telegraphs] a historic event.” On top of that, the workshop was now fully staffed with ten workers. But he still complained of severe personal financial straits. All the same, the next step for his inventive spirit was already becoming evident:
Electro-magnetism is still scientifically and technologically entirely vacant ground, and capable of uncommon expansion. In alliance with Halske, I feel quite called upon to help it earn the reputation it deserves.Werner von Siemens, 1847
As it turned out, it would not be until 1851 that the “Halske Workshop” would begin calling itself the “Telegraphen-Bauanstalt Siemens & Halske” – the Telegraph Construction Company of Siemens and Halske.