Walter Reichel

A Siemens Engineer with Courage and Vision

Siemens is a name that has long stood for close contact with science and research. Dialog between practitioners and theoreticians is one of the main factors that has driven new product development and attracted the next generation of Siemens staff. Engineer Walter Reichel was well aware of that fact. His main field was power engineering, electric railways were his design passion, and the still-young field of electrical engineering was a constant source of  fascinated curiosity.   


Reichel, born in Laurahütte (now Siemianowice Śląskie) in Upper Silesia on January 27, 1867, studied mechanical engineering in the Berlin suburb of Charlottenburg, and Berlin is also where Siemens & Halske gave him his first job in November 1889 as a designer for vehicles and overhead power line systems. While he was still in his probationary period, he came up with a patentable invention – a bow-type current collector for powering electric railways from overhead. As horse-drawn trams were giving way to electric trams in major cities everywhere in Europe and North America, Reichel’s supervisors viewed innovative solutions for power transmission and drive technology as a lucrative business opportunity.



The company had great confidence in Reichel’s skill, and assigned him to head tram projects in Genoa, Dresden and Berlin. He quickly rose to the position of chief engineer and supervisor of the tram car construction office; he and his colleague Emmerich Frischmuth were sent on a trip to the United States to study how the latest developments in electric drives and power plants worked in practice.


Reichel was firmly convinced that electric traction could replace steam technology. Wilhelm von Siemens in particular, the company founder’s second son, was a staunch patron of the power engineering business, and was fully persuaded of the value of electrifying railways

“More, faster, farther” – High speed for electric railways 

Reichel’s reputation as a daring, effective engineer was truly made when he was assigned to head the project for the high-speed experiments by the Studiengesellschaft für elektrische Schnellbahnen (StES) – the Research Association for High-Speed Electric Railways – for Siemens & Halske’s self-propelled rail cars. This consortium made up of banks, representatives from the rail and construction industries, AEG and Siemens was formed to explore the potential of electric traction.


The two vehicles built by the competing founders AEG and Siemens were ready to run in the fall of 1901 – and the first trial series could start, on a segment of the Royal Prussian Military Railway specially equipped with a three-phase overhead power line.


Reichel was especially tireless in calculating and testing the design of the current collectors. Ultimately he and his colleagues were able to beat the team from AEG in setting a speed record of more than 200 kilometers per hour. Turn-of-the-century Germany, with its enthusiasm for progress and technology, received the news with exuberance. This success opened up a second career track for Reichel, who had been Deputy Director of the newly founded Siemens-Schuckertwerke since 1903. 

Research and theory meet practice – Professor Walter Reichel

After completing his doctorate, Reichel joined the Königlich Technische Hochschule ­– the Royal Technical University of Berlin, where he began teaching “electrotechnical design” in October 1904. He was able to convince the university to set up an “experimental field for electrotechnical design and machine tools.” Not least of all thanks to generous donations in kind from Siemens-Schuckertwerke, the experimental field opened in 1907 for lectures, practical exercises, and also research.


But working at the university also had its downside. Squabbles among colleagues, a shortage of funding, and quite significantly, his lower salary led him to resign from his professorship in 1908 and return to industry. But he would continue to lecture on system design and electric railways. 


Back to the roots – Return to Siemens

In October 1908, Reichel signed a new employment agreement with Siemens-Schuckertwerke GmbH, which was in charge of Siemens’ power engineering business. Henceforth he would be in charge of all design tasks at the Dynamowerk, as well as  its equipment and expansion. He was also to keep an eye on worldwide developments among the competition and ensure that Siemens products remained competitive in the world market. His own real specialty, electric railroads, would remain under the charge of Emmerich Frischmuth, with whom he had worked for years. Reichel would assist developments in the Railroad Department in an advisory capacity.



He first of all gave his full attention to setting up and expanding the plant for large machine construction in Siemensstadt. With his collaboration, this is where the halls of the “Dynamowerk” arose by 1910/11; including the extension building for installing electrical equipment in locomotives, this facility had some 70,000 square meters of usable floor space. When the electric motor plant went into operation in 1912, it added a further 62,000 square meters of space. Everything was in line with Reichel’s ideas – all the important electrical engineering production and testing facilities were combined at a single site; communication with employees was direct, and decision-making paths were short.

When the Weimar Republic was proclaimed in Berlin in November 1918, Walter Reichel was 51 years old, head of the Dynamowerk, a member of the Managing Board of Siemens­Schuckertwerke, and a professor of electrical engineering in Berlin­Charlottenburg. He was a sought-after author and expert, Chairman of the Association of German Engineers (VDI), and head of a family. He was also a citizen of the City of Berlin, whose political controversies he engaged in with the same vigor that he devoted to the further development of electrical engineering as an academic discipline or the debate about the “electrification” of the railroads. 


He retired in September 1932, but up to his death in May 1937 he remained an internationally renowned expert, and was still promoting, in various publications, the electrification of full-service train lines in Germany – an ambitious project that the Deutsche Reichsbahn (the German National Railway) was pursuing only haltingly. Despite promising beginnings, the concept was shelved as the National Socialist regime began preparing for war.







Sabine Dittler | Susanne Kill