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Early in the 19th century, the main technique for rapid communication was the optical telegraph with rotating signal arms. The problem: the technique works only in daylight when visibility is good. The electric telegraph was one attempt at a solution.
Werner von Siemens, serving in the Prussian Army’s Telegraphy Commission, was deeply interested in the problem. In 1847 he refined the pointer telegraph invented by Englishman Charles Wheatstone by synchronizing the transmitter and receiver electrically – making the new device a major improvement over earlier versions.
A year later a young telegraph company, the “Telegraphen-Bauanstalt von Siemens & Halske,” got its first commission – to install what would be Europe’s longest telegraph line of its day, from Berlin to Frankfurt am Main. The result was an early “hot line” between the King of Prussia, in Berlin, and the first German Parliament, in Frankfurt. It took only an hour to send a dispatch between the two cities – a sensation for its era. The invention was the first in a long list of Siemens innovations.
The mid-19th century saw the establishment of not just individual telegraph lines, but the first national networks. From 1853 to 1855, Siemens & Halske built the Russian state telegraph network, with a total length of some 9,000 kilometers. By now, the Morse system, faster than the old pointer telegraph, was in use. The company laid a submarine cable between Oranienbaum and Kronstadt, and ran extensive land lines through the European part of Russia. A construction office was specially set up in St. Petersburg to handle the vast project.
Besides building the lines, Siemens & Halske also took on maintaining them for a fixed price. The maintenance contracts continued until 1867, making an important contribution to the project’s financial success. One crucial contribution came from the newly developed “Tartar galvanometer,” with which a line could be monitored electrically segment by segment, so that defects could be located and remedied fast – thus minimizing the company’s repair and maintenance costs.
As telegraph connections from place to place lengthened and increased in number, more and more batteries were needed to run them. But batteries were expensive, not to mention inconvenient to maintain. So the search was on for alternative power sources.
In 1856, Werner von Siemens invented the double-T armature, and used it for the first time in an order for a magnetic-electric pointer telegraph with a crank magneto, produced for the Bavarian state railway. Unlike its predecessors, this “railway telegraph” needed no batteries – the current it needed was generated via the double-T armature itself during the cranking needed to send a telegram. 10 years later, the double-T armature would be the core of Werner von Siemens´ most important invention: the dynamo machine.
The double-T armature also found uses in magneto ignition systems for internal combustion engines. In 1877, Nicolaus August Otto’s famous Deutz engine, one of the world’s first four-cycle engines, was equipped with a Siemens ignition system. The invention also found its way into such uses as shipboard telegraphs and telephone sets – not to mention the bicycle dynamo.
In the late 19th century, East India was Britain’s most important colony. But it took nearly 30 days to get a message from London to Calcutta. To improve the situation, the English government engaged Siemens to build a Morse telegraph line some 11,000 kilometers long. The Indo-European Telegraph Line opened for business in 1870, after just two years of construction.
One innovation here was the keyboard punch. Not only did it make it easier to make punched tapes for faster transmission of messages, but almost a century later it would become one of the first storage media for computers. As part of this project, Werner von Siemens also invented “independent translation,” with which a telegram could be transferred automatically from one line segment to the next. It took the first telegram only 28 minutes to get from London to Calcutta on the new line – a world record!
In 1927, the first picture telegraphy system went into operation, reaching beyond Germany’s borders at the same time: The “Siemens-Karolus-Telefunken” system between Berlin and Vienna.
A picture to be sent was scanned by a photoelectric cell, transmitted by cable or radio, and copied onto photosensitive paper at the receiver’s end using a controlled light source. Werner von Siemens had already experimented with photosensitive components. But now, for the first time, new components like the Kerr-Karolus photoelectric cell made it possible to scan pictures precisely enough to reproduce even fine grayscale values.
At Siemens, the new technology was developed jointly with Telefunken at a special central laboratory in Berlin. The researchers originally assumed that the system would be used primarily for long-distance radio transmissions. But as it turned out, the most interested users of the new picture telegraphy were the major newspapers, who found it ideal for jobs like dispatching current pictures of major events to their regional editions.
Competing with telephony, telegraphy also found its way into widespread use: here, rather than speed, the focus was on price and ease of operation.
To make operation easier, a typewriter keyboard replaced the Morse key on a telegraph set. The result was the teletype machine, which gradually replaced all other telegraphy apparatus from about 1928 onward. At Siemens’ suggestion, in 1933 the German Reich mail service held a trial run of the world’s first public switched teletype network. Since telexing was considerably cheaper than telephoning, and also produced a written record, the new technology quickly gained wide acceptance.
Once the transistor and microelectronics had been invented, the mechanical workings of the teletype machine were gradually replaced by electronics, which offered drastically lower cost and more convenient operation. In 1976 Siemens presented the fully electronic “Teletype 1000“ – and within four years the company already had a world market share of some 30 percent. The victory march of teletype would continue until it was brought to an abrupt halt with the introduction of the telecopier (fax) in the mid-1990s.
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