With the invention of the telephone, telegraphy encountered its first significant competitor. The first public telephone network in Germany began operations in 1881. Siemens innovations would shape developments in telephony for decades. 

1877: The Siemens telephone

Although German physicist Johann Philipp Reis invented the telephone as early as 1863, it took improvements by the American Alexander Graham Bell to transmit the human voice electrically. Bell presented his telephone system in 1878 at the World’s Fair in Philadelphia. A year later, the telephone was finding its way into Germany.


After an initial hesitancy, Werner von Siemens also became an enthusiast for the new technology, improving speech comprehensibility, which had been very limited at first. By equipping the earpiece with a horseshoe magnet instead of a bar magnet, he achieved significantly higher volume, which in turn improved both range and comprehensibility for talking. Production reached 700 sets a day in the first year, because Siemens put an economical price on his telephones.


The market launch of the telephone began the victory march of mass communications that would dominate the 20th century.

1909: Munich-Schwabing urban telephone exchange with automatic switching

Berlin’s first telephone exchange opened in 1881, with only eight subscribers. Calls were still put through manually: The subscriber called the exchange, asked the operator for the number he wanted and the operator plugged the line into the right socket in the switchboard so the two callers were connected.


By May 1889, the 10,000th subscriber was registered in Berlin. Around 200,000 phone calls were being put through by hand every day. To deal with the burgeoning phone traffic, switching was automated. In 1909, Siemens installed Germany’s first dialed, automatic urban telephone exchange, in the Munich district of Schwabing – for only 2,500 connections at first. It also introduced call-by-call metering, which counted only the calls that actually went through. In 1912 the world’s largest automatically switched exchange followed, in Dresden: It already had 17,000 connections.


Once dialed operation became technically feasible through local exchanges, long-distance calling was also automated. The world’s first automatic long-distance exchange was built by Siemens in 1923, for the Weilheim trunk network in Upper Bavaria.

1962: The first electronic telephone exchange

By 1960, some 120 million subscribers around the world had a telephone connection, and switching technology was running up against its limits. All over the globe, telecommunications engineers were working on how to replace slow mechanical switching systems, expensive to build and maintain, with new electronic versions. In Munich, in 1962, Siemens built the first electronically controlled telephone exchange.


In 1974, the first trial run for the computerized “EWS” electronic dialing system began in the Munich district of Perlach. During the second half of the 1970s, more and more memory-programmed switching systems like these were adopted worldwide. They were faster and easier to maintain. And the new developments in switching technology offered subscribers the benefits of new performance features like speed dialing.

1980: EWSD

The EWSD electronic, memory-programmed, digital dialing system brought Siemens into digitalized telephone switching in 1980. The first such system was installed in Hamburg, replacing analog switching and forging the link between telephony and data technology.


EWSD turned out to be a great sales hit for Siemens. The system became the best-selling switching system in the world: By the late 1990s, the company was delivering EWSD systems for more than 250 million connected units to customers in more than 100 countries.


Developed further, the EWSD system would ultimately lead to the Integrated Services Digital Network standard (ISDN).

1984: ISDN / Hicom

Digitalizing the telephone network made it possible to marry telecommunications with data technology, opening up entirely new prospects for the telephone market.


In 1984, Siemens presented its Hicom private communication system. It met the worldwide standard for the future Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) and was the first system to integrate all forms of communication into a single network, on a single line and at a single calling number.


In EWSD systems, information had not been digitalized until it reached the switchboard. But with ISDN, digitalization took place right in the terminal device – the telephone. Now existing telephone lines could transmit not just voice but texts, images and data.


Hicom systems soon came to be used throughout the market – in industry, business and government, from microsystems for home use or small businesses to worldwide corporate networks.

1997: GSM cell phone with color display

In 1990 a mobile phone still cost about 6,000 German marks in Germany. The high price and awkward size made these phones unsuitable for any but special uses. Only with the surge in microelectronics did it become possible to make them in handy sizes for an affordable price.


The Siemens S10 mobile phone reached the German market in time for the 1997 Christmas shopping season. The powerful little device had intuitive user operation and new functions, like a memory key that could store up to 20 seconds of spoken text.


The S10 was also suitable for data and fax communications, either using a PC card or via a soft modem, likewise available as an accessory. But the pioneering novelty of this business cell phone was its high-resolution, graphics-capable color display, which could do things like displaying business numbers in red and residential numbers in blue.


Two years later, Siemens brought out yet another innovation: The SL10, the world’s first mobile phone with slider capability. The keypad could be slid out from the case, making the cell phone even smaller.

2001: UMTS network

The first handheld phones were as big as a pocketbook and transmitted in Germany over the C-network – which was very up to date at the time.


Advances in microelectronics made later models a good deal smaller. They also now had a great many functions that ranged far beyond merely telephoning. All of which was possible only because of the technical evolution of cell phone networks. The analog C-network was followed by the digital D-network and later the E-network, in part also in response to the growing numbers of users. These networks were based on the digital GSM standard, which had been in use in Germany since 1992.


The UMTS standard, introduced in the early 2000s, made multimedia a cell phone option as well. For the first time, besides phoning you could also send photos and videos and maintain a continuous connection with the Internet. Siemens built the world’s first UMTS network on the Isle of Man in 2001.


Highlights from almost 175 years of Siemens history

Learn about selected events from the company’s history on our Stories website, which we’re continually expanding for you.

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