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Werner von Siemens was born in Lenthe, near Hanover, on December 13, 1816, the fourth of 14 children. His father was a tenant farmer from a family with a long middle-class tradition. Due to the family’s reduced circumstances, it was difficult for the children to obtain an education in line with their parents’ ambitions. As a result, Werner von Siemens left secondary school without a degree in 1834. In the same year he joined the Prussian army, where he studied science and technology. A three-year training program at the Artillerie- und Ingenieurschule (Artillery and Engineering School) in Berlin provided a solid foundation for his future work in what was then the new field of electrical engineering.
Founding of the company
In 1847, Werner von Siemens built a pointer telegraph that was completely reliable and far superior to all previous systems of its type. That invention laid the basis for the Telegraphen-Bauanstalt von Siemens & Halske, the telegraph construction company that Werner von Siemens founded together with precision mechanic Johann Georg Halske in Berlin on October 1, 1847. Not long after it was founded, it became a leading, internationally active electrical engineering firm that was among the world’s biggest.
In addition to his business activities, Werner von Siemens was intensively devoted to scientific research. In 1866, he made what was probably his most significant contribution to electrical engineering when, building on the work of the British natural scientist Michael Faraday, he discovered the dynamo-electric principle and thus laid the basis for the use of electrical energy as a source of power. Heavy-current technology, as power engineering was then called, developed at a relentless pace. By constantly expanding the technology’s fields of application, Siemens’ inventions played a decisive role in its further development.
In 1879, Siemens & Halske demonstrated the world’s first electric railway with external power source at the Berlin Commercial Exposition. Newly developed differential arc lamps from Siemens & Halske were installed for the fair in Berlin’s Kaisergalerie, a shopping arcade built on the Paris and Brussels model in one of Berlin’s central quarters. Three years later, the company installed Berlin’s first permanent electric street lights on Potsdamer Platz and Leipzig Straße. Electric lighting systems for train stations, office buildings, factories and harbor facilities soon followed. In 1880, Werner von Siemens constructed the world’s first electric passenger elevator. The next year, Siemens & Halske put into operation the world’s first electric streetcar in the Berlin suburb of Groß-Lichterfelde.
Werner von Siemens’ reputation for progressive entrepreneurship is due not only to his technological innovations and daring business undertakings but also to his numerous social initiatives. Already in 1872, Siemens set up a Pension, Widows' and Orphans’ Fund – a pension scheme that anticipated the creation of Germany’s national pension system by more than a decade. Not only did the fund serve a humanitarian purpose; it also supported the company’s personnel policies. In the face of acute shortages of qualified employees and high rates of fluctuation, Werner von Siemens was eager to build up and retain a permanent workforce of loyal, highly qualified experts at his ever-expanding company. In retrospect, he noted that the motives behind these voluntary benefits had been “not just human concern, but essentially healthy egoism”.
Promoting patent rights and fostering the development of young-engineers
In addition to his scientific and entrepreneurial activities, Werner von Siemens also championed political causes. From 1862 to 1866, he represented the liberal Deutsche Fortschrittspartei in the Prussian state assembly. As an advocate for patent protection, he was appointed to the newly established Kaiserliches Patentamt (Prussian Patent Office, today’s German Patent and Trade Mark Office) in 1877. In 1879, he was a founding member of the Elektrotechnischer Verein, the German engineering society, which encouraged the establishment of electrical engineering professorships at technical universities. Through a generous grant, Werner von Siemens also helps establish Germany’s first state institution for basic research: When the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt (today’s Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt, PTB) was established, Werner von Siemens donated funds and land in the mid-1880s for the institute’s construction in Berlin’s Charlottenburg district.
During his lifetime, the pioneering electrical engineer received numerous honors in recognition of his services to both science and society. These honors included an honorary doctorate from the philosophy department of the University of Berlin (1860), an appointment to the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin (1873) and investiture as a member of the Prussian Order Pour le Mérite for Science and the Arts (1886). In 1888, he was raised to the nobility by German Emperor Friedrich III.
Werner von Siemens died in Berlin on December 6, 1892.
Dr. Frank Wittendorfer
Werner von Siemens, Recollections. Editor: Wilfried Feldenkirchen, Munich/Zurich 2008