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Werner von Siemens was born in Lenthe, near Hanover, as the fourth of 14 children of a family of tenant farmers. He left high school without a formal graduation certificate in 1834 to join the Prussian army, as a means of obtaining vocational training in engineering. The three-year program at the Artillery and Engineering School in Berlin created a solid basis for his subsequent work in the field of electrical engineering.
In 1847, Werner von Siemens designed a needle telegraph that was far superior to the devices that had been used to date. That invention laid the basis for the company “Telegraphen-Bauanstalt von Siemens & Halske,” which Werner von Siemens founded together with university 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 involved in scientific research. His most important achievement in the field of electrical engineering came in 1866, when he discovered the dynamo-electric principle, building on the work of Faraday, and so achieved the breakthrough to using electricity as a source of power. High-voltage current engineering (as power engineering was called back then) went on to conquer the world at a breathtaking pace. Siemens’ innovations in this field continually opened up new applications for electric power, including the first electric train, which was presented at the Berlin Industrial Exhibition, and the first electric street lighting for the Kaisergalerie in Berlin, both of which in 1879, as well as the first electric elevator in Mannheim in 1880 and the world’s first electric streetcar in Berlin-Lichterfelde in 1881.
Besides making a name for himself with his technical innovations and daring business ventures, Werner von Siemens also earned the reputation of a progressive business owner, through numerous social policy initiatives that were far ahead of the times. In 1874, for example, he established a pension, widow’s and orphan’s fund, representing the origin of today’s employee pension plans, more than ten years before the statutory pension and survivor’s benefit system was established in Germany.
In addition to his scientific and entrepreneurial activities, Werner von Siemens also championed political causes. As a member of the German Progress Party, he was a delegate to the Prussian Landtag from 1862 to 1866. As an advocate for patent protection, he was appointed to the Imperial Patent Office in 1877. In 1879, he was a founding member of the Electrical Engineering Association, which promoted the establishment of electrical engineering professorships at technical colleges. Werner von Siemens was also a founding patron of the Physical and Technical Reich Institute in 1887. In addition to financial resources, he also provided the land in Charlottenburg on which the Institute was built.
In recognition of his contributions to science and society, Werner von Siemens received numerous awards during the course of his life, including an honorary Ph.D. from the Philosophy Department of Berlin University (1860), induction into the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin (1873) and being named a Knight of the Order “Pour le Mérite für Wissenschaften und Künste” (1886). In 1888, he was knighted by Kaiser 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.