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The dynamo machine, 1866

1866: The dynamo machine

Werner von Siemens developed the dynamo machine – his most important invention – by reconfiguring a magneto with a double-T armature. Electric voltage was generated when a wire was moved within a magnetic field. The principle was already in use in the first generation of magnetos with permanent magnets or battery-powered electromagnets, but there was one drawback: these machines couldn’t generate much power.


In 1866, Werner von Siemens found a pioneering solution. A suitably designed circuit enabled the machine to use what is known as "self-excitation" to generate the electricity that would excite the electromagnets. And thus the dynamo-electric principle was discovered, and the dynamo was invented. Now it would be possible to generate electric power on an unheard-of scale.


All the same, it took more than a decade to get the product onto the market. There were so many obstacles to overcome – ranging from insulation to controlling physical phenomena like eddy currents, which caused overheating and excessive loss.

A Benson boiler at the Gartenfeld cable plant, 1927

1927: The Benson boiler

Running large steam boilers had proved to be dangerous. With so much water in such volume, defects in materials or workmanship could cause a boiler to explode at high pressure.


In 1922, Mark Benson was granted a patent on a boiler for converting water to steam at high pressure. It took up less space than previous boilers, and was safer and more controllable. Siemens obtained a license under Benson's patent a year later, followed in August 1925 by a world-wide license. But as it turned out, further development was needed to achieve a really safe ultra-high pressure steam generator. The first commercial Benson boiler was finally started up in the fall of 1927 at the Gartenfeld cable plant in Berlin.


Yet building steam generators was outside the normal scope of Siemens' production program. So a few years later, the company decided to award licenses on the technology to companies that specialized in steam boiler construction.

Machine room at Kraftwerk West, Berlin, 1931

1931: Kraftwerk West, Berlin

Electric power consumption soared after World War I. Which is why Berlin's power utility, Berliner Elektrizitätswerke, found it essential to build a new power plant in the western part of the city, in the immediate vicinity of Siemens’ expansive Berlin site, Siemensstadt. The contract was awarded to Siemens-Schuckertwerke.


Construction started in 1928. Four years later, the new Kraftwerk West (today Heizkraftwerk Reuter, a combined heat and power plant) began supplying the city's west side with electricity. At 228 megawatts (MW), it was Berlin's second-largest power plant, and the most up-to-date thermal power plant in Europe. Thanks to new technologies, the plant could use significantly higher-powered boilers. And they could burn lower-grade coal, yet reduced nasty fly ash to almost zero.


The new plant also set new standards architecturally. Drawing on a concept from Siemens architect Hans Hertlein, whose structures still dominate the look of Siemensstadt today, the plant adopted the formal language of the "New Objectivity," with unadorned structural components focused on function.