Siemens, Werner von

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SIEMENS, WERNER VON (1816–1892), German engineer and businessman.

The brilliant inventor and scientist Werner Siemens (the "von" was added in 1888) was also a visionary entrepreneur. Revolutionary changes, including industrialization, marked all spheres of life during Siemens's era. Germany was transformed, especially in the second half of the century, from a still largely agrarian country into one of the world's leading industrial nations. Even as the political and economic conditions of the age provided a fertile environment for the successful expansion of the young company Siemens & Halske, the inventions of Werner von Siemens and the economic activity of the company he founded also shaped their age.

Werner von Siemens was born as the fourth of fourteen children on 13 December 1816 to a tenant farmer and his wife in Lenthe near Hanover. The formal schooling typical of the upper middle class was not accessible to his family, and Siemens left school without taking the final exams in 1834 in order to join the Prussian army and so gain access to engineering training. His future work in the electrical engineering field was given a solid basis by his three years at the artillery and engineering school in Berlin.

Rapid, reliable communication was important to the military. In 1847 Siemens constructed a pointer telegraph that was a great improvement on previous equipment. After this early success, Siemens and the master mechanic Johann Georg Halske founded the Siemens & Halske Telegraph Construction Company in Berlin in 1847. Siemens left the army in 1849 in order to devote himself to the company.

Siemens & Halske, which began operating internationally very soon after its foundation, advanced from a small precision-engineering workshop to one of the world's leading electrical firms within a few decades. Siemens & Halske received its first large and highly prestigious state contract, for the building of a telegraph line between Berlin and Frankfurt am Main, in 1848. When its relationship with the Prussian Telegraph Administration deteriorated, the young company turned its focus to foreign markets in order to survive. Business improved in 1851 when Siemens & Halske received a commission to build the Russian telegraph network. English contracts also supported the company's continued success. Siemens constantly sought worldwide recognition of his inventions and enterprises, showing that he had an international vision rare among his contemporaries.

Siemens devoted himself to scientific research while maintaining his firm's business. Probably his most important contribution to electrical engineering came in 1866 when he discovered the dynamo-electric principle, which paved the way for electricity to be used as a source of power. Before the dynamo machine appeared on the scene, the production of large currents was dependent on batteries that quickly ran down or on magneto-electric machines with permanent magnets of limited efficiency. Siemens immediately recognized the potential economic impact of his discovery and in 1867 registered patents in Germany and England to ensure that he would profit from its implementation. Heavy-current engineering developed at a breathtaking pace on the basis of Siemens's experiements: the first electric streetlights were installed in Berlin and the first electric railway was presented at the Berlin Trade Fair in 1879, the first electric elevator was built in Mannheim in 1880, and the world's first electric streetcar went into service in Berlin-Lichterfelde in 1881. Elektrotechnik, the expression for electrical engineering that was coined by Siemens, became synonymous with its inventor's name.

In addition to his technical innovations and daring business undertakings, Siemens adopted social initiatives that gave him a reputation as a progressive. He introduced the stocktaking bonus in 1866, far ahead of his time. With this system he gave the employees of Siemens & Halske a share of the jointly achieved profits in addition to their regular earnings. In 1872, more than a decade before the introduction of statutory requirements governing provisions for pensions and surviving dependants, he founded a company pensions scheme. He saw such measures as a means of reinforcing employees' loyalty to the company and described this mixture of paternalistic responsibility and entrepreneurial calculation as "healthy self-interest."

Siemens was also a politician, serving as a member of the Prussian state assembly from 1862 to 1866 as an elected representative of the German Progressive Party (Deutsche Fortschrittspartei). He became a member of the Reich Patent Office in 1877 to secure the continued protection of patents. The Electrical Engineering Society, which he helped found in 1879, encouraged technical universities to introduce electrical-engineering programs.

Siemens was a successful entrepreneur not only because he discovered fundamental technical principles but also because he considered the whole process from invention to marketable product and system solutions. Siemens was frequently honored for his services to both science and society during his lifetime and was raised to the nobility by Emperor Frederick III (r. 1888) in 1888. Although he officially retired from the business in 1890, Siemens still had an important influence on his company until his death on 6 December 1892.

See alsoEngineers; Germany; Industrial Revolution, Second; Science and Technology.


Primary Sources

Matschoss, Conrad. Werner von Siemens: Ein kurzgefasstes Lebensbild nebst einer Auswahl seiner Briefe. 2 vols. Berlin, 1916.

Siemens, Werner von. Scientific and Technical Papers of Werner von Siemens. 2 vols. London, 1892 and 1895. Translation of Wissenschaftliche und Technische Arbeiten, 2 vols (1891).

——. Recollections. Translated by William Chatterton Coupland. London and Munich, 1983. Translation of Lebenserinnerungen (1955), new edition edited by Wilfried Feldenkirchen (2004).

Secondary Sources

Feldenkirchen, Wilfried. Werner von Siemens: Inventor and International Entrepreneur. Columbus, Ohio, 1994.

Wilfried Feldenkirchen