Ernst Werner von Siemens

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(b. Lenthe, near Hannover, Germany, 13 December 1816; d. Berlin-Charlottenburg, Germany, 6 December 1892)

electrical science, technology.

Siemens’ father, Christian Ferdinand, was a farmer and estate manager descended from a middle-class family long prominent in the affairs of Goslar. His mother, Eleonore Deichmann, bore fourteen children and, of the ten surviving, he was the oldest. In 1832 he entered a Gymnasium in Lübeck, where he gave early indication of an abiding interest in science. Although economic difficulties at home thwarted his plan to study at the Bauakademie in Berlin, Siemens won an appointment as an officer candidate at the Prussian artillery and engineering school in Berlin. From 1835 to 1838 he studied mathematics, physics, and chemistry under instructors who also lectured at the university.

Stationed as an officer at a provincial garrison Siemens used his free time to apply science to practical inventions. After the death of his mother and of his father months later in 1840, he was spurred on by the financial need of his brothers and sisters. His first successful invention was an improved process for gold— and silverplating. Rights to the process were sold in England in 1843 by his brother Wilhelm (later Sir William) to Elkington of Birmingham. Transferred to the staff of the Berlin artillery works, he soon joined the circle of Gustav Magnus, professor of physics at the University of Berlin. The group, which included du Bois-Reymond. Clausius, and Helmholtz, heard Siemens lecture on his indicator telegraph in 1845.

After improving upon the indicator telegraph of Charles Wheatstone, Siemens developed an entire telegraph system, including a method of providing the wire with a seamless insulation of gutta-percha. In 1847, together with Johann Georg Halske, the university’s scientific instrument maker, he founded the Telegraphenbauansalt von Siemens & Halske to manufacture and construct telegraph systems.

The firm obtained government contracts to build a telegraph network in northern Germany, including the line that in 1849 carried the dramatic news from the revolutionary Frankfurt Parliament to the Prussian king, Frederick William IV , in Berlin, that he had been elected German emperor (a dubious honor he declined). Although disagreements cut off Prussian government contracts after 1850, Siemens, having left the army, visited Russia and planned an extensive telegraph network, including a line from St. Petersburg to the Crimea, used during the Crimean War. The Russian business was so extensive that Siemens’ brother Carl was made resident Russian representative, and so profitableg the Siemens could conduct research that resulted not only in telegraph improvements but also in advances in underwater cable telegraphy.

Siemens became scientific consultant to the British government on underwater telegraphy: and Siemens Brothers in London, headed by William, manufactured and laid cable. For that company Siemens helped design the first special cable-laying ship, the Faraday,which, after 1875, laid five Atlantic cables in ten years. An even more dramatic achievement was Siemens’ organization and construction of the Indo-European telegraph from London via Berlin, Odessa, and Teheran to Calcutta, completed in 1870.

Siemens’ outstanding contribution to scientific technology was his discovery of the dynamo principle, announced to the Berlin Academy of Sciences in January 1867. Having already introduced the double-T armature, the electromagnetic field, and the external load of an electrical generator in a single circuit, thereby avoiding the costly permanent magnets previously used in the field. Other inventors and scientists—Sóren Hjorth, Anyos Jedlik, Alfred Varley, Charles Wheatstone, and Moses Farmer—discovered the dynamo principle at about the same time; but Siemens foresaw the consequences of his “dynamo” for heavy-current, or power, uses and developed practical applications. His company pioneered in using electricity for streetcars and mine locomotives, in electrolysis, and in central generating stations. In 1889 Siemens retired from active management of the family firm, which, including the daughter firms in London, St. Petersburg, and Vienna, employed about five thousand workers.

Unlike many major inventor-engineers of the nineteenth century, Siemens valued science highly, steadfastly advocating that technology not only should be based upon scientific theory but also should be analyzed to derive theory. His own efforts provided an excellent example, for he often published his analyses of telegraph and cable technology in Dinglers polytechnisches Journal, Poggendorff’s Annalen der Physik, and in the reports of the Berlin Academy of Sciences. Siemens helped to establish scientific standards of measurement, designing among other things a universal galvanometer. In a period of sharp international competition, he advised the Prussian government that a nation would never gain and maintain international status if it did not excel in research and base its technology and science upon it. His determination and financial assistance resulted in the establishment of the Physikalische-Technische Reichsan stalt in Berlin (1887), a government-supported research institution first headed by Helmholtz.

Siemens received an honorary doctorate from the University of Berlin (1860), was a member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences (1873), and was ennobled in 1888. He died a few days after publication of the first edition of his Lebenserinneriungen a memoir still in print.


I. Original Works. Siemens’ autobigraphy was Lenbenserinneraunge (Berlin, 1892: 17th ed. MUnic. 1966), also available in English as … Recollections (London, 1893: 2nd ed., London-Munich, 1966). His papers were collected as Wissenschaftliche und technische Arbeiten, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1889–1891): a selection of his letters and a 190-page biography are in Werner Siemens: EinKurzgefasstes Lebensbild nebst einer Austwahl seiner Briefe, Conrad Matschoss, ed., 2 vols (Berlin, 1916), Six thousand letters of the Siemens brother from 1842 to 1892) are in the Werner von siemens Institut, Munich.

II. Secondary Literature. A concise, well-in-formed biography by the head of the Siemens archives in Munich is Sigfird vo Weiher, Werner von Siemens: Ein Laben für Wissenschaft. Technik und Wirschaft (Göttingen, 1970): the same author also contributed the series of pamphlets published by the Deutsches Museum: Werner von Siemens, einWegbereiter der deutschen Industrie (Munich, 1966). Also useful are Karl Burhenne, Werner Siemens als Socialpolitiker (Munich, 1932): Richard Ehrenberg, Die Uterhmugen der Brüder Siemens (Jena, 1906): Friedrich Heintznbe, Werner von Siemens in Briefen an seince Familie Werner SiemensGeschichte seines Lebens und Wirekens (Munich, 1942).

Thomas Parke Hughes

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