Ernst Werner Siemens, (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.
Childhood in the country
Werner von Siemens was not a businessman straight out of the cradle. His father was a middle-class tenant farmer managing the Obergut farm estate in Lenthe, a village around ten kilometers west of Hanover. This is where Werner von Siemens was born on December 13, 1816, the fourth child of the family. He was baptized Ernst Werner Siemens; the “von” indicating nobility was conferred on him only late in life. His parents, Christian Ferdinand Siemens and Eleonore, née Deichmann, were not wealthy, but educated.
They raised their children lovingly and taught the bourgeois values of their era. Both came from families with a long history in the middle class; for generations, his fathers’ ancestors had been respected craftsmen, merchants and city councilors in the city of Goslar.
Growing up among a large number of children left a lifelong impression on the young Werner. His two surviving elder siblings, Ludwig and Mathilde, were subsequently joined by three younger brothers: Hans, Ferdinand and Wilhelm (who changed his name to William in 1844). Two other children died in infancy. Werner soon had to take responsibility for his younger brothers. The world in which the Siemens children grew up consisted at fi rst of family members, the farmstead, and the village. The Siemenses had an extensive network of relatives, with whom they communicated largely by letter. There were no railroads yet; industrialization, which had already begun in England, had not arrived in the Kingdom of Hanover.
It was a bad time for tenant farmers like Christian Ferdinand Siemens. Agriculture was suffering from falling prices all over Europe. The elder Siemens was constantly in arrears on the rent.
When the Obergut lease expired in 1823, the owner made no offer to renew. The eight-member Siemens family was compelled to move to Menzendorf, a village about 25 kilometers east of Lübeck, where the father took over the lease on a state-owned farm. There in Menzendorf, which at the time was in the Archduchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the family continued to lead a modest existence.
The setting was an idyllic one for the growing Werner. But his father had little success managing this farm as well; the administrators repeatedly threatened to foreclose because he was behind in paying debts. Meanwhile, new children kept coming. Werner von Siemens now had four more brothers: Friedrich, Carl, Franz and Walter. The older boys were educated at fi rst by their grandmother.
Then, at age eleven, Werner entered a secondary school in Schönberg. For a year he traveled the nearly six kilometers to school on foot or riding a pony. Then his father decided to engage a private tutor, the theology student Christoph Sponholz. Sponholz made a deep impression on Werner by constantly encouraging his pupils’ ambition and achievement, and rewarding them with exciting stories. Despite the family’s strained fi nancial situation, the parents set a high priority on educating their sons well. So at age 15, Werner and his younger brother Hans were sent to a well-known humanist Gymnasium – a secondary school – the Katharineum in Lübeck.
It soon became evident that his interests and talents inclined to mathematics. He could rouse no enthusiasm for ancient languages. In his second year, he added private tutoring in mathematics and drawing. But at Easter 1834 he left the school without a diploma.
An officer and inventor
Unlike most of his Magdeburg comrades, Artillery Lieutenant Werner von Siemens did not spend his free time in card games or amorous dalliances. His passion was for chemical and physical experiments – which, lacking a laboratory, he performed in his own apartment. In 1840 he was transferred to Wittenberg. Now his experiments turned toward developing a galvanic method for gilding. He was able to gild a nickel silver teaspoon, followed by his pocket watch. At last his process matured to the point that it brought him his fi rst patent, on March 29, 1842.
But the young artillery lieutenant was not spending all his free time on scientifi c experiments. While still at the artillery and engineering school, he had dueled often – a pastime that was part of a young offi cer’s code of honor. Duelists and their seconds risked severe punishment if they were reported. But that seldom happened. And even when a duel was reported, as a rule the offi cers were quickly pardoned. After one such duel in Wittenberg, in which Werner von Siemens acted as a second, he was reported by a wounded offi cer. A court martial then sentenced him to five years of imprisonment, which he began serving in April 1842 at the offi cers’ penitentiary of the notorious Magdeburg Citadel.
Only three weeks later, he was pardoned. In his Recollections, he embellishes the description of his imprisonment, writing that he set up “a small laboratory” in his “barred but roomy cell”, and was “quite content” with his situation. During the fi rst month of his term, he claimed to have conducted “experiments” in his cell that were his fi rst successes in gilding a teaspoon.5 But in fact, as we have already seen, he had been granted the patent for his gilding technique even before his imprisonment. So the description in his autobiography is myth. But it carries a message for the reader: once Werner von Siemens had set himself a goal, even fortress walls could not keep him from achieving it.
As of October 1, 1842, Second Lieutenant Siemens was reassigned to the artillery workshop in Berlin. His superiors had realized that he could be more useful to the army there than in a fort’s artillery unit. Their assessment was that “with his preferred inclination to scientifi c study, he has little military talent”.6 Being a duty offi cer at the Berlin artillery workshop was ideal for Werner.
Here he could work on additional inventions, while at the same time drawing inspiration from the royal capital’s scientifi c community. He was a member of the Physical Society of Berlin from its founding in January 1845, held lectures there, and came to know major scientists like the physiologist Emil du Bois-Reymond.
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.
Ernst Werner Siemens was the founder of the electrical and telecommunications company Siemen.
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, private person
Since 1843, Werner von Siemens had gradually been bringing his brothers Carl, Friedrich and Walter, to come and live with him. Only a few years after their parents’ death, strong bonds had been reestablished among the children. As the eldest in the family, Werner was the pivot point of this group, which was also the focus of his private life. Once the Telegraph Construction Company had been founded, it seemed an obvious step for 21-year-old Friedrich and 18-year-old Carl to join the fi rm. Friedrich soon moved to London, where he worked with his elder brother William to win orders for Siemens pointer telegraphs. In 1850, in the British metropolis, William took charge of Siemens & Halske’s first international agency. That same year, Carl too moved to London to represent the electrical engineering company at the Great Exhibition, the first world’s fair. Above and beyond these initial steps toward expansion, the rest of Siemens & Halske’s international business also continued to be run by individual Siemens brothers.
The close ties between family and business proved an advantage for all involved. Werner von Siemens could rely on his brothers’ loyalty. That was especially the case for Carl, who acted for Siemens & Halske fi rst in Berlin, and then in London, Paris and St. Petersburg. It is unlikely that an employee who was not a family member would have been willing to stand the stress. Even at age 35, Werner von Siemens’ personal life was still dominated by his ties with his younger brothers. All the young men, including Werner, were unmarried. A “deep-rooted fraternal room-communism”, as Werner von Siemens once called this close connection, was consistent with the company founder’s lifestyle – in the rear-courtyard building at Schöneberger Straße 19, he lived under the workshop.14 Other than his immediate family, his closest companions during that period included only his longstanding friend William Meyer – Siemens & Halske’s first office head, starting in 1855 – and Johann Georg Halske, who likewise lived at Schöneberger Straße 19 with his family.
Werner von Siemens was not an ascetic. He was often highly sociable. He enjoyed celebrating with his close friends and his siblings and was a passionate devotee of smoking cigars. His elder sister Mathilde Himly went so far as to liken his brother’s home to a tavern.15 But Werner von Siemens had no hobbies, no interest in music, art, literature or religion. In that sense he was a technician through and through. The only topic that could draw him away from current business and questions of science and technology was politics.
Achieving love through reason
For many years, Werner von Siemens’ life had no room for a wife. Before he founded his company, all his time was taken by serving as an offi cer, caring for his younger brothers, and hunting for inventions. In September 1845 he informed a Magdeburg widow who suggested matching him with a partner that he had “no time to fall in love and get married”.16 Once he had opened the workshop, building telegraph lines absorbed all his attention. Not until late in 1851, after he had bought the house on Markgrafenstraße, did Werner begin to think of starting a family. Five of his seven younger brothers had at last been set up on their own, and none of them lived any longer in Berlin.
It was amid this situation that he decided to marry 27-year-old Mathilde Drumann, a distant relative from Königsberg. She had fallen in love with him in the summer of 1845 when she and her mother had stopped off in Berlin on their way elsewhere. When her mother died unexpectedly, Werner had provided some consolation to Mathilde, who was his niece in the second degree. Though he did not reciprocate her feelings, he had known for years that she was waiting for him. Now the time had come – and Mathilde was a good choice: he could rely on her, she knew his family and understood the close ties among the Siemens brothers.
The Siemens family had previously made marriages with relatives rather often, and for similar reasons. And such marriages were also rather commonplace among the 19th century bourgeoisie in general. In a letter to William, Werner was frank about his reasons for getting engaged to Mathilde Drumann:
Even if his choice of a wife was a decision of the head, not the heart, Werner von Siemens had no intention of living in a marriage of convenience. After their engagement, he heaped his fi ancée with displays of affection. Mathilde was wary at fi rst, but at last realized he was serious. The wedding was held in Königsberg on October 1, 1852, with only a small group in attendance. A few days later, along with the families of Johann Georg Halske and Johann Georg Siemens, the newlyweds moved into Markgrafenstraße 94.
A shadow cast over family life
A little more than one year after Werner and Mathilde’s wedding, on November 13, 1853, their fi rst child was born: a son named Arnold Wilhelm. A second son came on July 30, 1855, baptized Georg Wilhelm but generally known just as Wilhelm. Now Werner von Siemens no longer had to worry about an heir to take over the firm. He loved his children, and family life was very important to him, even if he could spare little time for his brood during these years as he built up the international business. Mathilde Siemens had suffered since Wilhelm’s birth from a cough that developed into a “serious chest ailment”.23 No doubt this was tuberculosis, one of the most common causes of death in those days. In the coming years, Mathilde Siemens would repeatedly have to spend extended periods in sanatoriums. Her little sons stayed with her, initially in Bad Reichenhall, later in Merano, Bad Rehberge and other places where people took the “cure”. There was no possibility that Mathilde would return permanently to the home on Markgrafenstraße, in the center of Berlin next to the plant site. Despite her illness, the couple had two more children, daughters Anna (born December 18, 1858) and Käthe (born September 23, 1861).
Before Käthe’s birth, Werner von Siemens had bought a country house for his ailing wife in Charlottenburg, at the time a rather rural suburb of Berlin. This house at Berliner Straße 36, immediately past the square known as “Am Knie” (now Ernst-ReuterPlatz), was where the family moved in the spring of 1862, after an extended remodeling. But here too, it was not possible for all to live together permanently. Werner von Siemens kept his main residence on Markgrafenstraße, and his boys attended grammar school at the Friedrich-Gymnasium in the central district of Berlin, because there was no secondary school yet in Charlottenburg.
The parents hired a nursemaid to tend their daughters: Sophie Wolff, a distant relative. In 1864, Werner hired a tutor for his sons, educator Gustav Willert. The nursemaid and tutor became important figures in the Siemens children’s lives, because their ailing mother was hardly able to take care of them, and their father was often away on business.24 Despite the idyllic setting of the country house in Charlottenburg, the associated hopes for Mathilde’s recovery did not bear out. She suffered a relapse early in 1865, and by April it was clear that the doctors could do no more. Aged barely 51, she died on July 1, 1865, surrounded by her husband and children.
Representative and lobbyist
In spite of his wife’s illness and the time he was spending on the expansion of the submarine cable business, early in the 1860s Werner von Siemens began becoming politically active. He became caught up in the era’s revival of the forces of liberalism and the German national movement. His father before him had been devoted to the idea of a unifi ed Germany with a constitution protecting freedoms, and he himself had entered the war against Denmark to fi ght for these principles in 1848. As an entrepreneur operating on an international scale as well, he was an enthusiastic adherent of the German nationalist movement. In 1860 he joined the Deutsche Nationalverein (German National Union); a year later he was one of the founders of the Deutsche Fort schrittspartei (German Progressive Party), which had a liberal, nationalist orientation. Even though Werner really had no time for political work, his friends in the party persuaded him to run for a seat in the Prussian House of Representatives. In May 1862 he was elected to the Prussian legislature as a representative for the Solingen electoral district.
The Fortschrittspartei now had a majority in the House of Representatives, and was determined to prevent a planned reform of the army by exercising Parliament’s rights over the budget. The new Prime Minister, Otto von Bismarck, ignored the Parliament, violating the Constitution. As an offi cer of many years’ standing, Werner von Siemens sympathized with the army reform, but adhered to party discipline.25 When Bismarck took the lead of the German national movement during the four-year constitutional confl ict, Werner abandoned all reservations about the Prime Minister. National unity meant more to him than any constitutional question. It roused him to enthusiasm that Bismarck worked toward a German national state under Prussian domination, with wars against Denmark (1864) and against Austria and the German Confederation (1866). Werner von Siemens was one of the liberal representatives who voted in September 1866 to grant the Prime Minister immunity from prosecution for his offenses against the Constitution, and thus ended what was known as the Prussian Constitutional Confl ict. Werner then resigned from office, so he could again devote more time and energy to the company and his own experiments. His goal of achieving a German national state under Prussian leadership had come within reach.
After the German Empire was founded in 1871, Werner von Siemens took a public role in another way. Now he strove to achieve politically, but from outside of Parliament, certain innovations he considered necessary. He especially worked toward a reform of the patent laws. These laws still dated from the preindustrial age, and set a priority on inventors’ interests. Moreover, patents were only rarely issued in Prussia by that time. In that era of liberal economic policies, they were considered an outdated monopoly. As early as 1863, Werner von Siemens had written a highly regarded position paper for the Berliner Kaufmannschaft (Berlin commercial community). Here he argued for patent protection that would focus on “aspects of the national economy” and thus on the interests of rapidly growing industry. On March 28, 1874, Werner von Siemens joined businessmen, professors and engineers with similar attitudes to found the Deutsche Patentschutz-Verein (German Patent Protection Association).
With Werner as chair, the association developed proposals for a new patent act. It was a favorable moment: a persistent economic crisis had turned the government away from liberal economic policies. Amid that situation, Werner von Siemens once again made good use of his talent for writing position papers, and in April 1876 sent Bismarck a concise memorandum.27 Within a few months a bill had been introduced that largely matched the Deutsche Patentschutz-Verein’s proposals. On May 25, 1877, the Reichstag adopted the Patent Law, which took effect on July 1. It provided for establishing a Patent Offi ce and introduced the requirement of publication, compulsory implementation, and an entitlement to be granted a patent. From now on, patents would have a term of 15 years and were no longer granted to the inventor, but to the applicant.28 Thus industry and industrial associations had won out – the great age of individual inventors was past. The sharp increase in patent applications over the next few years shows that the new law encouraged Germany’s economic development. On July 1, 1877, the President of the new Kaiserliche Patentamt (Imperial Patent Office) appointed Werner von Siemens a non-permanent member of the authority. The position was associated with an appointment as “Geheimrat” (Privy Councilor).
Werner von Siemens died in Berlin on December 6, 1892.
- Ernst Werner Siemens Biography and Profile (Ernst Werner Siemens)