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.
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)