A visionary inventor and ambitious entrepreneur, Werner von Siemens was born exactly 200 years ago. Today Siemens is a German company known for both its groundbreaking innovations and its global scope.
So how would our daily life be different without some of the company's inventions and products? "Think of what life would be like without a laptop and without electrical illumination - it's almost unimaginable nowadays," replies Frank Wittendorfer, head of corporate archives at Siemens AG.
Werner Siemens, who became Werner von Siemens in 1888, was born on 13 December 1816 in Lenthe, near Hanover. Because his family couldn't afford to send him to university, in 1835 Siemens joined the Prussian army. He attended the Artillery and Engineering School in Berlin, where he completed a three-year course of training in mathematics, physics, chemistry and ballistics.
His younger brother Wilhelm later marketed the English patent rights - the first step toward an international operation.
New telecommunications technology
Soon thereafter, Werner von Siemens turned his attention to the nascent telecommunications industry. Using simple materials - cigar boxes, tinplate, pieces of iron, and insulated copper wire - Siemens designed his own pointer telegraph. He entrusted the construction of the telegraph to Johann Georg Halske, a mechanic who was won over by the system's simplicity and reliability. In October 1847, the two men launched their own company, the Telegraphen-Bauanstalt von Siemens & Halske, in Berlin.
Siemens and Halske first set up a workshop in a courtyard building at Schöneberger Strasse 19 in Berlin. In the following decades, the firm transformed from a workshop to a company with standardized mass production.
One week after founding the company, the design for the telegraph was awarded a patent in Prussia, thus laying the foundations for what would become the Siemens' global operations. Siemens also developed a process to create seamless insulation for copper wire. Taken together, the two inventions marked an important advance toward modern telecommunications.
Electricity made it possible to profoundly revolutionize communications. Werner von Siemens designed and built an electric pointer telegraph that worked reliably and was superior to earlier devices of the kind.
In 1848, the company was awarded a government contract to install a telegraph line between Berlin and Frankfurt. This was the company's first major success - and Siemens managed to complete the line in time for the election of the Prussian king as emperor of Germany.
Although follow-up contracts from the Prussian state were not forthcoming, new orders from Russia and England gave the company a boost. In 1953, Siemens & Halske began building a telegraph network in Russia, which eventually stretched nearly 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) from Finland to the Crimea. The company was also contracted by the Russian government to provide maintenance services.
In 1855, Werner von Siemens set up a subsidiary in St. Petersburg, which was headed by his brother Carl. The company's English operations were taken over by his brother Wilhelm, who eventually moved to England and took the name Charles William Siemens. In 1858, the Siemens, Halske & Co. subsidiary was founded in England. It was renamed Siemens Brothers in 1865.
A sustainable strategy
"The internationalization strategy pursued in the early 1850s by Werner von Siemens and his brothers Carl and Wilhelm were among the earliest," explained Siemens archive director Frank Wittendorfer in a conversation with DW. This international outlook would remain a mainstay of the company's success.
In 1866 came what Wittendorfer describes as the "towering invention" - Siemens' discovery of the dynamo-electric principle. With the advent of the dynamo, it became possible to generate electrical energy efficiently and in large quantities. Unlike his contemporaries in the field, Werner von Siemens was quick to appreciate the economic significance of his discovery.
In 1867, he was awarded patents in Germany and England, which allowed him to capitalize on his 'dynamo machine' and make the move into the international market.
Inventor and businessman
"Siemens was not just an inventor, technician and tinkerer. He refined his inventions so that they could be brought to series production and marketed, changing our lives in the process," says Wittendorfer. "Without his dynamo machine, we wouldn't have the kind of electrical supply that we know today, with all its different uses and applications."
In the late 1870s, heavy current engineering also laid the foundation for the rise of the electric railway. In 1879 the first electric railway was presented at the Berlin Trade Fair. The first electric street lighting was installed in Berlin that same year. In 1880 the first electric elevator was built in Mannheim. The following year, the world's first electric tram went into service in Berlin-Lichterfelde.
Telegraph technology also advanced in leaps and bounds. Werner von Siemens had a revolutionary idea to lay a telegraph line from London to Calcutta. Dispatches would be transmitted by means of induced current, fully automatically and without interruption. The company was awarded a contract to build large sections of the 11,000-kilometer line. It was completed on 12 April 1870 to great fanfare.
Another Siemens technological milestone was the first laying of an undersea telegraph cable across the North Atlantic by the Faraday, a specially-built cable ship. This marked the beginning of transcontinental submarine communications technology.
Numerous subsidiaries and acquisitions were soon to follow. In 1903 Siemens and AEG cofounded the Gesellschaft für drahtlose Telegraphie System Telefunken, which specialized in the newly developed field of radio communications - a forerunner of radio and television broadcasting.
War and reconstruction
After the country had recovered from upheavals of the First World War, Siemens received the largest foreign contract awarded any German company since the turn of the century when it was hired to build a power plant in Ireland. After several years under construction, the hydroelectric plant was completed in 1925, helping to deliver power to the whole of the Irish Free State.
In 1923, a Siemens subsidiary teamed up with a local partner to manufacture electrical products in Japan.
After the Second World War, the uncertainty of the political situation in Berlin prompted Siemens & Halske to relocate its headquarters to Munich in April 1949. The new building, inaugurated in 2016, houses 1,200 Siemens employees.
Important postwar examples for Siemens' expanding export operations include the 300-megawatt San Nicolás power plant in Argentina, which was completed in 1956, and the installation of a nationwide telecommunications network in Saudi Arabia. The company also reestablished its contacts with Japan and the US. By the mid-1960s, Siemens had regained its former standing on the world markets.
Key technology: digitalization
A further technological achievement in Siemens' history is its contribution to digitalization. Now a fixture of everyday life, the technology has its roots in the semiconductor technology introduced in the 1920s. In the post-war years, Siemens helped advance transistor technology, the basis of the modern computer.
"In terms of classic digitalization - i.e. computer technology - the introduction and market readiness of the first mainframe computers in the late 1950s marked a milestone for the company," says Frank Wittendorfer. "It was one of the first high points of the technological era."
As early as 1953 Siemens researchers had developed a new method to manufacture high-purity silicon, revolutionizing electrical engineering and technology. In 1965 the company unveiled Europe's first mass-produced integrated circuit, a key technology in many areas of modern engineering and a major driver of innovation.
The list of innovations pioneered by Siemens and its subsidiary companies is a long one. Here are just a few examples:
- 1959 saw the first clinical implantation into a human of a fully implantable pacemaker, developed by Siemens.
Swedish engineer Arne Larsson was the first human patient to be implanted a pacemaker. He continued to live for another 43 years.
- In 1985, Siemens was appointed the lead contractor for the electrical and electronic components of the Deutsche Bundesbahn's ICE driving units.
- The Aquastop system for dishwashers was also introduced in 1985.
- Between 1984 and 1988 Siemens introduced the HICOM private communications system, which conformed to the Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN). Highcom systems became a fixture of many companies.
- In 1990 Siemens took over Nixdorf Computer AG, one of the main players on the fledgling IT market, to form SNI. Several years later this company was also taken over.
Failures and Scandals
Inevitably, there have also been some mishaps in the company's long history. In the 1990s the Transrapid magnetic levitation technology developed by Siemens and ThyssenKrupp failed to get on track. Ambitious projects such as a Transrapid train connection between Hamburg and Berlin were aborted.
After Siemens sold the Transrapid technology to China, Beijing built a 170-kilometer magnetic levitation line between Shanghai and Hangzhou where the train has been operating since 2004.
The company has also been shaken by a number of scandals. In 1914, it emerged that Siemens had given the Imperial Japanese Navy kickbacks in return for contracts. The revelation unleashed a major political scandal.
In 2006, members of the Siemens board were arrested against the backdrop of an unfolding scandal over bribery on an unprecedented scale. It was only in 2008 that the former Siemens CEO Heinrich von Pierer admitted political responsibility.
It took the company several years to get to the bottom of the scandal, which involved some 330 murky deals and 4,300 illegal payments. The scandal is believed to have cost the company around 2.5 billion euros ($2.65 billion). As a result, Siemens overhauled its business conduct guidelines and set up its current compliance system.
Siemens executives like current CEO Joe Kaeser (right) are not known to duck controversy. At the height of the East-West standoff over the Ukraine conflict in 2014, he visited Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he wanted to honor long-standing business contracts and did not pay too much attention to "short-term turbulences."
170 years after it was founded, Siemens is one of the world's leading companies, positioned - in its own words - "along the value chain of electrification." It employs some 350,000 people in 190 countries and in 2016 saw sales revenue of nearly 80 billion euros, and after-tax profits of 5.6 billion euros.