30.11.2018 | Who invented it: Werner von Siemens and the dynamo

A start-up genius

Had he been born in the 21st century, Werner von Siemens, the father of electrical engineering, would have been considered a start-up genius. His inventions and his entrepreneurial spirit changed the world. The discovery of the dynamo-electric principle made possible the first steps into the "electric age". The electrical industry became an important economic factor and mechanical engineering boomed: The second industrial revolution had become a reality.

To Werner von Siemens invention was not a merely a matter of using one's head, but rather a matter of looking at things with one’s eyes open. Werner Siemens was ennobled by the Prussian King in 1888 in recognition for his scientific achievements and became Werner von Siemens. In his view of the world the desire to achieve was a powerful magic force.

These two principles would strongly influence his life. Siemens is not just an inventor. The practical implementation of his inventions is very important to him. He is a doer and a visionary and has a goal: He wants to build up a worldwide business - from scratch.

Dynamo machine by Siemens
The dynamo

In 1866, he succeeds with one of his most important inventions, the discovery of the dynamo-electric principle and the construction of the first dynamo (generator) in 1867. With this feat, Werner von Siemens creates the basis for the economical use of electrical power.

And what is a dynamo?

The most important parts of generators are a coil (wire windings) and a magnet. If the magnet or coil is put into motion, electrical current can be extracted from the coil. The stronger the magnet, the more windings on the coil, and the faster both are moving, the stronger the current.

The first generators built by Michael Faraday or Charles Wheatstone use permanent magnets made of iron or steel. However, the magnetic fields are not very strong. Solutions with cranks to rotate the magnets or batteries do not result in any real progress.

Von Siemens achieves the breakthrough. He notices that the residual magnetism in the iron of the magneto is sufficient to induce a weak current. As a result he routes part of the electricity produced by the generator back into the magneto producing higher amounts of electricity until the magneto reaches its maximum field strength. This phenomenon of self-excitation by the generated electricity is the dynamo-electric principle.

Werner von Siemens
A great step

The dynamo creates an enormous innovative thrust for the technical and industrial development of the world, comparable to the discovery of the steam engine 100 years earlier (see article on the right: James Watt). Siemens, a practical man, recognised the economic potential of his invention early on. In 1866 he writes to his brother William: "Technology now has the means to generate electrical current of unlimited strength in an inexpensive and convenient way wherever mechanical energy is available."

The age of heavy current engineering begins, the steam engine gets competition from the electric motor. Because it could be used de-centrally it helps craftsmen and smaller factories increase their productivity and is the basis for the "second industrial revolution".

«The desire to achieve is a powerful magic force»
Werner von Siemens
The family man

Werner von Siemens was born on 13 December 1816 as the fourth of 14 children of tenant farmers in the town of Lenth near Hanover. Because his family did not have the money for higher eduction, Siemens succeeds in enrolling the Prussian Military Academy where he can pursue a scientific education.

His mother dies in 1839, and his father the following year. His younger brothers and his sister are assigned legal guardians, but Werner von Siemens is a family man and feels a strong responsibility for the welfare and education of his siblings. Since his salary as officer is insufficient, he tries to earn money with technical inventions, for example a patent for a galvanic process, which his brother can then sell in England.

An attractive employer!

In partnership with the precision mechanic Johann Georg Halske von Siemens succeeds in making various discoveries in the area of telegraphy (see box). They found a company that differs strongly from traditional manual manufacturing operations (manual labour/no division of labour). The company become a factory with division of labour in the production process and using various machines in piecework. Because Halske rejects this idea mass production he later leaves the company.

Inventions and projects

The most important discoveries and projects by Werner von Siemens:

1842 Werner von Siemens receives his first patent for a galvanic process for gold and silver plating.

1847 The invention of the pointer telegraph for much faster communication.

1847 With the help of the gutta percha press, the first underground telegraph cables are insulated with a seamless coat of juice from the gutta-percha tree.

1849 Siemens & Halske build the first telegraph line in Europe between Berlin and Frankfurt.

1855 Siemens & Halske complete the telegraph network (some 10,000 kilometres of cable) in Russia.

1866 Discovery of the dynamo-electric principle and the construction of the first dynamo.

1870 Opening of a telegraph line between London and Calcutta.

1874/75 Laying of the first direct transatlantic cable with the help of a ship built by Siemens himself.

1879 The first electric locomotive in the world is presented at the trade fair in Berlin.

1880 Maiden voyage of the first electric elevator at an exhibition in Mannheim.

1881 The first electric tramway - 2.5 kilometres in Berlin Lichterfeld - takes up operation.

1882 The first trolley bus constructed by Werner von Siemens travels on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin.

1882 The first constant, electric street lighting by Siemens & Halske is installed on the Potsdamer square in Berlin.

Von Siemens involves his brothers in the planning and execution of almost all his major projects. However, he is clearly the head of the company. Von Siemens has a patriarchal leadership style and takes care of his employees. He is one of the founders of a health and death benefits insurance scheme for mechanical engineering workers; management employees are allowed to participate in the company's success, and salaried employees receive a variable bonus depending on the company's success. Later a 13th monthly salary is introduced. In 1869, von Siemens establishes a pension scheme for his employees.

Pure selflessness? 

No, as Werner von Siemens himself admits. The measures served to build up a loyal workforce in times when skilled workers were rare and to bind employees to the company for the long term - in short being an attractive employer.

In 1880 Werner von Siemens retires from the company and his sons Wilhelm and Arnold as well as his brother Carl Siemens take over. Werner von Siemens dies on 6 December 1892 in Berlin.

The company is increasingly exposed to competition and his successors convert it into a public limited company to ensure sustainability and continuation as a global company.

Workers at Siemens & Halske in Berlin Charlottenburg. Picture: Siemens Historical Institute
A global company

Today Siemens AG is an integrated, stock listed technology corporation with headquarters in Munich and Berlin. The company is active in 190 countries and is one of the world's largest electro-technical and electronics companies. In the Forbes Global 2000 of the world's largest companies, Siemens ranks 51st (status 2017). Siemens is listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange (DAX) and has a stock market value of about 100 billion Euros.

In 1894, Siemens was active for the first time in Switzerland with its own employees: The beginning of construction of the Wynau hydropower plant in the Canton of Berne marked the start activities here. Today the company is present in Switzerland with over 20 locations. In financial year 2017, Siemens generated a turnover of approx. CHF 2.2 billion. Siemens employs about 5400 people in Switzerland.

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