Go to content

Pioneers of Electricity

Werner von Siemens

(1816 - 1892)

Werner von Siemens played a major and decisive role in determining the course of the Industrial Revolution. His open minded approach to science led to a number of important discoveries, inventions and improvements which helped revolutionise the technology of the age.

Born in 1816 in Lenthe, Germany, Werner initially chose a military career for financial reasons. Training as an engineering officer in the Prussian army, he was briefly detained for taking part in a duel. During the detention he invented a gold and silver electroplating process for which he was granted his first patent in 1842.

Werner differed from other inventors of the era. Whilst most tried to research, develop and market their products alone, the Siemens’ clan saw another, more efficient way of working. His family, especially brothers Wilhelm and Carl, looked after business from offices in London, St. Petersburg, Vienna and Berlin, leaving Werner to concentrate mostly on research. He broadened his theoretical knowledge of mathematics and physics and became a member of the Physical Society, where he met and formed a partnership with Johann Georg Halske. The beginnings of Siemens AG, as we now know it, was the Siemens and Halske Telegraph Construction Company, based in Berlin, and was formed in 1847.

Staffed by a handful of workers, the small enterprise flourished. In 1848 Siemens won the first government contract for setting up a 600km telegraph line between Berlin and Frankfurt am Main. When Werner’s "Pointer Telegraph" quickly ticked out the eagerly awaited message about the German Assembly’s vote in favour of a German Emperor for Prussia, Siemens could celebrate a major technical success.

Later, Siemens’ 1866 discovery of the dynamo-electric principle solved the problem of needing DC batteries to generate continuous current and high voltage. The construction of the dynamo established the new age of electricity and clearly charted the course of the company toward a position of world standing.

Soon Werner would apply himself to an intensive study of scientific measurement in telegraphy. He believed that careful measurement during manufacture and laying of cables was the only means whereby telegraphy could attain technical perfection and guarantee trouble free operation. Today, "Siemens" is the international unit for electrical conductivity.

Other major Siemens’ successes included the first electrically driven railway (1879) and the illumination of the most famous Berlin boulevard using differential arc lamps (1882).

In 1872, Australia benefited from Siemens technology and equipment when the celebrated overland telegraph line between Adelaide and Darwin was opened, linking our population centres to Europe. Siemens was even consulting in Yallourn, Victoria’s open cut electricity town, before SEC was formed.

Honours were heaped on Werner. He was regarded by his contemporaries as the father of electricity. In 1888 he was raised to the life peerage by Kaiser Friedrich III. He died in 1892 after a life filled with achievements. But, perhaps his best memorial is the company he started, which now employs 376,000 people in more than 150 countries, with A$74 billion in sales per year.

From "Electrical World" 1995, submitted by Ric Havyatt.

Back to content | Back to main menu