Siemens & Halske




Ernst Werner Siemens (1816 - 1892) was an inventor in the right place at the right time. He was brought up in an increasingly technical world, but his family was not rich so he received his technical training from the Prussian Army. He served as an artillery officer. Following his participation as a second in a duel, he served a short time in prison. Here he directed his spare time to designing a process for electroplating gold and silver onto other metals. On his release from the army, he patented this invention. It proved fairly successful and brought in enough income for him to pursue his inventing talent. The electric telegraph caught his attention. Telegraphy was still based on the Morse code and needed highly trained operators. Siemens designed a mechanical system that moved a pointer to indicate the letter being received. This allowed a less trained operator to be used, who simply read off the letters and wrote them down. In October 1847 he established Telegraphen-Bauenstalt von Siemens & Halske to repair telegraphs and to manufacture the pointer telegraph. Johann Georg Halske was a competent mechanic whom Siemens had met at the Association of Physics. Both men were of poor origins, so the capital for the business came from Siemens' cousin, Johann Siemens, who must have come to be very satisfied with his investment. The pointer telegraph was a success and the business prospered. Although Siemens was a proficient inventor, his best move was to let his more business-minded brothers run the business while he continued to invent.


The company moved into other areas and started to develop into heavier engineering. It branched out into cable manufacture. Siemens did much work to use gutta-percha (an early rubber-like substance) to coat cables. The company built Germany's first coal-fired power station in 1885. Interestingly, over 100 years later it was still in the same business. It built three generator turbines and other equipment for Australia's Loy Yang power station complex, and in 1999 it built the Kogan Creek power station in Queensland. Another area of worldwide interest was the invention and production of electric motors now that reliable high voltage power was becoming available. Werner Siemens designed a practical electric motor which he was able to demonstrate in 1879 at an industrial fair in Berlin. It was powerful enough to pull a small train at seven km/hour. It also marked the start of a new industry in which Siemens & Halske prospered - electric trains and traction. The role of Johann Halske has always been rather underplayed in these inventions, but he was the man who put Siemens' ideas into practice. He believed in rugged, reliable construction, and this tradition carried on through the later years and products.

Meanwhile, another new invention was creating interest. In 1877 Mr Bell was honeymooning in Europe and demonstrating his new Telephone. Although he did not visit Germany, two of his telephones were taken to Germany by Henry Fischer, chief of the London Telegraph Office. He showed them to Heinrich von Stephan, who was the German Imperial Telegraph Administrator. Von Stephan was a very forward-thinking man who was currently having problems keeping his telegraph system up to the demand. He saw in the telephone a simple way to extend the telegraph system, without the need to employ more trained operators. He quickly ordered trials and evaluation of the Telephone. They were successful, and their suitability for his purpose became evident when he was able to call from his office in Berlin to a telegraph office in Potsdam within a week. It is interesting to note that in a letter to Bismarck he gave initial credit for the invention to Philipp Reis, a rather unappreciated pioneer of the telephone. He also correctly stated that Reis was able to transmit musical tones, but it was left to the Americans (Bell, Edison and Grey) to make the Telephone a practical instrument for speech. Von Stephan was a remarkably well-informed man for his time. He asked German manufacturers to produce telephones for him. Siemens & Halske saw it as a logical development of their telegraph manufacturing. The company responded and produced its first telephones in November 1877, and achieved production of 200 per day. Mix and Genest followed two years later. Siemens improved Bell's phone by using a horseshoe-shaped magnet instead of Bell's single bar magnet, an idea which Bell later copied. He added a whistle or a hand-cranked rattle for signaling. His telephone was a major improvement over Bell's - it could carry a signal for up to 75 kilometres.

Von Stephan was able to equip 9,789 Post Offices with the telephone by 1900, and was able to open the system to public subscribers in Berlin in 1881, using a Siemens & Halske-built exchange. By 1891 the telephone was so popular that a coinbox had to be added to some telephones to make the system available to the general public. This is an interesting contrast to the British system, where the Post Office first tried to ignore the telephone, then tried to take control by licensing it, then finally took it over by buyout.

The patent issue did not arise, as Bell had not patented the telephone in Germany. Patent law was fairly new (the first German patents had only been issued in July 1877) and international patent law was still a long way in the future. Werner Siemens therefore patented the telephone in Germany on 14 December 1877.

Bell found out about this and wrote to Siemens & Halske :"Gentlemen, it is rumored that you are manufacturing and selling telephones in Germany. As the inventor of the articulating Telephone I write to ascertain the facts of the matter". Siemens replied "As you have failed to patent your lovely invention in Germany, we will continue production. But please inform us in which countries you have a patent so we can refuse orders from those countries. We have already declined orders from England, Austria and Belgium."

It was this same lack of an international patent system that allowed Lars Ericsson to develop his telephones in Sweden.

The telephones steadily improved as inventors sorted out the problems of the new invention. By the early 1900s Germany had many other builders of phones but Siemens & Halske, with its early start, was able to keep its place as a market leader. A distinctively German style of telephone was developing. The mechanical parts were compact and rugged, the cases plain or with only a basic attempt at decoration. Some cases had a slightly similar style to the popular Ericsson phones but were never as flamboyant or elaborately finished.

Although Johann Halske had retired from the firm in the late 1860s, the company retained his name. Werner Siemens was honoured by a doctorate from the University of Berlin in 1860, and he was made a member of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1873. He was knighted in 1886, and was elevated to the nobility by Emperor Friedrich III in 1888. This allowed him to add "von" to his name. By the time of his death in 1892 Werner von Siemens was a wealthy, respected man.

Siemens & Halske was now a major producer of heavy industrial equipment, and telephones were only a small part of their range. A new firm, Siemens Schuckert Werke, was established in 1903 to handle their electric railway manufacturing business. It later developed into their major heavy electrical producer. The highly competitive and nationalistic European market that developed in the late 1800s meant that Siemens & Halske had to establish overseas branches to market their products and continue their growth. The overseas sales were quite successful. S&H supplied its full range to newly-industrialising Japan, for instance, in the early 1900s. Sales were so successful that a local joint venture company was established, Siemens-Schuckert Denki Kabushiki Kaisha. This company continued through two World Wars and in 1967 was renamed Fujitsu. In this respect S&H were one of the few firms to invest in foreign countries rather than just reselling into their markets.

Their refinements of Pupin's loading coil and their previous experience in cable manufacturing allowed them to lead the world in long-distance cables, and submarine cables had also become a specialty area. William (Wilhelm) Siemens in Britain had even designed a cable-laying ship, the "Faraday", specifically for submarine cables. They laid Australia's second underwater cable between the mainland and Tasmania.

Britain and its colonies were seen as major markets. Wilhelm Siemens, Werner's brother, had moved to Britain in 1843 to arrange patents and agencies for the gold-plating process. As the parent company grew, he developed a full agency whose main business at the time was selling S&H water meters. By 1858 it had become a separate company, Siemens, Halske & Co. with its own repair workshops. Halske disagreed with this, and this may have led to his departure from the company some years later. A cable workshop was built at Woolwich in 1863 and in 1865 the company was renamed Siemens Brothers.

In 1892 the London company opened a sales office in Australia, again selling water meters and telegraph equipment, but also offering the full range of product . In 1872 they supplied the South Australian Government with all the equipment to build the 2,700 km Overland Telegraph from Adelaide to Darwin. The first electric streetcar in the southern hemisphere was installed by S&H in Hobart in 1909. They constructed and operated the 11,000 km Indo-European Telegraph between London and Calcutta in 1870. They also sold into Russia, through a company established by another of the Siemens brothers.

Siemens & Halske had noticed the increasing use of automatic exchanges, but had not taken much interest. That changed when the German government decided to form an advisory consortium to automate the telephone network. S&H obtained the German rights to Automatic Electric's Strowger system in 1909 and joined the Government-led consortium. They went on to make a range of telephones that featured the unusual Strowger 11-hole "knuckleduster" dial . Eventually the Strowger system was adopted over the competing systems, and Siemens & Halske set about modifying it and improving it for large-scale production. They did not have the market to themselves, as the Government required the technology to be shared between a number of joint-venture companies. In spite of this they developed it enthusiastically to the point that STD was introduced in Germany by 1925, and the first STD public telephone in 1929.

They had marketed their first PABXs as early as 1912. Poole mentions in his 1912 book "They have equipped some six or more large exchanges on the Continent, and one for 17,000 lines is at present in process of construction for Dresden" . Their No. 16 system was also installed and evaluated by the British Post Office in installations at Edinburgh, Sheffield, Brighton and Leicester. It may also have been the model that equipped the new central Brisbane exchange in 1929. The No. 17 system, developed from this model during the 1930s, featured a high-speed motor-driven uniselector capable of 200 steps per second. A single compact switch allowed 200 four-wire circuits.



Left: The No. 17 motorized selector










After World War 1 the company's overseas firms became their lifesaver. Restrictions were put on Germany's industrial production, but these did not apply to the overseas ventures. The overseas firms not only retained their market share, but Siemens & Halske increased manufacturing overseas to meet post-War demand.

The British government had confiscated the shares of Siemens & Halske during the war, but by 1929 the two companies had resumed contact under the Siemens Brothers name. In the interim, Siemens Brothers had produced a new bakelite telephone called the Neophone. This was the British Post Office's first bakelite telephone. Although the BPO initially offered the Neophone (their Tele 162) in black, Siemens Brothers explored the new bakelite technology and made the phone in ivory, jade green, red, and a very attractive mottled brownish "walnut" finish. They also provided painted finishes on request.

Siemens & Halske also kept up with new technologies. The first telex and fax machines were produced in 1931. The introduction of bakelite led to the old wooden telephones going out of production very quickly. The W28 telephone of 1928 was their first phone to use bakelite (in the handset), in both desk and wall versions. It became a standard Reichspost (German Post Office) design. The all-bakelite W38 telephone began production in 1938, but serious production was interrupted by World War 2.

A redesigned version, the W49, did not enter production in large numbers until 1958. It was then ordered by the German Post Office to feed post-War reconstruction. Its design allowed it to be used as a desk or wall telephone, a useful economy in those times. The German Post Office contracted the design to many German firms to produce the numbers required. It was even brought back into limited production in the 1990s.

The Siemens Model 100 teleprinter was a worldwide seller.

During the 1950s and 1960s the company entered the consumer electronics area with washing machines and television sets. They also started making semiconductor devices and produced their first computers.

The British company fared well until they were taken over by AEI in 1955. AEI in turn was "merged" into GEC in 1967.

In the late 80's GEC attempted to purchase Plessey and Siemens bought out the Plessey holdings and together with GEC formed a company called GPT. The split was GEC 60% and Siemens 40%. Then towards the mid nineties Siemens
bought out the GEC share completely and the company was renamed Siemens Communications Ltd and rejoined the Diemens group of companies..

They still produce automatic exchanges, mobile phones, and computer communications equipment. The computer I am writing this on is connected to the broadband network by a Siemens modem. Modern times and increased competition from other multinationals has forced Siemens to review its business. Apart from mobile phones, the company has largely withdrawn from consumer appliances in the face of cheaper Asian products. Even in a traditionally strong area like mobiles, Siemens has been forced to combine with Nokia to remain competitive.

In spite of this, it continues as a worldwide manufacturer, long after many of its earlier competitors have disappeared. Maybe there is another hundred and seventy years ahead of it?




Laurence Rudolf "The Siemens Brothers Neophone and Post Office Telephone No. 162 (no longer available)

Akira Kudo "Japanese-German Business Relations : Cooperation and Rivalry in the Inter-War "

Siemens & Halske AG Catalogue, 1912.

Eli Noam "Telecommunications in Europe" 1992

Siemens AG website

J Poole "The Practical Telephone Handbook" 1912

Herbert T E and Procter W S "Telephony Vol II" 1937

Rietbergen, Peter "Europe: A Cultural History"

Webb, Michael "Richard Sapper"


Siemens & Halske Telephones

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