Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/October 1893/Sketch of Werner von Siemens

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PSM V43 D740 Werner Siemens.jpg


WITH Werner Siemens, says a German biographer, died a prince of science, a pathbreaker in the region of electro-technics, a man whose activity extended far beyond his own narrow district, bearing fruit in other branches of human achievement; one of the greatest industrial characters, not of Germany only, but of the whole world; an industrial character, however, to whom gain was never an object in itself, but who rather found in it the incentive to new scientific studies.

Ernst Werner Siemens was born at Lenthe, Hanover, December 13, 1816, and died in Berlin, December 6, 1893. He came of a family very rich in offspring—while he was the eldest son among ten children. His father. Christian Ferdinand Siemens, was a tenant farmer and forester, who had qualified himself for his profession by studying at the school at Ilfeld and the University of Göttingen. He afterward went to learn practical agriculture with Councilor Deichmann at Poggenhagen, where he married the councilor's daughter, Eleanora Deichmann, preparatory to settling upon his estate at Lenthe.

The English think they have a kind of birthright claim upon Werner Siemens, because, at the time of his birth, the King of England was Elector of Hanover. The connection is not entirely flattering to them, for the elder Siemens fared hardly at the hands of King George. He was arrested and fined for detaining some royal deer which had trespassed upon his premises while awaiting the answer of the gamekeeper to his inquiry as to the disposition he should make of them. To escape such unpleasant incidents the elder Siemens removed, in 1823, to Menzendorf in Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Werner Siemens's earliest recollection of his life at Lenthe was of what in his Reminiscences he calls an act of heroism. When he was about five years old his sister came crying into his father's room where he was playing. She had been sent to the Pfarhaus to take her lesson, but found her way obstructed at the gate by a gander, which snapped at her whenever she attempted to pass. The father gave Werner his staff and told him to go with his sister and to cudgel the gander well when it appeared. The boy did so, and the gander ran away in panic. "It is remarkable" he says, "how deep and enduring an impression this first victory made on my childish mind. Even now, after nearly seventy years, all the persons and scenes connected with this important event stand clearly before my eyes. With it is also associated my only recollection of the appearance of my parents in their younger days; and many a time, in later difficult experiences, has the victory over the gander unconsciously incited me not to shun threatening dangers but to meet them with vigorous resistance."

The Siemens children were taught by their grandmother Deichmann, and then by their father, whose brilliant and original sketches of history and ethnology, dictated to them, formed the foundation, Siemens says, of his later views. He was next sent to the Bürgerschule, in the neighboring town of Schönberg, whither he walked when the roads were not too bad, and where ho seems to have spent a year of battling with his mates, "to the hardening of his powers, but with only the most insignificant results in knowledge." Then he had tutors of opposite characters, and after them he was sent to the gymnasium at Lübeck. Not satisfied with the progress he was making in mathematics and in the ancient languages, he gave his attention to the only technical branch taught in the school—engineering. To prepare for entrance into the engineering school at Berlin, he took private lessons in mathematics and surveying. Instead of entering this school, which was expensive, his teacher advised him to go into the Prussian engineering service, where he would be taught the same things. His father fell in with this plan, and prophetically gave as his reason that the present conditions could not last in Germany, that in time everything must go down. The only firm point in Germany was the state of Frederick the Great, with the Prussian army; and in the time of trouble that was coming it would be better to be the hammer than the anvil. Fortune favored him in the examinations, for which his preparation had been very superficial, and in the fall of 1835 he was admitted to the United Artillery and Engineers' School in Berlin. His mother dying in July, 1839, and his father six months later, he became the guardian of his younger brothers and sisters. Some experiments he was making at this time with friction fuses ended in an explosion, by which his hearing was permanently injured.

While Siemens was stationed, in 1840, at Wittenberg, he became interested in the discovery, then recently made by Jacobi, of the precipitation of metallic copper from the sulphate by means of the galvanic current. He repeated the experiments successfully, and applied the process-—so far as his means would permit—to other metals. His studies were interrupted by his arrest and imprisonment for connection as second with a duel between two of his brother-officers. Not relishing the idea of spending an indefinite period in idleness, he managed on his way to the citadel to make arrangements to have the materials required in his electroplating researches smuggled in to him. He set up a small laboratory in his cell and made himself contented there. Recollecting, from experiments he had made in the Daguerrean process, that hyposulphite of soda would dissolve the insoluble salts of gold and silver, he applied the principle to electrolysis with astonishing success; and he believes, he says, that it was one of the greatest joys of his life when a newly silvered teaspoon which he had immersed at the zinc pole of a Daniell cell into a cup filled with a hyposulphite gold solution, while the copper pole was connected with a louis d'or as an anode, "was converted in a few minutes into a gilded spoon of the most beautiful, purest golden luster." Galvano-plating was then new in Germany, and his discovery made much talk. A jeweler of Magdeburg, visiting him in prison to examine into its merits, he sold him the right to use it for forty louis, and thus obtained means for continuing his experiments. He counted upon enjoying still several months of captivity, and the unmolested prosecution of his researches, when the unwelcome message came to him of a royal pardon, and he was obliged to leave the citadel at once, without house or other spot in which to set up his apparatus. He asked leave from the commandant to stay a little longer, but was denied, accused of being ungrateful for the royal clemency, and was hurried out of his quarters at midnight. He had gained by his experimenting the reputation of not being well qualified for practical work, and was assigned to the fireworks factory at Spandau. He had great success in making pieces of unexampled brilliancy for the birthday celebration of the Emperor of Russia, and was invited to compete in a sailboat race with Prince Frederick Karl—and beat him. Then he was ordered to Berlin, to serve in the artillery arsenal; to his great delight—for this commission would give him time and opportunity for carrying on his researches.

Wilhelm Siemens having completed his studies and constructed a steam engine, Werner furnished it with a differential regulator. He made a profitable contract with a silver-ware house in Berlin for the use of his plating apparatus, and Wilhelm was dispatched to England to introduce the inventions there. Besides the galvano-plating patent, which was sold to Elkington & Co. for £1,500, there were processes for nickel-plating and for anastatic printing, etc. A journey to London to assist Wilhelm in some financial difficulty, in which he visited Paris and Brussels on his return, gave him new and higher views of his work, while its results satisfied him that the road to wealth did not lie through speculation in inventions. He entered upon a more thorough course of study, formed associations with the young naturalists of the time, some of whom have since become famous, joined in the foundation of the Physical Society, interested himself in the Polytechnic Society, and sought to promote the technical applications of science. He became acquainted with manufacturers, and published articles in the scientific journals on "The Application of Hot Air as a Motive Power," in which he accepted Mayer's and Helmholtz's doctrine of the conservation of force; describing his differential regulator; and "On the Application of the Electric Spark to the Measurement of Velocity."

Werner Siemens became warmly interested in the experiments which Leonhardt was making, at the instance of the general staff of the army, in the substitution of an electrical apparatus for optical telegraphy. He had seen a model of Wheatstone's telegraph in the house of one of his comrades, and had tried to establish a communication between the house and a mineral-water establishment across the garden. He devised an improvement in the apparatus for generating and controlling the current, which attracted the attention of the mechanician Halske, who eventually gave up his business and associated himself with Siemens in telegraphy.

Siemens's plans were again embarrassed by the results of his and his companions' inconsiderately signing a paper connected with the religious movement of John Ronge, which was considered seditious. His brigade, to punish the offenders, was ordered to a retired post. It was important for him to remain in Berlin to prosecute his researches, and he devised a means to induce the Government to keep him there. Schönbein had made his first discovery of gun-cotton, but the material he produced was poor and unreliable. Siemens spent a day in experimenting upon it; added treatment with sulphuric acid, and obtained a certain and really practicable explosive. He communicated his discovery to the Minister of War, and was ordered to continue his experiments at the Spandau Arsenal, while his punishment was forgotten. Unfortunately, Prof. Otto, of Brunswick, who had independently discovered the same method, anticipated him in publication, and thus deprived him of the credit of priority.

Having communicated with General Oetzel, the chief of the military telegraphic service, he was invited to assist in the substitution of electric for optical telegraphs. He gained the confidence of the general and of his son-in-law, Prof. Dove, and was commissioned to carry out his own plans. The lines were to be put underground, and there was difficulty about finding satisfactory insulating material. Wilhelm Siemens had sent him some specimens of gutta percha from London as a curiosity. It was found eminently adapted to the purpose of an insulator. With a press supplied by Halske, the wires were successfully covered, and the lines were established with Siemens's instruments. In October, 1847, the firm of Siemens and Halske was formed, which, beginning in a rear building with a modest capital, was destined to ramify till it had branches in several of the capitals of Europe, and became prominent in the construction of Continental telegraphs and the world's cable lines.

The revolutionary movements of 1848 brought the extension of telegraphic enterprises to a temporary halt. The Siemens-Halske establishment, nevertheless, went on with its work, though it had no orders. In a short time Siemens was commissioned to lay submarine electric batteries in the harbor of Kiel for protection against an apprehended attack by Danish vessels. Having assured the perfect working of his mines from the shore, he collected a band of volunteers in the city and surprised the post of Friedrichsort, at the entrance to the harbor, under the protection of which, it being held by the Danes, the Danish fleet might have approached alarmingly near to Kiel without being molested. As commandant of Friedrichsort, he built the fortifications for the protection of the harbor of Eckernförde, which became very famous the next year in connection with the rout of the Danish squadron.

Siemens was next commissioned to lay an underground telegraph from Berlin to Frankfort-on-the-Main where the German National Assembly met. The transmission of the result of an election in the winter of 1879 to Berlin, within the hour, gave the line great repute, and Siemens was employed to construct another line from Berlin to Cologne and Verviers, on the Prussian frontier. In this enterprise he had the assistance of William Meyer, a man skilled in organization. Many difficulties incident to the imperfections of an art still in a crude condition are described as having been encountered in executing these works. The constructors were sorely embarrassed, in crossing the Elbe and the Rhine, to find means for protecting the wires against dragging by ships' anchors. The wire across the Rhine was inclosed in a wrought-iron tube so well that, when it was taken up several years afterward, a number of anchors were found hanging from it which, having been caught in it, the shipmasters had been obliged to cast away. At Verviers the line was connected with an overhead line to Brussels. One Herr Reuter, who had been managing a carrier-pigeon post between Cologne and Brussels, found his business ruined by the telegraph. Frau Reuter complaining to Siemens of this, he advised the pair to go to London and establish there a telegraphic news agency, as Herr Wolff had succeeded in doing at Berlin. This was the origin of "Reuter's." These enterprises had been carried on under a furlough from army service, which was about to expire, and Herr Siemens, in order to devote himself to scientific and technical work, resigned his position in the army in June, 1849, left the telegraphic service shortly afterward, and began a career of independent scientific industry. His underground system was generally adopted in Germany. To prevent the depredations of rats on the gutta-percha coatings, he drew the wire through lead pipes. He recognized the excellences of the Morse telegraphic instrument, and sought to improve it. In April, 1850, he presented a memoir on his experiments in telegraphy—Mémoire sur la Télégraphie Électrique—before the French Academy of Sciences, and received, upon the report of the committee to which it was referred, the acknowledgment of the Academy, thus fixing the stamp of that authority upon his claims for originality and priority.

While Siemens's system was being extended and adopted in foreign countries, particularly in Russia, the Prussian lines, under official management, constructed in a slovenly manner and carelessly repaired, deteriorated. Siemens published a pamphlet criticising these faults and pointing out the remedies, in consequence of which unauthorized comment the Government discontinued all connection with his house for several years. The loss of this business was, however, more than compensated for by that which accrued from railroad telegraphy, still free from official domination, and by contracts coming in from abroad.

The connection of Siemens with the Russian telegraph lines began in 1849, when his instruments were adopted for the line between St. Petersburg and Moscow. In the winter of 1852 he went to Riga, on business connected with the construction of a line to that point, and particularly with the crossing of the Dwina. Other lines calling for visits to Russia, and in connection with which the St. Petersburg branch of the house of Siemens and Halske was built up, were those to Kronstadt—the first successful submarine cable line—and Warsaw. The success of the last line determined the Russian Government to cover the whole empire with a telegraphic network, and lines were built in succession from Moscow to Kiev, Kiev to Odessa, St. Petersburg to Revel, from Kovno to the Prussian borders, and from St. Petersburg to Helsingfors. Then the Crimean War came on, and the firm was kept busy with the special lines demanded for its prosecution.

After two failures by an English firm in trying to lay a telegraphic cable between the island of Sardinia and Bona in Algeria, the third attempt was successfully carried out in September, 1857, with material furnished by Herr Siemens's house and in a method prescribed by him. This was the first of the deep-sea cables, or of those which were laid in water more than one thousand fathoms deep, and was followed by the laying of many longer lines, in most of which enterprises Herr Siemens had a part. In 1859 he was shipwrecked on the Alma in the Red Sea; in 1863 he came very near losing his life while trying, with his brother Wilhelm, to lay the cable between Oran and Cartagena. The brothers laid the line from Malta to Alexandria, and, with the steamer Faraday, built especially for the purpose, they laid sis transatlantic lines. In its attempts to maintain telegraphic communication with India the British Government had found its lines through the Mediterranean Sea, Asia Minor, and Persia too liable to interruption to be depended upon. To take the lines through safer regions they would have to be carried partly through Russian territory. Herr Siemens was applied to, and he, through the good will he had won by his constructions for the Russian Government, secured a concession from it for building a line through Kiev, Odessa, Kertch, and the Black Sea to Suchum Kale. The business of this line led him several times into the country of the Caucasus, concerning which and the prehistoric copper mines at Kedabeg and the German colony at Annenfeld in the same region he gives, in his Reminiscences, some very pleasant accounts.

As much as to his improvements in the electric telegraph, the practical applications of electricity owe to Siemens's invention of the dynamo-electric machine in the winter of 1866, which opened to them entirely new fields in the development of power and light. In claiming the credit due to himself in this field, he does not forget to acknowledge what he owes to the predecessors who laid the foundations on which he built.

While thus busy with the development and practical application of electrotechnics, as he called it, Siemens observed and participated in the advancement of other branches of science; and we find him now busy in investigating the geological structure of the earth; now engaged, with his brother Wilhelm, in researches concerning the cause of the sun's heat and the means by which it is maintained, or studying with his brother Friedrich new problems of heat; now plunged in the most abstruse problems of meteorology; now sharply criticising the bacillus theories of Dr. Koch—all with the knowledge and consideration of one who had made deep studies of the subjects.

Dr. Siemens's literary efforts were limited, he tells us, chiefly to expositions of his scientific and technical labors and descriptions of his mechanical constructions. He had sometimes occasion to answer attacks upon his firm or upon himself personally. Besides those of which we have already spoken, he mentions as among his principal contributions to scientific literature a paper in Poggendorff's Annals, in 1857, on Electrostatic Induction and the Retardation of the Current in Conducting Wires; a communication made conjointly with his brother Wilhelm to the British Association in 1860 (Sketch of the Principles and of Practical Experience in the Testing of Submarine Telegraph Lines and their Conductivity); his lecture, in 1879, on Electricity in the Service of Life; and his address before the Society of German Naturalists and Physicians, in 1886, on The Scientific Age; papers On the Light of a Flame; On the Admissibility of the Conception of an Electric Sun-potential and its Significance in Explanation of Terrestrial Phenomena (called out by the discussion of his brother Wilhelm's paper. On the Conservation of the Solar Energy); Contributions to the Theory of Electromagnetism; On the Maintenance of Force in the Atmosphere of the Earth, 1881 and 1884; On the Question of Air Currents, 1887; On the General Wind System of the Earth, 1890; and On the Question of the Cause of Atmospheric Currents, 1891.

He elaborated the plans, and saw them adopted by the Prussian Government and Parliament, of the Physical-technical Imperial Institute at Charlottenburg for scientific research, of which Helmholtz is director. In 1874 he was made a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Berlin. He received the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, honoris causa, from the University of Berlin; was made a Knight of the Prussian Order for Merit; and received the patent of nobility in 1888. He was also a member of many learned societies.


M. J. Dybowski has transmitted to the French Academy of Sciences specimens of a condiment prepared by the peoples living on the banks of the Oubangui River, one of the affluents of the Congo. It is obtained by the incineration of river plants, and is composed chiefly of chloride and sulphate of potassium, with very little carbonate of potassium and no soda. This confirms former observations of the scarcity of soda in land plants. These usually contain considerable quantities of a very alkaline carbonate of potassium, not suitable as a condiment. The natives choose for incineration certain species containing only slight proportions of the carbonate. Although the salts of potash are considered unwholesome, these natives do not appear to suffer from using them.