Ernst Werner von Siemens: Biography, Quotes & Inventions

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Ernst Werner von Siemens was a 19th century Prussian scientist and inventor. He made important contributions to electrical engineering and telegraphy. In this lesson we will learn his life and work.

Innovating Electricity

Ernst Werner von Siemens (1816-1892) is known for his contributions to electrical engineering, particularly in the field of telegraphy. Amongst his most significant inventions are the pointer telegraph, a mechanism for insulating telegraph cables, and the dynamo machine. This last invention sparked a revolution in the electrical industry and brought Europe into the 20th century.

Ernst Werner von Siemens


Werner von Siemens was born in 1816 in Lenthe, Germany, a small farming village near Hanover in Western Prussia. Before Germany incorporated as a nation state in the early 20th century, its northern region consisted of the kingdom of Prussia. Although only a lowly tenant farmer, his father made sure that his children received a proper education.

Even though he had his sights set to study architecture at university, he knew that his family would not be able to afford tuition. Instead, Siemens joined the army in order to receive free tuition at the military academy. At the age of 17, he traveled to Berlin and enlisted in the Artillery. He remembers the three years spent at the Berlin Artillery and Engineering school as ''the happiest of my life'' (Personal Recollections).

The year that he graduated was fraught with grief. On his return home, his family hardly recognized him. His older sister, Matilda, was moving to Gotttingen with her new husband. His brother, William (born Wilhem) had chosen a career as a businessman and banker, of which Siemens did not approve. To top it all off, that summer his mother passed away and soon after, in January of 1840, his father also died. That left Siemens with the responsibility of being the eldest male breadwinner. His younger siblings became wards of the court, and Siemens agreed to send money back to them to pay for their education.

He wrote in his autobiography: ''The said burden weighed especially upon me as the eldest, and awakened and confirmed in me at a very early age the feeling of obligation to care for my more younger brothers and sisters'' (Personal Recollections).

Werner von Siemens, Chemist, Engineer

Siemens began his career as a chemist. At several military posts in Wittingen, Magdeburg, and Spandau, he experimented with electrolysis, using electricity to manipulate molten metal. He received a patent for his electroplating process invention and quickly made a reputation as a brilliant young chemist.

At the same time as scientists were discovering the laws and operation of electromagnetism, inventors, engineers, and industrialists were at work designing systems for long-range communications. It was the dawn of telegraphy. They invented ways to combine the powers of electricity and magnetism to transmit signals over long distances. To understand just how groundbreaking this new technology was, consider that before the invention of the telegraph, information was sent either by line of sight (semaphore, or optical telegraph), or in printed letters delivered on horseback.

In 1847, Siemens invented a pointer telegraph that improved upon earlier designs. Telegraph operators could transcribe messages letter for letter rather than having to decode the message. Siemens' pointer telegraph required less training than the needle telegraph, and sped up the transcription of messages. That year, he established the Siemens & Halske Telegraph Construction Works, today known as Siemens AG. The pointer telegraph was their first product.

Siemens Pointer Telegraph

Siemens started experimenting with gutta-percha, a natural latex-like material from the sap of the Palaquium tree, to replace the unvulcanized rubber that was being used at the time. He invented a machine for the manufacture of gutta-percha insulated cables. He convinced the Prussian government to allow him to test the wires; at first, on the Berlin-Potsdam line (14 miles), and then on the Berlin-Frankfurt line (445 miles). These trials were met with great success, and gutta-percha was quickly adopted as a new insulator.

In addition to transforming the telegraph lines in Prussia, Siemens also aided in the construction of four major telegraph lines: two in Europe, one under the Mediterranean, and the Indo-European line between London and Calcutta.

In the 1860s, Siemens posited that an electric generator could produce more energy if the metal magnets were replaced by electromagnets. His invention revolutionized the electrical industry by taking advantage of electromagnetic principles to increase the power of the telegraphic network. With his invention of the dynamo machine, or generator, he proved his theory.

Siemens Dynamo Machine

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