Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Siemens, William
SIEMENS, Sir WILLIAM (1823–1883), metallurgist and electrician, born at Lenthe, Hanover, in 1823, was the fourth son of C. Ferdinand Siemens of Lenthe, by his wife Eleonore Deichmann. He was baptised Carl Wilhelm, but having a brother named Carl he was always known as William. The father, a man of education and intelligence, was a farmer of government lands. His death in 1839 left a young family ill provided for, and threw a heavy responsibility on the eldest son, Werner, then an officer in the Prussian artillery, twenty-three years of age. He at once took the place of a father to his seven younger brothers, and, aided in turn by William as he grew up, superintended their education and assisted their start in life. Of the eight sons, four—Werner (d. 1882), William, Frederick, and Carl—were closely associated in the practical applications of science or in the management of the great industrial concerns which were the outcome of their scientific inventions. So close indeed was their association that it is not always possible to assign to each credit for his individual share of the fraternal labours. An idea started by one would be developed by another, and each was always ready to disclaim credit for himself and to attribute it to the others. William alone settled in England, though the others had interests in this country. Of the other four brothers, one followed his father's occupation of farmer, one became a successful glass-manufacturer, and two died young after playing subordinate parts in their brothers' business.
Under Werner's guidance, William left the commercial school at Lübeck for a technical school at Magdeburg, where Werner was then stationed. Thence he proceeded to Göttingen University, and studied under Himly (his brother-in-law), Wöhler, and Weber. It having been decided that William was to be an engineer, Werner obtained for him a place in the Stolberg factory at Magdeburg in 1843. Here Werner and William were able to work out together many scientific and mechanical ideas, among others certain improvements in the then novel application of electricity to the deposition of metals, for which Werner had already obtained a Prussian patent. In this invention a thermo-electric battery supplied the electric current, and there were also certain improvements in the solutions (alkaline hyposulphites) used for gilding and silvering.
For some reason, probably because it was in this country that the greatest progress had been made in electro-plating, the brothers determined to try and dispose of the invention in England. William was despatched in 1843 for the purpose. Speaking many years afterwards at a meeting of the Birmingham and Midland Institute (of which he was then president), he gave an account of the difficulties attending this first visit, when he was so ignorant of the language of the country that he was led to visit an ‘undertaker,’ under the idea that he was the proper person to take up and dispose of his invention. Ultimately, however, perseverance triumphed over difficulties, and he sold his process to Messrs. Elkington for 1,600l.
Such a success stimulated the brothers to fresh efforts. William gave up his position at the Stolberg factory in 1844, and started for London with two fresh inventions—a ‘chronometric governor’ for steam engines, devised by Werner and worked out by William; and the process of ‘anastatic printing,’ invented by Baldamus of Erfurt, and developed by the brothers. The value set on these two inventions was excessive, and no capitalist could be found willing to purchase either, meritorious as they were. The ‘governor’ was an instrument of extreme ingenuity; it was fully appreciated by leading mechanical engineers, and obtained prizes from the Society of Arts in 1850 and at the exhibition of 1851. It did not, however, come into practical use for its intended purpose—a purpose, indeed, for which it was too delicate—though it was afterwards successfully applied by Sir George Airy for regulating the movement of certain instruments at Greenwich Observatory.
The anastatic process was long employed for the reproduction of printed matter, and has only been superseded by modern photographic methods. It was a transfer process. The page to be copied was moistened with acid and laid down on a metal plate. On pressure being applied, the result was a slight etching of the metal by the acid in the parts in contact with the unprinted portions of the paper, and a slight setting off of the ink from the printed portions. The plate could then be inked up and printed from by the usual lithographic methods. The process, however, brought no profit to its introducer, and the factory which he started for its application was a source of considerable loss. The first five years of Siemens's stay in England were thus productive of small encouragement, and in 1849 he even discussed the idea of emigrating with Carl and Frederick to California, then in the first flush of the gold discoveries. The next invention about which the brothers busied themselves, though it contained within itself the germs of ultimate success, was no more profitable than its predecessors. The regenerative steam engine and condenser seem to have been mainly the invention of William Siemens, though the idea had previously been suggested by others. It was the outcome of efforts to prevent the great waste of energy which occurs in all forms of heat engine in consequence of the high temperature at which the products of combustion are discharged, and also from the steam being condensed to water after a portion only of its heat has been utilised as energy.
The means of remedy employed were philosophical and the principle sound, but the first application of the method was unsuccessful. The most important feature of the invention was that the steam after use in the cylinder passed through what Siemens's biographer, Dr. Pole, in his description ingeniously terms a ‘metallic respirator,’ to which it imparted a large share of its heat, and it therefore reached the condenser in a partly cooled state. The water from the condenser was afterwards forced back through the respirator, absorbing its heat, and it was thus raised in temperature on its way to the boiler.
In the engine itself further means were adopted for economising heat, but in spite of all the labour and ingenuity expended upon it during a space of twelve years (it was patented in 1847 and not finally abandoned until 1859), it never realised the hopes of its inventor. That the merits of the invention were recognised is shown by the fact that a leading firm of Birmingham engineers, Messrs. Fox & Henderson, paid Siemens a considerable sum for a share in the patent, and also engaged his services at a salary which provided him with a sufficient means of livelihood. In addition to this he was now earning money in other ways, and in 1851 he made his first genuine success with an invention by producing a water-meter, which fulfilled its intended purposes so well, and was so superior to other instruments, that in a year or two it was producing a handsome income from royalties, and the inventor's long struggle against adverse fortune was at an end. The success of the meter, however, was soon eclipsed by that of the great invention with which the names of William and Frederick Siemens must always be connected—the regenerative furnace. The brothers had long endeavoured to apply the principle of their condenser to various manufacturing processes, especially to those in which, as in salt-making, large quantities of liquid have to be evaporated. Their efforts met with little practical success until they finally hit on the very simple idea of applying the principle of the condenser to furnaces, an idea which was embodied in a patent taken out by Frederick in 1856. The products of combustion from the furnace, instead of passing direct to the chimney, were led through a chamber filled with refractory brickwork, to which they gave up their heat. As soon as the chamber was sufficiently hot, the current was shut off, and the air-supply of the furnace led through it. The air thus reached the burning fuel hot, instead of cold. By the use of two chambers used alternately to receive and give out the heat, the process was made continuous. By a further improvement gas was used in place of solid fuel, and this was passed through the ‘regenerator’ so that it arrived at the place of combustion in a highly heated state. Not only was there an enormous economy of heat, but the gas could be made from fuel of a very inferior sort, while processes could be conducted in the open furnace which could only be carried out in crucibles when solid fuel was employed. The first practical application of the furnace was to the melting and reheating of steel in 1857. It was soon after applied, in a modified form, to heating the air for blast furnaces, then to glass-making (the subject of the last lecture ever given by Faraday was the use of the furnace at Chance's glass-works), and eventually to a large number of industrial processes where great heat is required. Its latest and most important application was to the manufacture of steel either by melting wrought iron and cast iron together on the open hearth of the furnace or direct from iron ore. The former was known as the ‘Siemens-Martin’ process, and the latter as the ‘Siemens’ or ‘ore’ process. For the manufacture of steel the ‘Siemens’ process was first used in 1865 or 1866; its employment spread rapidly, so that by 1882 it was estimated that four million tons of steel had been produced by it, and in 1896 the output for the whole world was calculated at over seven million tons as compared with over eleven million tons produced by the Bessemer process. In Great Britain 2,355,000 tons were produced in 1896 by the Siemens process, and 1,845,000 by the Bessemer process.
In order to develop the process, and to test its working on a large scale, Siemens with some personal friends formed a company, and works were established at Landore in South Wales in 1869. Though for a time the company promised well and held a leading place among the steel-works of the kingdom, it was not commercially successful, and the attempt was abandoned about 1888.
Siemens had been naturalised as an Englishman in 1859, and he obtained medals at the exhibitions of London in 1862 and of Paris in 1867. In 1860 he became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, in special recognition of his merits—since he was a manufacturer rather than an engineer—and in 1862 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.
Meantime he had turned his attention to electrical science, and was building up another reputation. On the first introduction of the electric telegraph, Werner Siemens appreciated its possibilities, and determined to devote himself to its development. In 1847 he associated himself with Halske and founded in Berlin the great firm of Siemens & Halske, of which William was appointed the London agent. Werner discovered the method of insulating telegraph-wires with gutta-percha, and the use of such wires for conveying messages under water led to the invention of submarine cables. The first of these was the Dover to Calais cable, laid, after an unsuccessful attempt in the previous year, in 1851. This was soon followed by others, with many of which the firm of Siemens & Halske was associated. In 1858 this department of their business had developed to such an extent that the brothers determined to establish works in England, and a small factory was started in Millbank, afterwards in 1866 transferred to Charlton in Kent, where the great works of Siemens Brothers (Werner, William, and Carl) were eventually established. These works in course of time occupied an area of above six acres, and employed over two thousand hands. Of the undertakings carried out by the brothers, one of the greatest was the telegraph line from Prussia to Teheran, a length of 2,750 miles, which formed a principal part of the direct line from England to India. This was carried out by the London and Berlin firms jointly in 1869. A few years later a still more important undertaking was brought to a successful issue by the London firm alone, which in 1874 laid the direct Atlantic cable. For this the cable-ship Faraday was specially designed by William Siemens, though he had no previous knowledge or experience of marine engineering. The execution of works of such magnitude, indeed, involved the designing and construction of much new machinery and apparatus. In all this detailed work William Siemens took his full share, though as time went on, and the concerns with which he was associated increased in importance, he withdrew from detail work and confined himself more to supervision and initiation.
While the telegraph was being perfected, other applications of electricity were in course of discovery. In 1867 the principle of the modern dynamo (the immediate conversion of motive power into electricity without the aid of permanent magnets) was simultaneously published by three inventors, William Siemens (on behalf of Werner), Sir Charles Wheatstone [q. v.], and Cromwell F. Varley [q. v.] In the later development of the machine Werner Siemens and his firm took a very important share. As soon as electric lighting became practical, the Charlton firm took it up, though none of the leading inventions connected with it can be associated with the name of William Siemens. The firm supplied some of the machines first used for lighthouse illumination, and one of the earliest electric-light installations in London—that of the British Museum—was carried out by them in 1879.
William was also one of the first to suggest the transmission of power by electricity, and to apply electric power to locomotion in the Portrush railway in 1883. His electric furnace, invented in 1879, was long without much practical application, but has of recent years been turned to important industrial account as a means of providing heat otherwise unattainable. His ‘bathometer’ for estimating sea-depths without a sounding line has not come into practical use, but has received the admiration of all qualified to appreciate its ingenuity. His electric thermometer has proved useful in cases where it was required to record temperatures at inaccessible or scarcely accessible positions, specially in deep-sea investigations. His researches into the effect of electric light on plants were only carried far enough to prove the possibility of aiding the growth of plants and fruit by its means; they await practical development. Lastly, it is worth mention that he took out a patent in 1855 in which he anticipated the latest device for producing extremely low temperatures by the expansion of liquefied gases already cooled down to the lowest attainable point. How prolific was his inventive faculty is shown by the fact that no less than 113 English patents were taken out in his name.
Siemens's inventions and his scientific work brought him many honours. He was president of the mechanical section of the British Association in 1869, and president of the association itself in 1882; he was the first president (1872) of the Society of Telegraph Engineers, and in 1878 he became president of the same society for the second time; he was president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (1872), and of the Iron and Steel Institute (1877), and chairman of the council of the Society of Arts (1882); he was an hon. D.C.L. of Oxford and LL.D. of Dublin and Glasgow. He received the Albert medal of the Society of Arts in 1874, the Howard prize of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1883, and the Bessemer medal of the Iron and Steel Institute in 1875. He received many foreign orders, including the French legion of honour, and in 1883, only seven months before his death, he was knighted in recognition of his services.
Apart from their practical applications, his contributions to pure science were not numerous, but he submitted to the Royal Society in 1882 some ingenious speculations as to the source of solar energy. He conceived that gaseous matters might be dissociated by the radiant solar energy and driven out by centrifugal action at the sun's equator, to be drawn in towards the poles and subjected to intense combustion. The theory, though well received at the time, has been neglected since. This was his last important piece of work. He died on 18 Nov. 1883, and was buried in Kensal Green after a funeral service in Westminster Abbey, where a memorial window was set up in his honour. He married, in 1859, Anne, daughter of Joseph Gordon, W.S., of Edinburgh, and sister of Lewis Gordon, professor of engineering in Glasgow University; she died on 12 April 1901. They had no children.
William Siemens was a born inventor, but he was also, what so few inventors are, a shrewd and capable man of business. He made a large fortune, and used it liberally. He offered 10,000l. towards the erection of a hall of science for the use of the various engineering societies, but the offer was not accepted. During his lifetime he established prize medals at King's College, London, at the Birmingham and Midland Institute, and at the City and Guilds of London Technical Institute. After his death Lady Siemens provided funds for the foundation of a Siemens electrical laboratory, as a memorial, at King's College, London.
Siemens's collected works, including his very numerous addresses, lectures, and papers to scientific societies, were edited by Mr. E. F. Bamber, after his death, in three volumes (1889), uniform with the ‘Life’ by Dr. William Pole, F.R.S.
A portrait by Rudolph Lehmann is at the Institution of Civil Engineers; another, by the same artist, was in the possession of Lady Siemens.[Dr. Pole's Life of Sir William Siemens (London, 1888) was compiled from materials supplied by the family. Supplemented by personal knowledge, it has formed the basis of this memoir. Of the very numerous obituary notices published after Sir W. Siemens's death, the following are worth mention: Times, 20 Nov. 1883; Nature (by Lord Kelvin), 29 Nov. 1883; Proc. Inst. Civil Engineers (by Dr. Pole), lxxvii. 352; Journ. Soc. Arts, xxxii. 7; Roy. Soc. Proc. xxxvii. 1; Journ. Iron and Steel Inst. 1883, No. ii. 651.]