Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/February 1884/Sketch of Sir Charles William Siemens

PSM V24 D448 Charles William Siemens.jpg



IN a paper giving an account of the British Association of 1882, of which Dr. Siemens was president, Professor Emil du Bois-Reymond referred, with some expressions of admiration, to the many ways in which the name of Siemens is identified with the most important of the recent advances in technical science. What Krupp is among German industrials in warlike arts, he said, the collective name of Siemens is in the arts of peace. Siemens telegraph wires gird the earth, and the Siemens cable-steamer Faraday is continually engaged in laying new ones. By the Siemens method has been solved the problem, by the side of which that of finding a needle in a hay-stack is one of childish simplicity, of fishing out in the stormy ocean, from a depth comparable to that of the vale of Chamouni, the ends of a broken cable. Electrical resistance is measured by the Siemens mercury unit. “Siemens” is written on water-metres, and Russian and German revenue officers are assisted by Siemens apparatus in levying their assessments. The Siemens processes for gilding and silvering and the Siemens anastatic printing mark stages in the development of those branches of industry. Siemens differential regulators control the action of the steam-engines that forge English arms at Woolwich and that of the chronographs on which the transit of the stars is marked at Greenwich. The Siemens cast-steel works and glass-houses, with their regenerative furnaces, are admired by all artisans. The Siemens electric light shines in assembly-rooms and public places, and the Siemens gas-light competes with it; while the Siemens electro-culture in greenhouses bids defiance to our long winter nights. The Siemens electric railway is destined to rule in cities and tunnels. The Siemens electric crucible, melting three pounds of platinum in twenty minutes, was a wonder of the Paris Exposition, which might well have been called an exposition of Siemens apparatus and productions, so prominent were they there. It is a rare phenomenon when a whole family becomes so distinguished by eminent talent in a particular field of activity as the four Siemens brothers have been. They all seem to share their peculiar talent in a nearly equal degree, and to use it for a common purpose; and so heartily have they assisted each other that in the list of their inventions it is often hard to draw the line between what shall be accredited to one, what to another of the brothers. They all worked so harmoniously together, says the biographer of Sir William in the London "Times"—"the idea suggested by one being taken up and elaborated by another—that it is hardly possible to attribute to each his own proper credit for their joint labor. The task, too, is rendered all the harder by the fact that each brother was always ready to attribute a successful invention to any of the family rather than to himself." William was most appreciated in England because he lived and worked there; Werner, in Germany, because there was his home and field of activity.

Charles William Siemens was born at Lenthe, in Hanover, April 4, 1823. He received his early education at the Catharinum," in Lübeck; then studied engineering in the Polytechnical School at Magdeburg; and in 1841 and 1842 studied in the University of Göttingen, where he enjoyed the instructions of Wöhler and Himly. Having finished his academical career at the age of nineteen, and displaying already some of that inventive faculty by which his brother, six years older, was distinguished, he entered the engine-works of Count Stolberg, where his attention was directed in the line of the practical applications of science to industry. He and Werner having devised an improved process in electro-plating with silver and gold, William went to England in 1843 to dispose of the invention. In his lack of knowledge of the strange land, and his ignorance of our language, he made his first visit to an undertaker, thinking that he must be the proper person to take up, or "undertake," and push the new application. A call upon Mr. Elkington, who then controlled the gilding industry in England, was attended by a more satisfactory result, and Siemens went home so well paid for his trouble that he came back the next year with his chronometric regulator for steam-engines. This invention was less successful, commercially, than the other had been, but it made Siemens known to the engineering world, and it has been applied to the regulation of the great transit instrument at the Greenwich Observatory. The process of anastatic printing, another of the earlier inventions of the brothers, was made the subject of a lecture at the Royal Institution, by Faraday, in 1845. It is worthy of remark that the last lecture by Faraday at this Institution was on the advantages of the Siemens furnace. Another of the inventions of this period was the water-metre, which, according to Sir William Thomson, "exactly met an important practical requirement, and has had a splendid thirty years' success." The adoption of England as his home by William Siemens was determined by the fact that he found the patent laws of that country more favorable to the inventor than those of his own land.

Turning his attention to finding means for recovering the heat which is allowed to go to waste in engineering and manufacturing processes, William Siemens constructed a four horse-power steam-engine with regenerative condensers, which he set up, in 1847, in the factory of Mr. John Hicks at Bolton. This machine failed to become commercially successful; but Mr. Siemens, continuing his studies in the same direction, and having become acquainted and impressed with the dynamical theory of heat, read a paper before the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1853, "On the Conversion of Heat into Mechanical Effect," for which he obtained the Telford prize. In this paper he defined a perfect engine as one in which all the heat applied to the elastic medium is consumed in its expansion behind a working piston, leaving no portion to be thrown into a condenser or into the atmosphere, and advised that expansion should be carried to the utmost possible limit. Two years afterward he exhibited two steam-engines, with regenerative condensers, at the Paris Exhibition.

The greatest of the inventions with which the name of Siemens is associated is that of the regenerative furnace for glass-making and metallurgical operations, which he worked out in connection with his brother Frederick, who was also his pupil. By its means the defects of the discharge of the products of combustion at a very high temperature, and in an incompletely combined state, are remedied; a nearer approach is made to saving and applying to the work all the heat which the combustibles are capable of affording; a very high temperature is attained, and steel is produced on the open hearth. Having matured his process at his experimental works in Birmingham, he laid the foundations of an industry which has attained a very great development in England, and lies at the base of extensive factories all over the world. The application of the principle of the regenerative furnace has been extended to numerous industrial purposes in which great heat is required; for the powers of the furnace are limited in practice only by the nature of the materials of which it is constructed. For the kind of services exemplified in this invention the Society of Arts awarded to Dr. Siemens, in 1874, its Albert medal "for his researches in connection with the laws of heat, and the practical applications of them to furnaces used in the arts, and for his improvements in the manufacture of iron, and generally for the services rendered by him in connection with economization of fuel in its various applications to manufactures and the arts." Only a week before his death, the Council of the Institution of Civil Engineers awarded him the Howard quinquennial prize, which had been previously awarded only to Sir Henry Bessemer for a similar meritorious service.

Sir William Siemens and his brother Werner have co-operated in electrical invention, beginning with the Siemens armature, which they introduced about twenty-five years ago. The brothers, with Mr. Halske, of Berlin, established the Siemens telegraph-works in London, whence the most important telegraph and cable lines in the world have been supplied, and where valuable improvements have originated. The house has constructed four transatlantic cables—the Indo-European line, the North China Cable, the Platino-Brazilian Cable, and others. The want of a suitable vessel had been a serious difficulty in laying the long cables across the Atlantic, and Dr. Siemens had the Faraday constructed, with novel features that made it admirably adapted for its work. In 1860, while experimenting with the Malta and Alexandria Cable, he devised a pyrometer for measuring temperature through the amount of resistance developed in conductors by increasing heat. In 1867 he read before the Royal Society a paper on the conversion of dynamical into chemical force, at the same meeting at which Sir Charles Wheatstone announced his simultaneous discovery of the same principle, while Mr. Cromwell Varley had applied for a patent embodying the idea. Subsequently the Siemens dynamo was developed. We next find Dr. Siemens's name associated with the electric light, electric railways, and the electrical transmission of power. A fine illustration of the latter application is given by the Portrush and Bushmills Railway in the north of Ireland, opened last September, where passengers are carried on a line six and a half miles long of steep gradients and sharp curves "at a good ten miles an hour," solely by the water-power of the river Bush, applied through turbines to a dynamo at a distance of seven miles. At his own residence, near Tunbridge Wells, "not only did electricity perform a large part of the actual work of the farm, sawing wood and pumping water, but it was made to supply in part the place of the sun itself, and assist the growth of plants and fruits."

The latest research having a practical bearing, with which Dr. Siemens's name is associated, was that which had for its ultimate end economy of the fuel used in domestic consumption and the abolition of smoke. With these purposes he was studying plans for extracting the gas from coal, and burning the gas and the coke separately, with a promise of successful realization which Sir William Thomson has well indicated in relating an incident that happened on the day of Dr. Siemens's death. On the 19th of November Sir William was accosted in a manner of which most persons occupied with science have not infrequent experience; "Can you scientific people not save us from these black and yellow city fogs?" The instant answer was: "Sir William Siemens is going to do it; and I hope, if we live a few years longer, we shall have seen almost the last of them." An apparatus which he had devised for the application of his plan to steam-machinery was to have been set in operation at the end of November.

Another research in which Dr. Siemens was engaged, all theoretical, was into the manner in which the solar heat is kept up; and he sought to show that, as in his own regenerative furnaces, none of the heat is lost, but that all is kept alive in some form, ultimately to be returned to the sun and to renew its energies in perpetuity,

One of Sir William Siemens's biographers well says of him that, in whatever direction he turned, his thoughts seemed to perceive new methods of working out old problems, or to discover new problems which it immediately became his province to solve; and it is said to have been a common saying in his workshops, that as soon as any particular problem had been given up by everybody as a bad job, it had only to be taken to Dr. Siemens for him to suggest half a dozen ways of solving it, two of which would be complicated and impracticable, two difficult, and two perfectly satisfactory.

Sir William Siemens was not a voluminous writer, but thirty-five papers are attributed to him in the Royal Society's catalogue of scientific papers, published in 1873. He has done much since, which is probably represented by literary results. His last public lecture was delivered March 13, 1883, and was on "The Electrical Transmission and Storage of Power." He was fully supplied with honors and titles, scientific and civil, and was a member of numerous learned societies.

Sir William Thomson says that "in private life, Sir William Siemens, with his lively, bright intelligence, always present, and eager to give pleasure and benefit to those around him, was a most lovable man, singularly unselfish, and full of kind thought and care for others."

Dr. Siemens died on the 19th of November last, of ossification of the heart, in connection with the results of a fall which he had suffered on the 5th. His funeral was held in Westminster Abbey.