A lesson in dedication from the life of Dr Werner Siemens

Everyone has heard of @Siemens, but Dr Werner Siemens is not a household name now. He was the “eldest* and most distinguished” of the Siemens brothers, founders of the industrial empire that bears their surname. Last year marked his 200th birth anniversary.

Although two of Werner’s younger brothers were also brilliant inventors, they might not have achieved the same success without his inventions and inspiration.

Werner’s inventions touched, and in some cases revolutionised, fields from power generation to printing and telegraphy, but his very first success was in the field of “galvanic gilding” or electroplating with gold, and he obtained his first patent for it.

It is well known among Siemens historians that Werner perfected his process in prison, while serving time for acting the second in a duel. This excellent commemorative video shows that he sold the process to a jeweller for 40 Prussian thalers.

This snippet published in 1893 throws some more light on the episode, and shows how committed the young Werner was to his work. Prison is never a pleasant place, and he had been sentenced to serve five years. But instead of resigning himself to fate, or feeling embittered, he decided to make the best use of his time there by continuing experiments.

Werner Siemens patent1

Perhaps, the authorities were aware that the artilleryman in their charge was a budding scientist, and so allowed him to set up a laboratory in his cell.

He had been incarcerated for only a month when he perfected the electroplating process he had been working on, and applied for a patent from prison.

He got not only what he wanted but also a royal pardon. Is there a young man in the world who wouldn’t grab his chance to walk free? But Werner was so absorbed in his work that he did not wish to be uprooted from his ‘lab’. “Siemens had other experiments underway in his workshop, and begged to be allowed to remain till they were finished”.

But this wish was not granted. “The keeper told him that such a course would be an insult to the king, and sent him forth.” Not that it made the slightest difference to the future achievements of this genius; and to those who care for such things, it is a valuable lesson in the importance of passionate attachment to their work.

***

*Remark from an article in Cassell’s Family Magazine published in 1881

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