Werner Siemens, the fourth of 14 children born to a tenant farmer and his wife, entered the world on December 13, 1816, in Lenthe, Prussia (now part of Germany). The large family was not financially equipped to send Siemens to study at a university, so after attending grammar school he joined the Prussian army at the age of 17. During his training as an artillery officer, he received a solid education in chemistry, physics and mathematics, which would underpin his strong interests in engineering and science. Siemens was briefly imprisoned for his involvement in a duel, but spent the time profitably by executing experiments in his cell that would result in his development of a new electroplating process in 1842. This would be the first in a long line of electrical advances made by Siemens, who was provided with ample time for research when he returned to the army and began working in an artillery workshop.
Fast, reliable communication was of special interest to the army, and Siemens concentrated his efforts on providing it. Having observed an early version of an electrical telegraph, the budding engineer realized the device would need to be vastly improved to meet the needs of the army. By 1847, Siemens built his own version of the telegraph that was significantly superior to any previously constructed. Instead of requiring the use of Morse code, Siemens's device, as the first pointer telegraph, was capable of transmitting messages letter by letter. The same year he pioneered the use of the latex-derivative gutta-percha to insulate electrical cables, built the army’s first underground telegraph line, and founded a firm with mechanic Johann Georg Halske to manufacture and repair telegraphs. After overseeing the establishment of several more telegraph lines for the army, Siemens resigned from the military to concentrate on his own entrepreneurial venture.
The company Siemens & Halske was initially based in Berlin, but it prospered and soon expanded to other areas, including Russia, where Siemens' brother Carl oversaw operations, and England, where the firm was represented by another Siemens sibling, William. Over the next decade the company laid key telegraph lines in Germany, built a Russian telegraph network that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, constructed an Indo-European telegraph line between London and Calcutta, and established the first transatlantic cable between Ireland and America. Also during this time, Werner Siemens was continually carrying out research, making improvements to telegraphic equipment, and publishing papers recounting technical difficulties the company encountered during certain projects and how they were overcome.
In 1866, the investigations of Siemens would lead to his discovery of the dynamo electric principle, which paved the way for the large-scale generation of electricity through mechanical means. He reported this discovery, in a paper entitled “On the conversion of mechanical energy into electric current without the use of permanent magnets,” to the Berlin Academy of Sciences in early 1867. Although scientists in other countries developed the self-exciting electric generator, or dynamo, at about the same time, Siemens appears to be the first to have truly realized its significance to society. Siemens informed the Academy:
"Technology now has the means to generate electrical current of unlimited strength in an inexpensive and convenient way wherever mechanical energy is available. This fact will become of great importance in several sectors."
The inveterate businessman was proven correct over the course of time, and in fact helped lead the way toward making the dynamo practical and in finding new uses for electricity. The Siemens & Halske firm soon began commercial production of dynamos, eventually followed by cables, electric lighting, telephones and other electrical devices. As the company expanded, Halske decided to withdraw, leaving Siemens and several of his family members in full ownership and control. In the late 1870s, Siemens became interested in electric traction and invented an electric locomotive that could travel at speeds of about 10 miles per hour. He demonstrated the train at an industrial exposition in Berlin in 1879, and two years later his company built the first commercially operating electric railway system. Siemens retired from the firm in 1890, but its success continued. Today it is known as Siemens AG and is one of the largest electrical engineering and electronics companies in the world.
Though he was poor in his youth, by the time of his death in 1892, Siemens had amassed a fortune. He had also garnered wide acclaim and a variety of honors. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Berlin in 1860, was appointed to the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1873, and obtained knighthood in 1886. In 1888, Emperor Friedrich III elevated him to the rank of nobility, hence the addition of "von" to his appellation late in his life. A unit of electrical conductance, the siemens, bears his family name.