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Perseverance pays off

On March 20, 1884, Werner von Siemens made a generous offer to the German government: he proposed donating half a million marks to the Reich if in return it would support the establishment of a state-sponsored institution for basic scientific research. In doing so, the entrepreneur is helping to establish the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt (PTR), which is still one of the most important institutions within the German research landscape.

“Carrying science into technology” - Time is of the essence

It is a long way to go before the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt can start its work in October 1887. At the beginning of the foundation phase, which lasts several years, there is the commitment of leading German scientists and entrepreneurs who are emphatically committed to establishing an institution for basic scientific research. Werner von Siemens plays a leading role in this. Together with a number of like-minded people, he is worried that Germany could fall out of the group of leading industrial nations if research continues to receive too little attention.

After all, there were no physical institutes for basic research either at universities or in industry. Even at Siemens & Halske, it wasn't until the 1880s that they began to set up larger research facilities. Werner von Siemens, on the other hand, has been running a small private laboratory for a long time, which he set up just a few years after the company was founded.

The company founder is convinced that science and technology can only lay the basis for economic and political strength if they work together: "Carrying science into technology" is his credo. And the entrepreneur knows what he is talking about. After all, it was not least his research in the field of telegraphy and electrical power generation that made Siemens & Halske one of the world's leading electrical companies.

The international competition is growing - first initiatives for German basic research

So it is not surprising that the entrepreneur has been committed to establishing a state research institution from the start. Although the first initiatives from 1872 onwards remained unsuccessful, Werner von Siemens and his colleagues did not think about giving up. For years, however, there was not only a lack of political will in Prussia, but also of state funds for a corresponding institution.

Only in 1883 did the matter move again; Werner von Siemens is developing more and more into the driving force among the initiators. He formulates several memoranda to the Prussian government in which he explains why an institution for basic research should be founded at the national level.

In this context, it certainly plays a role that France and England, for their part, are beginning to set up state research institutions - and that Germany does not want to lag behind in this development.

The decisive factor, however, is Werner von Siemens' decision to donate 12,000 square meters of his private property in Berlin-Charlottenburg to the Prussian state as building land for the planned institute. In addition, he offers to provide 300,000 marks from the inheritance of his brother William, who died at the end of 1883.

Support from Otto von Bismarck - the breakthrough has been made

Finally, the turning point was March 20, 1884, when Werner von Siemens reformulated his offer worth half a million marks. Since the Prussian authorities continued to show restraint despite his generous offer, this time he turned to the government of the German Reich.

In this context, he emphasizes the special responsibility of the nation towards the individual countries, because "a promotion of the material interests of the country" can only be achieved across federal borders, according to the entrepreneur. With this, Siemens finally wins the support of Reich Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

Even if another three years pass, in the course of which, among other things, party-political hurdles have to be overcome, this means the decisive breakthrough for the establishment of the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt. With tireless commitment and numerous advances, Werner von Siemens made a key contribution to this.

In March 1887 the Reichstag approved a budget of 700,000 marks for the establishment of the first state institution for basic research on German soil. This created an institution that to this day - since 1950 as the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) - is one of the main pillars of scientific research in Germany.

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Further information on the topic
  • David Cahan: Werner Siemens and the Origin of the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt, 1872–1887, in: Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 12, 2 (1982), pp. 253–283 (only available in English)
  • Rudolf Huebener / Heinz Lübbig: The Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt. Their importance in the development of modern physics, Wiesbaden 2011
  • Wolfgang Schreier: Werner von Siemens and the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt, in: Dieter Hoffmann / Wolfgang Schreier (eds.): Werner von Siemens (1816-1892). Studies on life and work, Braunschweig 1995, pp. 35–49