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British Industrial History

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Johann George Halske

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Johann George Halske (1814-1890)

1814 Halske was born the son of a sugar broker and honorary town councilor of Berlin, Johann Heinrich Halske.

From 1825 to 1828 he was a pupil at the Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster, one of the premier academic schools in Berlin, but it was highly theoretical and he left without gaining a diploma.

1829 He started an apprenticeship with the machine-builder Schneggenburger.

1834 Finding difficulty with the heavy labour involved in machine building, Halske moved to complete his apprenticeship in the workshop of the precision mechanic Hirschmann. This brought him into contact with physicists and physiologists at the Berlin University.

1835 After completing his training he worked for the well-known Hamburg mechanic, Johann Georg Repsold, who enjoyed an excellent reputation as a builder of astronomical instruments.

1838 Returning to Berlin he went to work for Hirschmann again.

1844 Together with the mechanic F. M. Boetticher he created a workshop for the building of chemical and mechanical apparatus, especially for the academic community.

1845 He is named in the membership register of the newly-created Physical Society of Berlin, alongside well-known people such as Hermann de Helmholtz, Emil H. Du Bois Reymond, Rudolf Virchow and Werner von Siemens.

1845 Halske married Henriette Friederike Schmidt. They had two sons and two daughters.

1846 Through a mutual friend, Emil Du Bois-Reymond, Halske met Werner von Siemens; Halske’s mechanical skills were ideally matched to Werner's vision for electric telegraph technology.

Messrs Halske and Boetticher solved the problem of making an indicator for the telegraph.

1847 Halske separated from Boetticher to dedicate himself to the building of the Siemens' telegraphs, for which the burgeoning railway network created a growing demand.

1847 October: He and Werner Siemens formed a business in Berlin, Telegraphen-Bauanstalt von Siemens und Halske, together with Werner's cousin Johann Georg Siemens; the purpose was to build telegraphs.

1848 the Company won the contract to install a telegraph line between Berlin and Frankfurt am Main, Europe’s longest stretch of railway at that time but the telegraph suffered from practical problems.

1851 For technical and other reasons, the Prussian state canceled all of the follow-up orders it had placed with Siemens & Halske and terminated the business relationship.

As time went on Halske’s perfectionism came into conflict with Siemens’ wish to develop the business. Werner and his three brothers, William, Friedrich, and Carl, went to England to pursue contacts with potential clients but met with no success. Nevertheless the telegraph apparatus built by Halske won a prize at the 1851 Great Exhibition.

Werner tried selling water meters in England; unable to persuade Halske to design one which was robust and cheap, he resorted to an English supplier.

1853 The firm won its first contract in Russia which helped the business to grow again.

1859 Elected as a town councillor of Berlin, Halske followed his father's example, dedicating himself to the administration of the city.

1860 Faced with a downturn in business Werner wanted to rationalize production built Halske still saw his activity as running a workshop rather than a factory.

1861 The Siemens brothers saw an opportunity to develop the English part of the business by laying submarine cables but Halske was strongly opposed to the scheme, seeing it as too much of a diversification from the basis of the business. Nevertheless the Siemens brothers won the argument.

1864 Siemens and Halske had obtained a contract from the French government to lay a cable from Oran (Algeria) to Cartagena (Spain). Werner and William Siemens personally superintended the laying of the cable. Three attempts were made to complete it but they all failed. The failure involved the company in legal proceedings and cost it £15,000 which represented most of its capital. The disaster affected William Siemens keenly. Pressure from Halske finally brought this venture to an end. At the close of the year Halske left the English company.

1867 The partnership reached the end of its originally agreed life. Halske withdrew from the company due to his difference of opinion with the Siemens brothers but left funds invested in the business until 1881. He also had access to a workroom in the company’s building for many years.

He lent his energies to the establishment of the Museum of Decorative Arts, which focused on arts and craft-type work (in 1867 he was a member of its executive committee; in 1881 he was selected as a second deputy chairman). For political reasons he was not allowed to become a magistrate. Nevertheless he remained friends with Werner von Siemens up to his death.

Johann George Halske continued to fulfil his responsibilities to the entreprise, for example by financial participation in the Siemens pension fund, created in 1872.

1890 Halske died after a period of increasing infirmity.

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