Karl Wilhelm Siemens was born into a family of scientists and inventors at Lenthe, near Hanover, Prussia, on April 4, 1823. After his father's death in 1840, he was encouraged by his brother Ernst Werner von Siemens to enter technical school at Magdeburg. Siemens also apprenticed at a steam engine factory there.
In 1843 he traveled to England to promote Werner's inventions, in particularan electroplating process. For the same reason, Siemens's younger brother, Friedrich (1826-1904), joined him in 1847.
The two brothers collaborated on their own inventions. Karl Wilhelm's first success was a water meter, from which he lived comfortably from the royalties.Financially secure, the brothers set about working on a new smelting process, the open hearth furnace, which would become the foremost steelmaking process of the twentieth century.
The Siemens brothers' process used heat regeneration. Heat that otherwise would have been lost to the atmosphere was recaptured and used to heat the furnace more efficiently. Their initial experiments were only marginally successful. An encounter with stove designer E. A. Cooper at Smethwick, England, gavethem the technical solution to their furnace design, and they were finally able to apply the process to making steel.
The Siemens brothers received a patent on their regenerative metal processingchamber in 1856. This technique, which became known as the open-hearth process, was applied to steelmaking two years later, with that patent awarded to Karl Wilhelm. A shallow hearth containing molten metal was exposed to flames from above, while a pair of chambers at either end of the furnace captured heat and returned it for more efficient processing.
In 1864 Frenchman Pierre-Émile Martin took the Siemens brothers' process further by modifying the location of the chambers and introducing scrap steel to the process. Some legal battles were waged between the Siemens and Martin interests. In the end, a compromise was reached: so that both parties would be recognized for their contributions, the process was named the Siemens-Martin process. By 1900 this technique had surpassed the Bessemer process as the most efficient method of processing steel. Karl Wilhelm Siemens tried unsuccessfully to establish his own steel manufacturing plant at Landore, England. While the business foundered in the 1880s, Siemens enjoyed success in the field of electric telegraphy. This later business effort was, again, the initiative of his brother Werner.
Werner's firm of Siemens and Halske was involved in producing telegraph cableand laid the first transatlantic cable in 1875. From 1850 Wilhelm served asan agent for his brother's firm and made improvements to lighting in Britain.He became a naturalized British subject in 1859. In 1878 he created an electric arc furnace that allowed the current to flow through loosely packed material that was high in resistance and low in conductivity, producing an iron-melting temperature. One of his final achievements was the creation of an electric passenger railway in Portrush, Ireland, in 1883, and he was also knightedthat year. Wilhelm died in London on November 18, 1883.
Although Sir William, or Wilhelm, Siemens was the catalyst in the industrialcollaborations of the Siemens brother, all three made substantial contributions.