The history of Telefunken: the phoenix of German electronics from Wilhelm II and Goebbels to the Beatles and today

9 min


Continuing our historical cycle, I wanted to talk about the real symbol of German radio electronics, Telefunken. The corporation that will be discussed, owns the lion’s share of German developments in the field of radio, electro-acoustics, television and television broadcasting. The company’s influence has generated rumors about the unique properties, unprecedented reliability and durability of its devices. Some of the myths were born thanks to the sarcastic pranks of the Soviet engineer Likhnitsky, who published pseudo-esoteric articles on allegedly inhabiting Telefunken lamps on his blog.

The company’s radio tubes are still being sold, are in great demand on ebay and
well-deserved reputation. This is partly due to the unprecedentedly tight quality control in the enterprises that produced them. It is believed that Telefunken is the one who owns the development of the world’s first broadcasting camera and complete telecommunication equipment. Many seriously believe that without the development of this company, the Nazis could not have held power in Germany for so long, and the Beatles might not have become popular. So, under the cut post on the history of Telefunken, as one of the most legendary and mythologized brands in history.

The company founded by Kaiser

The founding time of Telefunken is considered to be 1903. The corporation did not appear from scratch, but was the result of the merger of several divisions of the two industrial giants Siemens & Halske and AEG. These companies worked on essentially identical projects, competing for the market for large government orders. The competition was quite fierce and led to constant patent conflicts.

The most significant overlapping projects were developments in the field of wireless telegraphy (i.e. what we now know as radio communications). The AEG, led by Adolf Slaby and Count Georg von Arco, developed such communications on the orders of the imperial fleet, while Siemens & Halske, led by Karl Ferdinand Brown, worked hard on a similar device for the German army. Disputes about common projects are also known, for example, companies could not share a jointly developed electric locomotive that set a world record for speed on rails (210 km / h, with an average car speed of that time approx. 7 – 20 km / h), currently the main developer considered AEG.


One of the first joint projects of Siemens & Halske and AEG, whose speed record was broken only in 1939

Such disputes endangered the fate of developments, on which, in the opinion of the monarch and the government, the future of Germany depended. In 1903, disagreement peaked and required regulatory intervention. Kaiser Wilhelm II personally initiated the association of disputing business entities. He personally established a joint venture based on the radio divisions of Siemens & Halske and AEG through personal royal decision.


The founder and co-founder of Telefunken, Friedrich Wilhelm Victor Albert of Prussia

So that the beneficiaries of the companies do not greatly resent royal arbitrariness, they additionally invested in the project, the founding capital of the new company increased by 300 thousand gold marks. This amount is equivalent to a batch of a hundred ready-made cars or 11 large houses in Berlin. It cannot be said that the amount was astronomical, but given that the units themselves already existed and did not require special investments, this money became a beautiful juicy cherry on a large industrial cake. The shares of the new company were equally divided between AEG and Siemens & Halske.

The new company was called Telefunken Gesellschaft für drahtlose Telegraphie m.b.H, which can be literally translated as: “Telefunken Wireless Telegraph Society, since it was the development of radio, especially for the fleet, that the German leadership saw as the main task of the enterprise. At the head of the new industrial giant was AEG spokesman Count Georg von Arco. At the same time, Arco was primarily considered as a technical leader, and other decisions, due to the strategic importance of the projects, he was forced to take with an eye on the opinions of the government and the monarch.


Georg Von Arco 1928 (left)

It should be noted that at the time of its appearance, Telefunken already had powerful competitors, which were firmly entrenched in the European market for newborn radio communications. These were Lorenz AG in Berlin, the Brussels Compagnie de Télégraphie sans Fil (Society for Wireless Telegraphy) and, naturally, the British Italian company Marconi, which appeared earlier than all of the above and dominates the world radio market of the beginning of the century. The corporation relies primarily on maritime radio communications, which are profitable after the Titanic disaster, when all major shipping companies recognize the importance of such communications.


Early Radio Telefunken

During this period, Telefunken receive an impressive part of European orders, which allow it to make a profit until the beginning of the 1st World War. Even the Great War does not cause significant damage to the company. The enterprise naturally “tears off” the breakthrough of profitable defense orders, which allows it to calmly and painlessly survive the alarming period of 1914-1918.

Telefunken during the interwar period and during World War II

Since 1923, Telefunken opened the production of radio transmitters and household receivers. This is due to the beginning of regular sound broadcasting. Competent pricing policy allows you to work successfully until the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929. This period, or rather 1928, is known for the first legendary development of the company in the field of electroacoustics. Many rightfully consider this year to be the moment of the birth of warm tube sound and the emergence of the concept of HI-FI (i.e., high fidelity of reproduction). It was in 1928 that Telefunken showed the world the first push-pull tube sound amplifier designed for the German radio network.

In the same period, development in the field of television began. So, at the 5th big Berlin radio exhibition in 1928, the company presents a projection television. In 1930, a German physicist, inventor and engineer of Telefunken, Fritz Schröter, invented interlaced scanning – a scanning method in which each frame is split into two halves created from lines selected through one (even for one half frame and odd for the other).

Fritz Schröter (1950s)

At the XI Olympic Games of 1936 in Berlin, the first sports broadcast was carried out using the Telefunken Ikonoskop broadcast camera. Without the equipment of a German company, broadcasts of the same quality could be carried out only a year later from the Wimbledon tournament of 1937 using British equipment, while television broadcasting was not used, only cable communication channels were used, which proves the uniqueness of Ikonoskop at that time.

In 1939, the first serial television of the German television standard appeared, which we now know as PAL. It is called the E1 receiver. In fairness, it should be noted that almost all radio enterprises of the 3rd Reich are working on the implementation of this project, while the main burden falls on Telefunken.

The television project is seen by the Ministry of Propaganda of the Reich and personally Comrade. Goebbels is an ideal means of brainwashing and the ability to control the mood of the masses. For this reason, the company is constantly provided with financing and everything necessary for its development, right up to the onset of acute problems with resources, i.e. until the year 1944.

Since 1932, Telefunken became a music publisher. To do this, a subsidiary Telefunken-Platte GmbH is created, which not only records and produces musical groups, but also creates its own. So, in the jazz world, the German big band Telefunken Swing Orchestra is well known. This is perhaps the famous jazz band that existed in Germany despite the ideological prohibitions of the Nazi party and the activities of the Reichsmusikkammer. This is largely explained by the desire of the NSDAP to quarrel with the enterprise, on the success of which the future of the Reich depended in many respects.

With the beginning of the Second World War, the time for hot military orders came for Telefunken, more than 60% of the military radio equipment and components made by them. To meet the need for vacuum radio tubes, Telefunken even buys the Osram plant in Munich, some of which are reoriented from light bulbs IlyichAlojzych on triodes and pentodes.

Telefunken locators were especially fond of the Hitlerite military; the company produced almost 100% of German naval and land locators. The counterintelligence units of the Wehrmacht, SS and Abwehr would also not have been able to work without direction finders, which, thanks to the talent of telefunken engineers, became quite small and could fit in cargo vans. This changed the tactics of searching and detaining radio operators Kat and other Stirlaites.

Radar developments were also not limited to stationary models, Telefunken aviation radars had a significant impact on the war in the air. I suppose it is unnecessary to talk about a large number of radio stations, magnetic tape and tape recorders, as well as receivers, thanks to which gloomy front-line soldiers listened to the half-forbidden Marlene Dietrich, Goebbels’s bravura marches and tales of an imminent victory.

Against the backdrop of all this abundance of ordering, it seems very strange that Siemens co-founders sold their 50% stake in AEG in 1941. This strange act made AEG the sole owner of Telefunken, which the company has been in for quite some time. Since 1944, like other German enterprises, Telefunken began to have resource problems. They ended with the cessation of their activities in May 1945. Huge volumes of already released products were seized and replenished the trophy bins of the allied countries.

Telefunken in the post-war period

The defeat in the war did not kill the company, it quickly recovered from the post-war crisis and the partial destruction of production capacities as a result of the raids. Already in the autumn of 1945, the production of Telefunken tube receivers was resumed, the workshops for which were opened in the premises of the barracks of the former Dachau concentration camp. The new plant is called Apparatewerke Bayern, Dachau.

Gradually, from the not very suitable barracks, the enterprise was transferred to Hanover, to the Huth-Apparatefabrik workshops, which were specially designed for the production of radio equipment. This accelerated production and development, and already in 1951, the first post-war Telefunken FE 8 TV was born.


Huth-apparatefabrik

In the early 1950s, all Telefunken manufacturing facilities in West Berlin were relocated to West Germany. This is comparable to the evacuation of Soviet enterprises in miniature. The reason is simple – the occupation law prohibits the production of radar equipment in Berlin, and it is this area that can breathe new life into the company and promises to be the most profitable. AEG turns the remaining areas of Telefunken into the Schwachstrom-Subsidiary, which develops and manufactures communication systems, data processing and transmission systems (the first German computers), radioelements, radios, television equipment and TVs, record players.

In view of the broad field of activity, the full name is reduced to Telefunken GmbH in 1955. In 1963, the company changed its ownership form from GMBH (LLC according to ours) to AG (joint-stock company), so Telefunken Aktiengesellschaft appears. In January 1967, Telefunken and AEG merged. The joint is called the “Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft AEG-Telefunken”, the company’s central office is opened in Frankfurt am Main.


Telefunken Research Center in Ulm. 1961, future director Manfred Burner (center) in the company of colleagues

During this period, the company is actively working on all major activities. The products are in demand among the military and business (especially on television and in sound recording). For example, it is known that the impressive part of the equipment of Abbey Road Studios, where the first Beatles albums were recorded, was created by Telefunken.


REDD.37 – Abbey Road Studios Console

In particular, the REDD.37 console installed there used Telefunken V-72S tube amplifiers, which is a later advanced heir to the earlier legendary V-41. Equally popular are their devices for wide consumption (TVs, radios).

In 1972, during the next restructuring, the independent television company Telefunken Fernseh und Rundfunk GmbH was separated from the concern, which is engaged in television and radio broadcasting as a separate business. Later similarly separated:

  • “AEG-Telefunken Anlagentechnik AG” (formerly a division of innovative developments);
  • AEG-Telefunken Serienprodukte AG (serial production company);
  • AEG-Telefunken Kommunikationstechnik AG (development of communication devices).

During this period, AEG-Telefunken and its subsidiaries produced a huge range of products from household tape recorders and televisions to military communications devices and equipment from professional recording studios.

In early 1984, the television company Telefunken Fernseh und Rundfunk GmbH was acquired by the French corporation Thomson (Thomson-CSF). From that moment on, Thomson begins to use the Telefunken brand as its own brand. The main company since 1979 began to use the short name “AEG-Telefunken AG”.

Since the late 70s, the company has had serious financial problems. Various assets and independent units of Telefunken were acquired by other companies during the 80s and 90s. AEG-Telefunken AG in 1985 becomes the property of Daimler-Benz AG. In 1995, AEG-Telefunken AG was sold to EHG Electroholding GmbH, and somewhat later, EHG Electric Holding GmbH itself became the property of Daimler AG.

The fate of the shards of the colossus

Shards of the giant today exist as many different companies, engineering groups and design laboratories. So, in 2006, the production of televisions under the Telefunken brand reappeared, initially it belonged to the Turkish company Profilo Holding, and then Vestel. Telefunken Elektroakustik has opened a company in the United States producing Telefunken audio replicas and proprietary products.

The German company Telefunken Solar sells photovoltaic generators in the German domestic market. In total, more than 50 companies in the world use the word Telefunken in the names of products and divisions, having varying degrees of continuity with the original brand. The owner of what can be considered the legal successor of the same “AEG-Telefunken AG” to this day is the multinational company Daimler AG, it does not produce products under the Telefunken brand. During its existence, Telefunken has registered over 20,000 patents.


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