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Corporate history

From first workshop to factory

1886–1905

10 mins read

The history of Bosch starts with many first steps. The step into independence, onto the automotive market, into markets outside Germany, and onto the factory floor of major manufacturing.

Drawing of curves aiming upwards, a man (Robert Bosch) walking on them to the top.

“A shambles” — the beginnings

His apprentice and journeyman years awoke an early desire in Robert Bosch to be self-employed. In 1886, he opened a Workshop for Precision Mechanics and Electrical Engineering in Stuttgart. The early years were beset with highs and lows, and it was only from the mid-1890s on that things took off quickly and unstoppably.

In November 1886, Robert Bosch moved into his first workshop in western Stuttgart with one journeyman and one errand boy.
In November 1886, Robert Bosch moved into his first workshop in western Stuttgart with one journeyman and one errand boy.
So that customers would find the workshop tucked away in the rear courtyard, in 1890 Bosch put up a company sign.
So that customers would find the workshop tucked away in the rear courtyard, in 1890 Bosch put up a company sign.

First products and services

Bosch performed all the precision mechanical and electrical engineering work that came his way, such as installing telephone systems and electric bells. When asked to build a magneto ignition device for a stationary engine in line with an existing design, he improved this and thus paved the way for magneto ignition production.

Bosch offered to install a remote water-level indicator for a customer in 1896.
Bosch offered to install a remote water-level indicator for a customer in 1896.
The contact mechanism in a remote water-level indicator required precise manufacturing for the device to report the water level over quite some distance to base.
The contact mechanism in a remote water-level indicator required precise manufacturing for the device to report the water level over quite some distance to base.
Although a rather unusual product, a number of typewriters for the blind were also produced in the Bosch workshops during the first two decades.
Although a rather unusual product, a number of typewriters for the blind were also produced in the Bosch workshops during the first two decades.
Drawing showing the development of the magneto ignition.

The spark that set it all off — the magneto ignition

From 1897, Bosch started installing better-designed magneto ignition devices into automobiles and became the only supplier of a truly reliable ignition. In 1902, the chief engineer at Bosch, Gottlob Honold, unveiled an ever better solution — the high-voltage magneto ignition system with spark plug. This product paved the way for Bosch to become a world-leading automotive supplier.

The reproduction of a low-voltage magneto ignition device in 1887 saw Bosch start to explore the ignition of fuel mixes.
The reproduction of a low-voltage magneto ignition device in 1887 saw Bosch start to explore the ignition of fuel mixes.
The automobile magneto ignition was first used in a de Dion Bouton three-wheeler in 1897. Many tests were required before the product worked perfectly.
The automobile magneto ignition was first used in a de Dion Bouton three-wheeler in 1897. Many tests were required before the product worked perfectly.
The ultimate breakthrough as an automotive supplier came with the high-voltage magneto ignition system, which Bosch registered for patent in 1902.
The ultimate breakthrough as an automotive supplier came with the high-voltage magneto ignition system, which Bosch registered for patent in 1902.
The first Bosch high-voltage magneto ignition system, type Hdh, with spark plug (1902)
The first Bosch high-voltage magneto ignition system, type Hdh, with spark plug (1902)

Gottlob Honold

Photo: Gottlob Honold (1901)

The chief innovator with just the right instincts

“When Honold finished a new item and passed it to manufacturing, the Bosch world started clamoring for the finished product.”

This was how Robert Bosch paid tribute to his long-standing head of engineering, who had first started work for him as an apprentice. Besides the high-voltage magneto ignition system, he was also the brilliant creator of lighting systems, starters, and horns for the portfolio of Bosch products — until his untimely death in 1923.

Photo: Gottlob Honold (1901)

Houseowner — the first factory

Bosch had already relocated several times before he decided to build a factory. He had initially expected to rent out one or more of the floors, but this would not be the case. On the contrary — the Bosch factory constructed in 1901 kept on expanding into the surrounding buildings.

Constructed entirely from reinforced concrete, the first factory building was very advanced for 1900, even if it was given a renaissance façade.
Constructed entirely from reinforced concrete, the first factory building was very advanced for 1900, even if it was given a renaissance façade.
Some of the Bosch associates gathered on the courtyard steps of the new factory for a group photo in 1901.
Some of the Bosch associates gathered on the courtyard steps of the new factory for a group photo in 1901.
Bosch associates wound wire around the ignition coil of the magneto ignition devices entirely by hand on an armature winding c. 1900.
Bosch associates wound wire around the ignition coil of the magneto ignition devices entirely by hand on an armature winding c. 1900.
The Bosch plant expanded within a few years from a single factory building to a sizeable site (1905).
The Bosch plant expanded within a few years from a single factory building to a sizeable site (1905).
Drawing o a historic automobile with passenges and street sign saying “London.”
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Step forth into the world — first sales offices

“…A foothold in Great Britain…” — this had long been the wish of Robert Bosch. In 1898, he founded the first Bosch company outside Germany in London together with the Englishman Frederic Simms. This was the first step onto the global market. Further sales offices quickly followed in other European countries.

Magnetos Simms Bosch set up its first sales office in Store Street, London, in 1898. A further sales office followed suit in Paris the next year.
Magnetos Simms Bosch set up its first sales office in Store Street, London, in 1898. A further sales office followed suit in Paris the next year.
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Magnetos from Paris — first production abroad

After the United Kingdom, France was the largest European sales market for automobiles. Bosch started running a subsidiary company there in 1899. Business in the Paris branch could hardly have gone any better, and from 1905 on it was able to cover demand with the magneto ignition systems produced in its own plant within sight of the Eiffel Tower.

Customs duties and long transport routes led Bosch to start manufacturing in Paris in 1905.
Customs duties and long transport routes led Bosch to start manufacturing in Paris in 1905.

Motor racing — the first advertising

Around the turn of the century, the first major international motor races took place — a chance for automakers and suppliers to show off their prowess. The Belgian Camille Jenatzy drove a Mercedes to victory in the Gordon Bennett Cup in Ireland in 1903 — thanks in part to the reliable Bosch ignition system, which stood up to the harshest conditions.

The Belgian Camille Jenatzy won the Gordon Bennett Cup in Ireland in 1903 in a Mercedes equipped with a Bosch ignition system.
The Belgian Camille Jenatzy won the Gordon Bennett Cup in Ireland in 1903 in a Mercedes equipped with a Bosch ignition system.
With his red beard and hair and his flowing red dust coat, Jenatzy became an advertising icon. He advertised the Bosch ignition system as the “Red Devil” till 1918.
With his red beard and hair and his flowing red dust coat, Jenatzy became an advertising icon. He advertised the Bosch ignition system as the “Red Devil” till 1918.

Robert Bosch: The man, the employer, the visionary