Robert Bosch’s travels
“To take care of business affairs ...”
Robert Bosch was an inquisitive man and fond of traveling from an early age. For the first few years after founding his workshop, he had neither the money nor the state of mind to visit other countries. With the increasing internationalization of his growing company, he regularly set out to maintain personal contact with his business partners and associates, to explore new business ideas, solve problems, and keep up to date with the latest technical developments — despite the much more arduous travel conditions at the time.
Testing the international waters
As a young man, Bosch traveled by ship to America to work there. After that, he continued his training in England. The opening of his Workshop for Precision Mechanics and Electrical Engineering in Stuttgart on November 15, 1886, was a dream come true for Robert Bosch. However, founding a company and starting a family initially put an end to his travels: “In the first six to eight years, I wouldn’t have dared to leave my business alone for too long.”
Once his professional success had solidified, he regularly traveled abroad to scope out the local business opportunities for himself, take a closer look at his competitors, and keep abreast of the latest technological developments. In December 1901, he and the aviation pioneer Albert Hirth visited the Paris Motor Show. There, he and his travel companion saw a high-voltage ignition device with the promising name La Comète. On closer inspection, though, the device did not hold a candle to Bosch’s high-voltage magneto ignition system.
Between January 1903 and February 1904, Robert Bosch visited London a total of three times. Given the options available back then, the journey was an arduous one involving 750 kilometers of travel by horse-drawn carriage to Calais over a period of roughly seven days, crossing the English Channel, and then spending a day to get from Dover to London. The reason for his visits? Negotiations with the company’s representative in England. In April 1898, Robert Bosch gave Frederick R. Simms the exclusive right to represent Bosch products in the United Kingdom. However, he was unsatisfied with the agency’s strategy and was probably interested in conducting face-to-face talks to find a new, shared vision. His attempts remained fruitless, leading him to part company with Simms in 1907 and start marketing the products himself in the United Kingdom.
Crossing the Atlantic, executive style
Four years later, in March 1911, a 50-year-old Robert Bosch once again headed off to the United States with his wife and son in tow. By that time, he had risen from tradesman to industrialist, allowing him to travel in greater comfort. Most likely, he had his chauffeur drive him to Rotterdam, where he boarded a ship for a transatlantic journey lasting 10 to 14 days. No wonder his itinerary left him two months’ time for the entire trip. The purpose of his visit was to inspect his first U.S. factory in Springfield, which had been under construction since 1910. He also visited the Bosch sales company in New York. Accustomed to tidy and tranquil Stuttgart, his wife, Anna, was not a fan of the city: “I had never been to a big city so repulsive to me at first glance. All I wanted to do was go home right away. … The traffic is monstrous.” Her husband, however, was probably excited, since all those cars meant good business prospects.
Travel during the first world war
Sales plummeted after the start of the first world war. What is more, the conflict placed severe restrictions on travel. Robert Bosch was deemed unfit for military service due to a damaged eardrum. As a result, he was able to continue guiding his company’s fortunes and traveling to neutral countries and those aligned with Germany. He justified a request to travel to Sweden, a neutral country, to visit his representative Fritz Egnell as follows: “This company, which has so far represented my business interests in Sweden, recently asked me if it could also have the sales offices in Norway and Denmark. A face-to-face meeting on location is necessary … because I, as an exporter, will have to devote my attention to neutral foreign countries in the future.” In late 1917, Robert Bosch also traveled to Austria, an ally of Germany, to “take care of business affairs.” These personal contacts made it easier to reconnect after the war. In September 1919, Bosch wrote his wife, Anna, from Stockholm: “Here in Sweden, the Bosch product is conquering the market more than ever before. In this respect, we’ve been triumphant.”
A grand tour of South America
In early 1921, Robert Bosch was nearing 60 when he decided to accept the inconveniences of a trip to South America to gain an impression of the sales and development opportunities in that part of the world. As a successful and globally active entrepreneur, he paid 3,840 Dutch guilder for a luxury stateroom on the Brabantia, a ship docked in Amsterdam. On March 16, he set off for Buenos Aires, where he planned to spend 12 days. From there, he would continue by ship to Rio de Janeiro before heading back to Europe on May 10 and arriving in Amsterdam on May 26.
Professionally the trip was a success. From Santiago de Chile, Bosch wrote: “… All told, it is good that we took the journey. We now know what approach we need to take here. The people themselves believe it is possible to increase sales …” The trip gave birth to the idea of opening a Bosch sales office in Buenos Aires in early 1924.
During the journey, on April 7, he received the devastating news of his son’s death. Despite having suffered from multiple sclerosis for many years, his death came unexpectedly. From afar, Bosch tried to console his wife: “No matter how much one hoped his life would end peacefully, the fact that he is now gone has moved me to the very depths of my soul. … But the pain that a once so hopeful life is now over is bitter … I don’t know how many times I have asked myself why I should still be alive when he — one so young — had to suffer and waste away.”
Difficult negotiations in North America
Over the course of 1924, Robert Bosch started to get impatient, as his company’s “internal efforts had not led to success” in the future-oriented diesel injection pump project, which was hoped would boost business with new products. There and then, he made the project his top priority. Robert Bosch’s goal was to be able to use the patent for the injection pump of an engine made by the American Crude Oil Company (Acro). The process of getting to know each other started harmoniously with bear and moose hunting in Canada that August. During the hunt, he and the head of Acro, Albert Wielich, grew better acquainted. But as it turned out, Wielich wanted a stake in all of the patents. Bosch’s senior executives and engineers were skeptical and advised him against the move.
Extensive back-and-forth negotiations followed. Bosch traveled from Canada to the U.S., where he spent several weeks in the country. In October, he returned to Germany. However, Bosch soon left for America once again, as the ultimate decisions had to be made there. He wrote his wife: “If I luck out in New York, many things might get much better. Business is always pretty good, but it is hard to say how the future will be. At any rate, we have made progress, and it appears likely that things are not going to get worse.” In the end, the two companies reached a costly agreement. Yet the story did not have a happy ending. It became clear that Bosch had been deceived. Ultimately, the company’s partners had gained so much expertise that they were able to develop a product of their own that would go on to become a huge success.
Still, it was not the last time Robert Bosch would set foot in the United States. He took a final journey to the America together with his wife in November 1928. This time he had been summoned to appear in court in New York and Washington in proceedings involving American Bosch Magneto Co. At stake were the trademark rights. American Bosch Magneto Company was a competitor formed following the seizure of Bosch assets during the first world war. The Germans wanted to forbid the company from using the names Robert Bosch and Bosch. His trip home took him through Paris. Robert and Margarete Bosch were back in Stuttgart just in time for Christmas. They found their nearly one-year-old son Robert “healthy and happy, as always.”
Even after that, Robert Bosch continued traveling the world. However, his trips no longer took him as far from home — and were usually for pleasure rather than business.
I am the head of Historical Communications at Robert Bosch GmbH, and I work on preserving and communicating our company’s long and multifaceted history. Before joining Bosch in 2007, I was employed for over ten years in various museums in an academic capacity. I also worked freelance in the same field. As a historian and specialist in cultural studies, I want to show that history is far from dusty and lifeless, but rather relevant and exciting.