In his first years as an entrepreneur, Robert Bosch took on all the precision mechanical and electrical engineering work that came his way. After all, he needed the contracts to help his family, his colleagues and himself make ends meet. For the most part, this involved installing low-voltage equipment such as telephone terminals, electric bells, door openers, remote electrical water-level indicators, and, later on, pneumatic tube pipelines and electric lighting.
Yet despite this extensive portfolio, orders were often sparse during the early years, leaving Bosch struggling to keep his workforce busy and pay their wages. Still, he wanted to do the best he could by them. In addition, he needed more capital to invest in modern equipment for his workshop. He therefore borrowed money from his mother and took out a loan, with his family acting as guarantor. Bosch later referred to his initial years in business as “a shambles”. The year 1892 was particularly difficult for the new business. A lack of orders forced Robert Bosch to let go of 22 of his 24 associates.
The cornerstone of success – the magneto ignition device for stationary engines
Construction of the Stuttgart electricity works in 1895 was one factor that helped change the young company’s fortunes, with Bosch landing new contracts to install equipment.
And then something new came along that would change everything – the magneto ignition device. Bosch had come across the invention more or less by chance. In 1887, a mechanical engineer had asked him to reproduce a magneto ignition device he had seen on an engine at a company in Schorndorf. Bosch was happy to take up the challenge. He made his way to Schorndorf, some 20 miles east of Stuttgart, to study the design in detail himself.
The engine was equipped with a device produced by the Cologne-based company Gasmotorenfabrik Deutz. The device generated an electric spark to ignite the air-fuel mixture in the cylinder of a stationary internal-combustion engine of the type used to drive mechanical systems or generate electricity.
After contacting Deutz and ascertaining that the magneto was not patented, Bosch set about reproducing it. On October 8, 1887, the very first Bosch ignition device was duly delivered to Schmehl & Hespelt, a mechanical engineering company situated to the north of Stuttgart in the small town of Möckmühl.
However, Bosch had done more than simply copy the magneto ignition device – he had also made it better, taking the opportunity to improve everything in the design he deemed lacking in quality or susceptible to faults.
He replaced the bar magnets with U-shaped ones, thereby making the new device lighter and less prone to failure and enhancing its performance.
An unexpected move toward new horizons
Over the next few years, Bosch manufactured the magneto ignition device in increasing – albeit still small – quantities. In 1888 he delivered a total of nine units, but by 1891 he was making more than 100, with the magneto ignition device now accounting for over 50 percent of the workshop’s sales.
At the time, of course, Bosch could not have predicted that his magneto ignition device would turn out to be suitable for use in a product of the future – the automobile – and pave the way to his success as an international entrepreneur.
Find out more about the history of Robert Bosch and his company