Adolf Slaby - A Pioneer of Radio Engineering

Adolf Slaby, one of the pioneers of radio engineering, died on 6 April 1913. As a lecturer at the Technische Hochschule Berlin, he actively campaigned for technical universities to have the same status as full universities. Technical universities were only granted the right to award doctorates in 1899. He also worked for the due social recognition of engineers.

Slaby was born the son of a bookbinder in Berlin in 1849 and studied mathematics and mechanical engineering at the city’s Gewerbeakademie. He earned his income, however, as a tutor in the home of machinery manufacturer, Louis Schwartzkopff. Fascinated by the inventions of Werner von Siemens, he turned to the new discipline of electrical engineering in 1876, after completing his doctorate in Jena and teaching mathematics and mechanical science for a time in Potsdam.

A passionate lecturer and experimenter of genius

From 1883 on, Slaby, recently appointed professor, set about establishing the first chair of electrical engineering at the Königlich Technische Hochschule zu Berlin. He always combined theoretical thinking and practical experiments in his work. This led to his founding a laboratory for electrical engineering at the university, where he taught electrical engineering and its applications to several generations of engineering students. Over a period of thirty years, he impressed his contemporaries with both the passion he brought to his teaching and the ingenuity of his experiments. Even Kaiser Wilhem II, himself a technology enthusiast, showed a fondness for Slaby and enjoyed learning from him.

A 500 meter-long wireless radio connection

However it was to be wireless telegraphy, known at the time as radio telegraphy, which really made Slaby’s name. And like all good legends, this one too started out inauspiciously. Slaby was planning to put an end to his radio experiments due to the lack of their success, when in June 1897 he witnessed a successful radio experiment in England. The young Marconi succeeded in sending and receiving wireless Morse signals over a distance of several kilometers. This served to fire Slaby’s ambition. His first experiment was to try to establish a wireless radio connection between the Technische Hochschule and a factory located some 500 meters away. The experiment itself worked. However it also caused all telephone connections in the area to cut out due to the fact that it was conducted using sparks - in other words a kind of artificial electrical storm. His efforts were also put in the shade when in July 1897 Marconi succeeded in bridging a distance of 16 kilometers using radio signals. A world record back then! Should he just give up?

A new record

Once again chance came to Slaby’s rescue. He was discussing his experiments with the Kaiser, who decided that he should continue with his work, but this time with increased intensity. The Kaiser made the banks of the Havel in Potsdam and the adjacent Royal Gardens available for the experiments. This area, known as the Prussian Arcadia, became the scene of a race to catch up. In August, Slaby and his assistants succeeded in establishing a wireless radio connection of 1.6 km from the tower of the Heilandskirche church in Sacrow. In autumn 1897, he then beat Marconi’s world record, achieving a distance of 21 km from Rangsdorf to Tempelhofer Feld.

Adolf Slaby died just one year after receiving his emeritus status. He is buried in the Luisenkirchhof II cemetery in the Berlin borough of Charlottenburg.