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  • Man of vision and the first automotive supplier to take a global perspective

    Magneto ignition
    Sept. 23, 1861-March 9, 1942

    Bruce Davis
    Special to Automotive News Europe

    The name Robert Bosch is ubiquitous in the auto industry, thanks to the vision of its founder. He was the first supplier to think globally.

    Born the 11th child and youngest son of a southern German farmer/innkeeper in 1861, Bosch was urged by his father to take up the mechanic's trade after completing basic schooling in Ulm at the age of 15.

    After a three-year apprenticeship studying precision instrument making, Bosch traveled extensively. He spent 1884 and 1885 in the USA, where he worked for a short while for Thomas Edison and was exposed to the still embryonic science of electricity.

    Returning to Germany in 1886, he set up his own workshop in Stuttgart specializing in precision mechanics and electrical engineering. Throughout most of the 1890s, Bosch and his co-workers struggled to make ends meet. Then in 1898, he adapted his company's existing low-voltage magneto for use as an ignition device for the automobile.

    The first working models worked so well they attracted the attention first of Daimler and then nearly every other carmaker. The most common ignition system in use until that time was the open-flame, hot-tube ignition, which had a tendency to erupt into flames.

    In the next few years, Bosch developed complete ignition systems. His higher voltage magneto and spark plugs permitted higher-speed gasoline engines.

    With the car industry at that time doubling in size nearly every year, Bosch had hit on the right idea at exactly the right time. Business exploded.

    He opened his first foreign office in 1898, in England, and built the first factory dedicated to ignition production in 1901. He was operating in the USA as early as 1906. By 1913, he had operations in more than 20 countries, and the company derived 82 percent of revenues from sales outside Germany.

    Bosch never sought a patent on the magneto, preferring instead to conduct business by the credo, "Prevail in the marketplace on quality."

    He also set himself and his company apart by introducing the eight-hour working day "the most economic and most conducive for maintaining human work capacity" in 1906. By 1910 he had declared Saturday afternoons work-free.

    Bosch lost all his foreign holdings during World War One. The German war effort was lucrative, but war disgusted him, and he turned over all the profits to charity. Between the wars he tried to make peace between France and Germany until Hitler got upset with him. Then during the World War Two, Bosch established a repair shop at his Stuttgart factory staffed entirely by Jews, which protected them from Nazi wrath.

    Bosch took no personal credit for his inventions, and he gave the bulk of company profits to charitable foundations.

    To this day, Robert Bosch GmbH is 92 percent owned by the Robert Bosch Foundation, which uses its funds to support a variety of social, welfare and arts and science causes.

    In 1935, he described his motivation in this way: "Besides relieving general need, my intention is to work to raise the moral, physical and spiritual powers of the people."