March 18, 2002

Rudolf Hell

Telecommunications pioneer whose 'Hell-Schreiber' laid the basis for facsimile transmission

A shrewd businessman as well as being an inventor and engineer, Rudolf Hell has his place in the history of telecommunications science for his invention, in Germany in the years between the two world wars, of the technology that paved the way for the fax machine. The “Hell-Schreiber” — the Hell Recorder — which he devised and marketed in 1929 was a machine for transmitting text that broke up letters into a stream of dots, which were then reassembled at the receiving end.

The machine, which was in effect the first telefax, was eagerly taken up by the German press, post office and other organisations and state agencies for whom immediacy of communication was vital, and Hell developed a thriving business. After the destruction of his business in the war, Hell re-established himself and thereafter continued to patent inventions that revolutionised the printing of graphics. He also gave a quantum impetus to modern media technology, as printing moved from hot metal letterpress to electronic typsetting.

Rudolf Hell was born in Eggmühl, a small town near Regensburg in Bavaria, in 1901. In the years immediately after the First World War he studied electronics at Munich Technical University. It was while working for his diploma in 1925 that he had the idea of breaking up individual letters and figures into tiny points, electronically, and transmitting them by electrical pulses to be reassembled at the receiving end.

At that time he was also inventing an image scanning tube, the technical basis of television. Another of his ideas was a radio-beam flight path detector which is widely regarded as having laid the ground for the introduction of autopilots in aircraft. This was the subject of his postgraduate dissertation and for it Hell was awarded his doctorate in electronic engineering in 1927.

But it was his “Hell-Schreiber” which made him famous in Germany. With immense interest from the police, newspapers, weather stations and the post office, Hell set up a factory for the manufacture of his invention in the Babelsberg district of Berlin. From 1931 onwards his Hell- Recorder was mass-produced by the industrial giant Siemens.

During the war Hell worked on encoding machines while continuing to manufacture at his Berlin plant, until it was destroyed by bombing. With the reconstruction of German industry in the late 1940s, Hell moved to Kiel in Schleswig-Holstein and built himself a new factory, where he began production of electronic components in 1949.

He continued to be fertile with new ideas. In 1950 he developed and manufactured an image transmission device, which was again snapped up by newspapers, the police and weather services. In 1954 he patented an electronically controlled engraver, which greatly facilitated the process of printing pictures in newspapers. In 1963 he produced one of the early colour scanners. By that time his company had greatly expanded from its modest beginnings, and was employing 2,000 workers. In the 1960s, too, Hell was pioneering electronic digital typesetting, which was eventually to sound the death knell for traditional lead types for all commercial printing purposes.

In 1981 his company, Dr-Ing Rudolf Hell, was taken over as a wholly-owned subsidiary by Siemens, with Hell himself remaining as honorary chairman of the supervising board. He continued taking an active interest until his 90th year when the company merged with Linotype, to become Linotype-Hell. (This firm was acquired by Heidelberger Druckmaschinen in 1997).

Hell was a revered figure in his adopted city of Kiel. Last year, to mark his 100th birthday, the street leading to the Heidelberg plant, known as Siemenswall, was renamed Dr-Hell-Straße in his honour. Hell was also a recipient of the Grand Cross for Distinguished Service with Star of the German Federal Republic and of the Gutenberg Prize of the City of Mainz.

Rudolf Hell is survived by his wife, Jutta, and by a daughter.

Rudolf Hell, electronics engineer, was born in Eggmühl, Bavaria, on December 19, 1901. He died in Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein, on March 11, 2002, aged 100.

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