A 'red' entrepreneur lets 90% of his profits go to a foundation for public benefit

ROBERT BOSCH (1861-1942)

When Robert Bosch, the Bosch Spark Plug manufacturer, was 23, he wrote to his future wife: “My religion is summed up in the motto: “Be just.” My god is humanity, or rather, the entire universe.

If I in any way offend any of my fellowmen, I sin. The reproach that I deprive the poor of their god, the forgiveness of sins, and the reward after death, I deny.

The first and greatest injustice in the world is that there are rich and poor; every man by birth can claim all the wealth of the earth, whether he be the child of a beggar or of a millionaire.'

Robert Bosch in 1928, aged 67. That was in 1884. As soon as he was able to do so, he gave away small sums, later larger and eventually huge sums. But he hated the tributes that came with it.

In 1910, he donated a million marks to the Technical University of Stuttgart for a foundation for the promotion of scientific research. "Make it painless for me," he said, "by linking an honorary doctorate to a financial activity, you only discredit such a title." And the farmers of his native village received 10,000 marks for a new school building, but on pain of a 500 mark fine if the news about the gift leaked out.

At the start of the First World War, he gave the mayor of Stuttgart 100,000 marks in cash to alleviate the suffering in the city. When he got home, the mayor wrote him a thank you note.

Bosch received a letter back by return mail with the words: 'I think it is very inappropriate that you waste your time sending out thank-you notes. I can assume that you have more important things to do right now.' The mayor wasn't sure how he was feeling.

And that was the experience of most people who came into contact with Robert Bosch: a very headstrong figure, who seemed to take pleasure in offending powerful people. He left behind a world group of which 90% of the capital was placed in a foundation for public benefit.

no seat meat

August Robert Bosch was born on September 23, 1861, the youngest son of twelve children in Albeck near Ulm. His father was a wealthy innkeeper, brewer and farmer. He owned sixty to seventy hectares of fields, meadows and forests, about twenty cows and six to eight horses.

Albeck was on an important trade route. One day it turned out that the new railway would not run through Albeck, and Father Bosch decided to move to town rather than see his inn dwindle. That was in 1869. The family settled in Ulm with the youngest children.

Young Robert did not find the school amusing. "I didn't have the guts for it," he would say later. He gladly followed his father's suggestion to become an instrument maker. His teacher, however, did not look at him, so that he wasted his time for three years.

Wanderjahre followed.

His 18-year-older brother Karl felt responsible for him and trained him as a merchant, took him to an international electricity exhibition in Munich, apprenticed him to a man who had worked for Edison in the United States for five years, and wrote him for a semester at the Technical University of Stuttgart.

In 1884 he traveled to the United States, where he worked in an Edison company, but he could not find his way there: 'It was not for me, who had been fond of America, to eventually live in a country where the cornerstone of justice was lacking, namely, equality before the law.'

Daimler, Benz and Diesel

At the end of 1886, aged 25, he established his own company in Stuttgart with two employees: a mechanic and an apprentice. An advertisement from those days shows what he sold: telephones, home telegraphs and lightning rods.

He offered installation and repair of electrical appliances and precision mechanical work. The year 1887 he closed
with 66 customers, including 21 doctors. For a long time, as he said later, it remained ein böses Gewürge, a terrible bum. Often on Saturdays he didn't have enough money to pay his people; a nearby fruit merchant had to help him out.

In the course of the same year, a small engine builder approached Bosch for a magnetic spark plug, an ignition mechanism for upright gas engines. In 1888 he sold eight of them. The automobile and motorcycle pioneers Daimler, Benz
and Diesel lived not so far away. They were all busy experimenting in those days, reaching out to the small company where those decent ignitions came from. Due to the increase in speed, the ignition had to be manufactured with more and more refinement.

In 1897, one of the bright minds with whom Bosch had surrounded himself, was the first to develop a magneto ignition for moving engines.

Daimler used them for the Mercedes, developed in 1898-1899, which won all competitions with flying colors. The Bosch spark plug became known. In 1900 – the year the first Zeppelin took off, equipped with a Daimler engine and a Bosch spark plug – the company employed 45 people.

In 1891 the 15-year-old apprentice Gottlob Honold had entered the factory: a real inventive spirit. He developed the first high-voltage ignition at the end of 1901. Until his death in 1923, he would be responsible for all pure inventions – in the most diverse areas.

The Great War

The company's first glorious years were between 1906 and 1914. Spark plugs were distributed everywhere cars drove. Bosch supplied the best material. Its introduction to the American market in 1906 was the beginning of a triumphal procession.

In 1905 the company had 261 employees, in 1912 there were 4500. The 100,000 spark plugs of 1906 became two million in 1915. The First World War was responsible for this last figure. Suddenly it became clear how big the role of vehicles and aircraft was in the new warfare.

Bosch could not live with the fact that he made money from the war and the suffering. He gave it away on a large scale, headstrong, often for a charitable cause. He set up a separate service within the company for the flow of begging letters that followed.

Much earlier he was known as a social employer, always thinking about optimal working conditions. In 1906, long before the legislature was to follow, he was one of the first to introduce the eight-hour day, the free Saturday afternoon and afterwards every conceivable modern social provision.

He wanted the best products and paid the highest wages, half more than was customary in his industry. Other industrialists saw it with sorrow, hated him for it.

Famous is the sentence with which he explained his wage policy: 'I don't pay high wages because I have a lot of money, I have a lot of money because I pay high wages.' After Easter Monday and Ascension Day, there was also 1 May very strikingly between the fixed days off that he introduced in 1906.

His nickname 'the red Bosch' dates from that time.

In 1912 he traveled to the United States with his wife and son Robert Junior, who suffered from multiple sclerosis. Bosch loved his only son dearly, in whom he saw reflected the interests of his own childhood: animal botany.

In 1913 he set up a studio for the three-year training of apprentices, separate from the factory. He remembered his own useless apprenticeship and feared that the youngsters would be limited in their skills if they got into the business right away.

Before World War I, 88% had gone from production abroad. After 1914, his largest clients suddenly turned out to be living in enemy territory. His factories abroad were seized, his patents were infringed. The stress made him sick.

In 1917, he was felled for quite some time by a heart enlargement that would keep him struggling for years to come. He remained invisible to the general public.

He explained in detail by letter to newspapers that asked for a photo that such a photo was pointless.

For a visit by the king of Württemberg, he refused to put on the formal dress suit. "I don't want to step through the factory in carnival costumes in front of my workers," he said. The visit ultimately did not take place.

The company still keeps letters in its archives today with, for example, the invitation to a reception on which the invitee wrote in the margin: 'I have a sickly aversion to such intrusions on my personal freedom.'

Such was Robert Bosch. The rebellious, the obstinate, the oppositional, the non-recognition of authority, that's what he got from his father, according to biographers. The social sense came from his mother.

He was only openly proud of his talent as a hunter, his keen eye and steady hand: 'I fell six deer with six cartridges from a distance of 300 meters,' he wrote in 1941, aged 79. "But don't tell your Swiss friends that because they'll only believe it if they've seen it with their own eyes."


Difficult years followed after the Great War. The old enemies took special measures against German products. An arduous struggle ensued to regain possessions and markets abroad. Germany itself lay in ruins and only got out of the inflation spiral after 1924.

Nevertheless, at the first post-war race, which was held in Switzerland, 90% of the vehicles were equipped with a Bosch spark plug.

The company diversified. Inventor Honold had previously developed car lighting with parabolic metal mirrors, devised mounting lamps at the rear and achieved reduction of glare. The electric starters were bought from an American inventor.

The research department, always pampered, followed with the famous Bosch horn (sale 1926: one million units), the electric bicycle light, the electric windscreen wiper (1926), the connection between brake light and brake pedal (1928), later the diesel injection pump.

In the thirties refrigerators and radios followed and there were even experiments with television. It almost goes without saying that Bosch was able to supply the complete electrical equipment for the new Volkswagens.

In 1921, while he was traveling in South America, his son died, aged 30. Old Bosch had said goodbye to him for ten years. His wife, who had been sick all this time, did not recover from the death and languished. Bosch got a divorce and remarried in 1926.

In 1928 another son was born who was named Robert.


Bosch would never commit himself to the politics of the turbulent 1930s. He never gave a single mark to any party. He hated the right-wing bourgeois parties, German nationalism. As much as possible, he strengthened ties with France.

The founders of the Pan-European Union – a distant predecessor of the United Nations – could count on a check for 300,000 marks.

When Hitler came to power, he froze with fear: 'It does not seem impossible to me that one of my enemies may succeed in putting me in a concentration camp,' he wrote. He refused to participate in a meeting of Hitler with the top industrialists of the country.

He wanted to present his plans for a European Union to the chancellor in private, in word and in reply.

Hitler called him to him at the end of 1933 and asked: 'What are your wishes?' Bosch was angry and replied: 'I did not ask for this interview.' Then, in his crude Swabian peasant style, he continues: 'You must feel very strange in that Bismarck chair.' Hitler jumped to his feet, drummed his fingers furiously on the window frame and did not let him speak again.

Later Bosch would say contemptuously, "That wants to be a statesman and doesn't even know what justice is."

Afterwards, a friend of Bosch was accused by the Nazis that the mysterious industrialist had called Hitler 'a madman'. When the war broke out, he responded with the words: 'I am glad that the time has come.

This is the only way to get rid of those bandits.” And: 'Surely there will be one soldier who wants to get rid of Hitler.'

Jokingly, he occasionally said he could easily live to be 100. He took great care of his physical condition and his memory remained excellent.

It had once been able to recognize 1500 workers and remember their function. "My memory is almost as bad as young people's," he sometimes said.

He had changed the financial structure of his company at the time in such a way that the profits for 90% could only be used for the public benefit.

He had always shunned large-scale advertising 'so as not to arouse the interest of the electrotechnical major capital.' The construction was designed for it
that his creation would not end up in the 'industrial capitalist merry-go-round' after his death. The Bosch Group has maintained that structure to this day.

In 1940 he built a large hospital for homeopathic and biological medicine in Stuttgart. He enjoyed watching his second Robert grow up. In September 1941 he celebrated his 80th birthday.

In November he developed a middle ear infection, which he apparently did not pay enough attention to. By March 1942, the ailment had spread to such an extent that no help was needed. A few days later he was dead.
At that time, he employed 40,000 men.

For the Allies, the Bosch factories were an important military target. 'He was spared the destruction of his life's work, that was God's grace,' says Theodor Heuss, later Federal President, who would work on Bosch's biography Bosch in 1890 on his way to his clients throughout the war.

The secret of Bosch was not only his eye for precision, his drive to produce only the best. He had an extraordinary gift for surrounding himself with talented people and was adept at delegating.

Robert Bosch, he himself had to repeat it so many times, never invented anything: he knew how to discover the people who did it for him.