125th anniversary of Rheinmetall – the years 1956 to 1989
On a Carnival Monday in the 1930s, a Rheinmetall cannon shot sweets into the air. The firing device had been built for the -Düsseldorf Carnival Corps. The order presented quite a challenge since the cannon was supposed to produce a bang without causing the sweets to taste of gunpowder. Besides, fired sweets were not to injure any of the Carnival revellers.
In the end, the cannon exceeded all expectations which is hardly surprising as Professor Dr. e. h. Carl Waninger – a leading naval systems designer of the 1920s and 1930s at Rheinmetall – had participated in the development. In his memoirs aptly entitled Knallbonbons (meaning crackers), the man who was later to become managing director of defence activities at Rheinmetall GmbH recalled this astonishing event. Subtitled “Die merkwürdigen Kanonaden eines alten Konstrukteurs” (“the weird cannonade of an old designer”), the 249 page book mainly written in the third person gives many interesting details about patented designs of the bearded professor
His staff often referred to him as the “cannon Christ” due to his head of hair, something Carl Waninger thought worthy of mention – and not without reason.
Antitrust dispute relating to WMF AG: No-Go for Rheinmetall
The German national press had some unusual news in February 1981. Unexpectedly, the German Antitrust Authorities had rejected the acquisition of the traditional WMF company by the Rheinmetall group. Why did Rheinmetall want to buy WMF? For many years, the defence-oriented company had been trying to purchase a profitable and strong civil business. But most of the related engineering company shareholdings were highly unprofitable. The acquisition of WMF – the former major shareholder was loosely related to the Röchling family which was the majority shareholder of Rheinmetall – was to bring a change of fortune. Until the “No” came from Berlin.
In the following weeks, months and years, Rheinmetall lawyers tried hard to convince the Antitrust Authorities that Rheinmetall and WMF would not be operating in the same market sectors – normally this was the reason for a formal prohibition order. Indeed, what Rheinmetall CEO Dr. Hans-Ludwig Hockel claimed in front of the press sounded quite absurd: nobody could honestly assume that tank weapons and cutlery or pots and pans would attract the same customers. But the Antitrust Authority had its reasons for turning down the request: WMF already held a strong position on the technical consumer goods market and the financial strength of Röchling was likely to reinforce this position.
The proceedings lasted four years – ultimately leading to an application for ministerial approval. In a preliminary informal meeting at the ministry, the Rheinmetall executive board was then persuaded to dispense with the formal application. And when a strong investor suddenly appeared from nowhere, Rheinmetall gave up the WMF project in 1985 and invested in Pierburg ... but that is another story.
At long last: Making the mark at 125
A book was to be written to celebrate Rheinmetall’s centenary – a book that was to consist of seven volumes: one volume for the company history and another six describing the history of weapons technology. In the end, the executive board called off the project in 1985 because it was too expensive.
Another attempt was made in 1987. This time, the tome was to consist of one volume only, written by a military historian. He duly set about the task of studying the relevant documents and literature, and before even delivering his first interim report, handed in the first bill; this was followed by complete silence until Rheinmetall sent him birthday wishes in February 1989, the year of the centenary, and asked for the results of his work. These came in form of 111 pages, describing Rheinmetall’s history up to the Third Reich.
More was never received. Dr. Brauner, the chairman of the executive board at that time, thus had no choice but to inform guests invited to the centenary celebrations that the group had deliberately chosen not to have a special centenary publication written! The centenary book had simply disappeared.
The “fast breeder” from Geislingen
Rheinmetall was not only known for its automatic firearms but also for rapid cooking – thanks to the revolutionary WMF Super 3 pressure cooker developed by Württembergische Metallwarenfabrik, aka WMF. Between 1980 and 1985, the well-known company belonged to Rheinmetall Berlin AG.
Researchers from the WMF headquarters in Geislingen an der Steige had succeeded in fitting a third cooking stage. Similar to the “fast breeder” nuclear reactor, this turbo cooker was designed to produce fuel – of the edible type in this case.
WMF launched the biggest advertising campaign ever for a pressure cooker to spread the news about the shorter cooking times. Buyers didn’t hesitate and soon made the “fast breeder” from Geislingen the season’s top selling product. The Super 3 has long since become a cult object and spares for the cooker are in high demand on Ebay.
Rheinmetall in space
The reason for Rheinmetall’s first space venture with the Ariane 5 launcher that lifted off from the Kourou spaceport in March 2004 is given on page 15 of this special Newsline edition. Actually, members of the Rheimetall group had already actively taken part in space research even before then – for instance, the Düsseldorf-based company Aviatest GmbH. On the initiative of the physicist and undersecretary of North Rhine-Westphalia Professor Leo Brandt, who was also a member of the Rheinmetall Supervisory Board, Aviatest was to participate in European space projects. Unfortunately, the Eldo A Launcher developed in Trauen, Lower Saxony, for which Aviatest had built the test rigs never made it into space.
Alkett, a Rheinmetall subsidiary in Berlin, had already made it possible to observe and study the skies as early as 1956. Alkett delivered the two drives for the telescope mirror of the radio telescope located near Bad Münstereifel on the edge of the Eifel: the azimuth drive for horizontal rotation and the elevation drive for vertical rotation of the mirror. “Both drives are still fully functional today”, says Dr. Wolfgang Herrmann; the retired physicist readjusts the mirror daily. In fact, the radio telescope in Eschweiler is today a museum of technology belonging to the trust of North Rhine-Westphalia from where burnt-out, collapsed suns, so-called pulsars whose radio emissions can be received on earth, can be observed.
Glue in tank
Nothing could be better for a manufacturer of bulk products than to achieve a product defect rate of zero. This naturally also applies to Pierburg, but was not always attainable in the days of carburettor production in Neuss.
Yet, the carburettor wasn’t the sole cause of engine problems. “In those days, if a car didn’t start properly or the engine sputtered, everybody immediately thought it was the carburettor,” recalls the former Pierburg engineer Peter Klotzbach. “In fact, we often found that the problem lay elsewhere. Sometimes, the car manufacturers themselves had caused the problem. Still, the -immediate reaction was to blame the carburettor.”
Furthermore, the DVG (Deutsche Vergaser Gesellschaft) carburettor company existing at the time was not responsible for many of the defects that were clearly attributable to the carburettor. Peter Klotzbach remembers that many VW Beetles exported to the USA were loaded onto ships in Bremerhaven. “For this, it was necessary to fill the cars with just enough fuel to drive them onto and off the ship and not more.
This frequently meant that the Beetle engines wouldn’t start when the ship finally arrived at its destination in America. In fact, once none of the VW Beetle engines could be started on arrival in the USA. Who took the blame? The carburettor, of course, in other words us at Pierburg! The carburettors were examined and it was found that the float needle valves were completely glued up. “Stuck” or “glued up” needle valves were sometimes attributable to a carburettor production fault, but this time the problem was caused by something quite different: residues of glue were found and it transpired that Pierburg was not to blame for the problem. The tank truck that had refuelled the VW -Beetles in Bremerhaven had previously been used to transport glue – and hadn’t been rinsed properly. This meant the Beetles had not only been filled with fuel but also with Pattex glue