From steam power to the Internet of Things

Industrial revolutions determine the pace of progress. TÜV SÜD has been a part of all four

Depicted here is a weaving mill in Manchester around the turn of the last century. An Englishman by the name of Edmund Cartwright invented the world’s first steam power-driven loom in England in 1787. This “power loom” is considered to represent the origin of the first industrial revolution. Steam power would later drive pumps, ships, and locomotives. Starting in 1866, steam boiler inspection associations in Germany began inspecting the safety of the new technology.
Photo: Manchester Historic Association

By the end of the 19th century, electrical energy had made mass production possible, which marked the second industrial revolution. A slaughterhouse in Cincinnati, Ohio, used a simple assembly line for the first time, in 1870. In Germany, the Bayerische Revisionsverein (Bavarian steam boiler inspection association) was inspecting ice production plants, power generating stations, and various factories.
Illustration: Getty Images

In the early 1970s, production became even more automated. Electronics and information technologies revolutionized technical capabilities for a third time. Machines increasingly took over decision-making processes and controlled industrial production. TÜV SÜD has been involved in the realm of computers and remote data processing since the 1960s. This internationally active company ensures that sensitive data in networks is properly protected.
Photo: Reinhard Eisele / project photos

In a digital factory, software controls production processes, while machines and components communicate with each other. TÜV SÜD is prepared for the fourth industrial revolution and a part of it, too. The global company is working on methods to ensure that industrial facilities of the future can operate safely in the Industry 4.0 era.

Serving as milestones of technological progress, industrial revolutions taking place since the end of the 18th century have brought about dramatic changes in society. TÜV SÜD’s predecessors made technical innovations safer by instituting inspections. The fourth industrial revolution is now in full swing, and once again TÜV SÜD is ensuring compliance with safety standards.

It is a splendid early morning in August 1888, on a country road near Pforzheim in southern Germany. A man is enjoying a ride on his high-wheel (early form of a bicycle) and his day is about to take a turn for the worse. A horseless carriage rushes towards him, making a tremendous din and stirring up clouds of dust and fumes. A woman is sitting on the driver’s bench, with two children behind her clutching on to the vehicle. Attempting to shield his face, the man lets go of his handlebars and crashes into the ditch. “Hell and damnation,” he curses as he dusts himself off.

He had just had an encounter with an automobile on its first-ever cross-country drive. Bertha, the wife of Carl Benz, and her sons had just rattled past him. For her, it was a drive into the future; for the man in the ditch, it was a near-death experience.  

New technologies generate fear. Hissing steam engines, hurtling locomotives, aeroplanes, nuclear power plants, and the internet. Fear dissipates once people understand how something functions, how to classify it, and how to assess its risks.

This is where TÜV SÜD comes into play. It was founded 150 years ago to control the risks and vagaries of the most significant and simultaneously most accident-prone technology of the time, namely steam power. Regular inspections made it possible to identify safety deficiencies in a timely manner and to prevent the dangers of boiler explosions. It is hard to estimate how many lives the work of inspectors and experts has ultimately saved.

As Germany took giant steps forging ahead to become an industrialized society, inspection associations expanded the scope of their activities. Technical monitoring served as a catalyst by fostering the spread of innovative technologies because it made them safer and thus more acceptable to people in their everyday lives.

Over time, the associations, which were uniformly referred to as TÜV, gradually evolved into pioneers of economic transformation and technological change, as exemplified by TÜV SÜD Product Service GmbH that was founded in 1989. These associations were already working on internationally standardized safety norms for consumer goods before a globalized economy was even a concept.

Today as we stand on the threshold of Industry 4.0, self-driving cars, and “smart” homes, technological progress is associated with entirely new prospects and risks. However, a look back at history shows that the role of technical monitoring has not changed since the steam engine era, namely to turn brilliant ideas into socially relevant realities. This can only take place when people learn to trust new technologies – because their safety was inspected first.