Timekeeping in the former East Germany

Gebrüder Thiel GmbH – Ruhla

Ruhla – Early Metalwork Production

Thiel & Bardenheuer, Ruhla - Oil Lamp Wick Burner Winder

Thiel & Bardenheuer, Ruhla – Oil Lamp Wick Burner Winder

In the early Middle Ages the main industry in the Ruhla area was weapon and armour forging facilitated by the charcoal burners from the local forests. In the surrounding mountains, iron stone was smelted on site using the wood from the forests to produce pig iron. As needs for weapons and armour changed the area found it difficult to compete with emerging production techniques in the 18th Century. The local industry in Ruhla turned to making various small metal items including metal pipes and using the resources from the local forests developed a trade in timber.

Gebrüder Thiel GmbH  (1862 – 1945)

Siegmund Thiel

Siegmund Thiel

Thiel Brothers was founded in 1862. The brothers had previously worked at their father’s small pipe fittings factory in Ruhla. The new company soon found further small metal items for mass production such as pocket watch cases, brass weight cases, oil lamps and hooks etc. From 1869, the company produced heel protectors and toe caps for children’s shoes, an important product since shoes were still expensive and handmade. By this time, the company had expanded to about 80 employees.

Christian and George Thiel

Christian and George Thiel

In 1873, a new site, Bahnhofstrasse 27, Ruhla, was established for production on the site of an old felt factory. In 1875, the company established its own power source using a watermill which operated until 1924. This site is still occupied to the present day by the successor company, Gardé Ruhla.

Thiel Factory from a Postcard

Thiel Factory from a Postcard

During the 1870s, the company focused on small metal novelty items which later developed into children’s music boxes. These music boxes were sold in large volumes both in Germany and abroad. Another later development was a children’s imitation clock. Again, these were sold in large volumes, particularly in America. The company had now expanded to approximately 200 employees.

Further development of the children’s musical box and clock continued with increasing sales to Great Britain and America. By the late 1880s the company had developed a movement with a 12 hour power reserve to satisfy the American market.

This later led to the development of a utility pocket watch, which could be used generally as a timepiece. The company Gebrüder Thiel was the first German company to produce a usable and cheap pocket watch. This retailed for about 3 marks and proved very successful both in Germany and abroad.

Thiel Fearless

Produced from 1892. The technically simple and inexpensive (three marks) clock with a very awkward lift of 120 rpm for 12 to 15 hours power reserve was frowned upon by reputable watchmakers and watch retailers initially, but the “Fearless” remained unrivalled for many years. In 1897, 4000 pieces per day were being produced mainly for export to America.

Thiel Milling Machine

Thiel Milling Machine

Gebrüder Thiel Machinenfabrike Gmbh

This success required completely new ways of working and machinery. The Thiel Brothers were instrumental in developing new machinery to be able to produce the mechanisms in quantity for mass production. These machines were built by Thiel and eventually became another arm of production at the works in itself from about 1910. The company became a leader in the field of cutting and shaping machinery in Germany and further developments led to Thiel producing machinery for other companies. Thus emerged the Gebrüder Thiel Machinenfabrike Gmbh.

This expansion continued until the outbreak of the First World War when the company turned its production to national defence. With the end of the war, despite adverse domestic and international conditions, production resumed and international trade developed.

1930s/40s

The economic crisis reached its peak in Germany in 1932 following which the National Socialists came to power and there was a new economic surge. Subsequently, both watch production and machine fabrication increased. Two further watch making plants were established in Meiningen and Apolda which were to last into the 1940s. However, the London sales office of Gebrüder Thiel Ltd established before the Great War and which was one of the main sales outlets for the company’s watch making products was closed in 1927.

The success of the Thiel Brothers wrist and pocket watches was due to their low price, ability to mass produce and durability. The company was able to adapt to different requirements in different overseas and home markets and produce various models and designs at an affordable price.

Thiel Watches Advert 1936

Thiel Watches Advert 1936

With the political developments of the 1930s and subsequent outbreak of the Second World War, the Thiel Company again concentrated on production for the military. The company continued production throughout the war until the Allies liberated Europe and entered Germany. The American Forces dismissed the Staff of Thiel Brothers. Later, the American and British Forces withdrew from the area around Ruhla and Eastern Germany in early July 1945 as this area was assigned to Soviet Forces under the Potsdam Agreement. The Soviet Administration of Eastern Germany began to assess industry and manufacturing plants in the Soviet Zone in order to re-establish production or remove machinery to the USSR as reparations. GerbüderThiel was administered by Soviet state enterprise Avtovelo.

Thiel Pocket and Wristwatches for the Young - Advert 1938

Thiel Pocket and Wristwatches for the Young – Advert 1938

Growing economic differences combined with developing political tensions between the USA and the Soviet Union (which would eventually develop into the Cold War) manifested in the refusal in 1947 of the Soviet Military Administration to take part in the USA’s Marshall Plan. In March 1948, the United States, Britain, and France met in London and agreed to unite the Western zones and to establish a West German republic. The Soviet Union responded by leaving the Allied Control Council and prepared to create an East German state. In 1949, under the Soviet influence in Eastern Germany the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was proclaimed on 7th October.

In 1952, the Soviet Administration handed the company to the fledgling East German state and it became the Volkseigene Betrieb (VEB) Uhren und Maschinenfabrik Ruhla – see a Short History of Ruhla Watches


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