The apprentice and the gear

How Maschinenfabrik Reinhausen made the move to tap changers.
Freely adapted based on a true story.

Regensburg, 4 November 1929, 10 a.m.

“I can’t believe nobody’s managed it!” exclaimed Dr. Bernhard Jansen, crumpling up the letter from yet another metalworking shop. The gear still lay on the table. A gear with a drilled hole which the young engineer from Hanover stared at angrily. That confounded hole! Why couldn’t anyone make one that wasn’t drilled, he wondered.

Jansen stood up, walked to the door and looked into the outer office.
“Miss Egelhofer, would you be so kind as to make me a cup of tea?”
“Of course, sir. Are you feeling alright?”
“Well, we’ve just had a ’no’ from the Niekisch shop this morning. That’s the sixth one now. I’m starting to worry that we just won’t be able to build these prototypes. It’s all perfectly clear on paper, but try as I might I can’t find a competent metalworker any­where around here. Anyway, I don’t want to bother you with all this. I’d like chamomile with plenty of sugar, please.”

Jansen closed the door again and went to the window. The working day out on the streets was in full swing. Horse-drawn carts bearing timber and crates of apples rumbled past Jansen’s office. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Mayor Hipp’s car turn off. His was the only green car in the whole of Regensburg. Jansen’s gaze rested on the sooty smoke rising from the chimney of the Bavarian sugar factory, the largest in the area. They, too, were hungry for Jansen’s electricity.

Bernhard Jansen, director of Oberpfalzwerke, had been unable to get hold of any suitable gears. Why was it that not a single metalworking shop could make a non-drilled one? © Gernot Walter

Jansen was the technical director of Oberpfalzwerke, a regional utility company supplying power to Regensburg and the surrounding areas. His reputation as a talented, even brilliant inventor had helped him secure this management-board position in Bavaria, despite being just 29 years old at the time. That was over a year ago now. During his application for the post he impressed his future employers with the patent he held for a tap changer that could switch transformers at full load without interrupting the power supply. This could be a solution to an increasingly urgent issue: How could power plants provide homes with electricity at a constant voltage? With the increasing number of factories and plants requiring electricity, there was suddenly a huge number of consumers connected to, and severely affecting, the power grid. Each time they started up or shut down, there were power outages. Jansen’s idea could change the power supply landscape.

But what use was a patent if he couldn’t find someone to build his tap changer? Jansen went back to his desk and looked through the rest of yesterday’s correspondence. It was a dreary day so he switched on his desk lamp.

He knew that everyone wanted power these days, and his job as director of Oberpfalzwerke was to give them what they wanted.

In fact, the challenge went far beyond his individual role as a director. Electricity for all was the future. Jansen had been a firm believer of this for many years. Yet it seemed like everything had reached a dead end. There had been no technical progress and nobody knew how to extend the power grids without losing control over them. Jansen, who
believed he had an answer to this very issue, was failing at the first hurdle because nobody could even build his gear.

His office door opened. It was Miss Egelhofer with his tea, with his engineer Landauer in tow. From the look on Landauer’s face, Jansen knew it wasn’t good news.

“Thank you, Miss Egelhofer. Mr. Landauer, what’s troubling you?”
“Good morning, sir. AEG has sent a letter. You might want to take a look.”

Landauer handed him an open envelope and stood waiting at the desk with his arms folded. Was he planning to watch while Jansen read the letter?

Apparently so. AEG – the general electricity company in Berlin – was Jansen’s most important partner. Some time ago, he had signed a lucrative license agreement with them. AEG wanted to build his tap changer on a large scale and install it in their transformers. If it worked, Jansen looked set to become a wealthy man. Yet first he had to deliver a prototype to prove that his switch would deliver on his promises. Jansen read the letter.

Dear Sirs,

With regard to your letter dated 3 October 1929, we hereby take the liberty of requesting further information: When might we expect delivery of the “tap changer” invention as per Imperial Patent Office numbers 467560, 474613, and 496564? You will forgive us for expecting a firm commitment from you as soon as possible.

Respectfully yours, Dr. Konrad Blenkle

“We’re in a real fix now, Landauer. They’re losing patience in Berlin.”
“With respect, sir, have we really tried absolutely everything in our power?”

“Well what do you think I’ve been doing all this time? Reading the newspaper? I simply can’t find a metalworking shop that can make this blasted gear, not to mention all the rest of it!” said Jansen, slumping in his seat and shaking his head in exasperation. “It’s getting ridiculous.”
“I might know someone else who could help: Kare Scheubeck from Reinhausen, a friend of mine.”

“Well, his full name is Oskar. He has a metalworking shop with his brother and makes all sorts of things. He’s a clever fellow.”
“Very well then, why not. In the worst case he’ll just be the seventh person who can’t do it. I’ll go and see him in person. Let your friend know I’ll be coming first thing tomorrow at nine.”
“I’ll take care of it, sir.”

Reinhausen, 5 November 1929, 8:30 a.m.

Oskar Scheubeck rubbed his temples. This headache was driving him to distraction. He had barely slept for days. He wondered which would come first: bankruptcy or a restful night.

Scheubeck didn’t know much about either politics or the national economy, but he understood that something crucial had happened a few days ago when the New York Stock Exchange had crashed. Normally this would not have bothered him, but circumstances had been unusual for some time. The Berlin government changed almost yearly, and there were constant disputes about war reparations to the victors of the World War. Now there was this new Young Plan. The Nazis were marching in the streets more and more often, chanting their slogans. The Communists had even started appearing. Here in Catholic Regensburg, they had never gained a foothold before. It must have been down to all the unemployment. Meanwhile, someone turned up almost every day asking Scheubeck for work at his shop. He turned them down nearly every time.

And now, to top it all off, there was this crisis at the stock exchange all the way over in America. Scheubeck knew that a lot of American money was keeping the Reich running. If even America was in trouble now, then God have mercy.
“Jansen from Oberpfalzwerke is coming today, isn’t he?”

Richard’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “Yes that’s right; he’ll be here soon.”
“Will you talk to him? I have to go to the bank with father soon to ask for a repayment deferral.”
“Will do.”

“Oskar, listen. This is very serious. Even if the bank accommodates our request, it’s only a matter of time. We need something new. Something that works, preferably for the long term. Maybe Jansen can give us something like that. Be polite and helpful, understood? And remember: it’s Doctor Jansen. Doctor – don’t forget. That’s important to a Prussian.”

Richard threw on his coat and went out of the workshop into the morning drizzle. Meanwhile, Oskar Scheubeck drank a sip of his pure bean coffee. It was the only luxury they could still indulge in these days.

Apart from his brother Richard and Oskar himself, just ten people remained at the once proud Maschinenfabrik Reinhausen, which had belonged to their father. Until just recently, they had still been making cleaving frame saws, the origin of the “Maschinenfabrik” (machine factory) part of their company name. Yet since the end of the war, the timber side of the business had slowed down and the new, much faster band saws had overtaken their model. In the spring they had decided to discontinue production. Since then, the metalworkers had been making a bit of everything, working on whatever would earn them some money including bicycle parts, fittings, and window frames for rail cars. In the summer they had staked everything they had and built a small airplane. Any inventor worth his salt was building airplanes. After all, Lindbergh had just completed the first transatlantic flight. But the Scheubeck brothers’ prototype crashed, and with it, they lost the last of their savings.

Scheubeck took another sip of coffee. His headaches were terrible.
There was a knock on the door.
“Please come in!”

A tall man in a well-cut suit entered the workshop. Quite young for a director.
“You must be Oskar Scheubeck? I’m Dr. Jansen, director of Oberpfalzwerke. Mr. Landauer, my engineer, recommended you.”
“Yes, he came to see me yesterday. Do come over, Mr. Jansen. How can I help you? It would be an honor.”
Confound it, he had forgotten to say “Doctor”! Richard would be furious.

Jansen pulled some papers out of his bag and spread them out on the workbench. Scheubeck looked at the set of complex construction drawings.
“It’s this one here,” said Jansen, pointing to a gear. “Very simple as a concept. Can you
make this for me, with exactly these proportions? I need it as soon as possible. The most important thing is that you stick exactly to the specification. And I mean exactly.”
“What is the part for?”
“I’m using it to build a tap changer for transformers.”
“Never heard of that.”
“It doesn’t matter. The main thing is that you make this gear for me. Can I count on you?”
“Of course, Doctor!”
“Good. Let me know when you’ve done it. Good day to you, Mr. Scheubeck.”
“Goodbye, Doctor Jansen!”
Off he went. An odd fellow. Scheubeck took his time looking at the drawing.
This awful headache!


That same day, at 10 a.m.

Franz Xaver Bauer was whistling The Gypsy Baron. The young apprentice had had the tune in his head since his weekend visit to the Strauss operetta at the city hall. The song and Ottilie. What an evening. After the music they had taken a long night-time walk to Ottilie’s house. Despite the cold, he had felt warm inside.

He had finally experienced something beautiful again. Here at the workshop, people barely smiled any more. Since the Scheubecks’ airplane had crashed, whenever he saw the brothers around the building they had long faces. Bauer suspected that the machine factory was on its last legs. One coworker after another had been leaving. Some stayed nearby, while others went as far as Munich. People were saying that there was still a lot of work there for diligent metalworkers. Should he follow suit? But what about Ottilie?

Xaver laid out his tools and began filing. It would be terrible if the machine factory closed down! His mother had been so happy when Xaver had found such a good apprenticeship. Metal – people would always need metal. Xaver’s father had been lost in action around that time; he was buried somewhere in France. Xaver could barely remember him. His picture was hanging in the living room. Xaver’s mother still decorated it with fresh flowers every week. In the picture, he was the same age as Xaver was now. His mother was almost always away doing laundry work, but now he could finally support her with his apprentice wage.

“Xaver, come here a moment.” The young Mr. Scheubeck had called him over.
“Yes, Mr. Scheubeck.” He approached Oskar Scheubeck’s workbench, noticing that he was staring at a couple of sheets of paper. His boss looked even more morose than he had over the last few days.
“Look, Xaver, we have a new order. The director from the power plant wants us to make this gear and he’s in a hurry to make it happen. Think about how you’d make something like this.”
“Of course, Mr. Scheubeck. Shall I work on it alone?”
“Yes please, my headaches might yet be the death of me. I’m going upstairs to lie down for a while. Richard will be back from the bank soon. You can ask him if you’re struggling with it.”
“Understood, sir.”
“One more thing, Xaver. Make sure you work hard on this. You never know, the director might send more orders our way afterward. You know how much we need this. Tell me later what you’ve come up with, alright?”

Young Scheubeck clapped him on the shoulder and headed for the stairs. Xaver Bauer looked at the drawing. It was certainly complicated. He could barely decipher the handwritten dimensions. He stood looking at it for 20 minutes. Then he decided to just get started.

With only a few finishing touches, apprentice Franz Xaver Bauer finished the gear. It took him just one day. Let’s see what the masters think about it…
© Gernot Walter

6 p.m that evening

Bernhard Jansen knocked on the workshop door. He had heard from Landauer that the Scheubecks had already made the gear. Could this really be true?
“Please come in!” Jansen stepped inside.
“Good evening, gentlemen.”

Jansen looked at Oskar Scheubeck standing at the workbench, with a young lad beside him wearing a hat. A gear lay on the bench. His gear. Jansen went straight up to him and shook his hand.
“Astounding! That looks very good!”

Jansen weighed the part in his hands and inspected it from every side. He took a yard stick and caliper from his bag and measured all the important dimensions. They were perfect.

“And you managed this in just a single day, Mr. Scheubeck? Unbelievable.”

“Yes, Doctor. I mean, no. It wasn’t me who did it – it was my young apprentice here, Xaver. I actually just wanted him to think about it, but then he went ahead and made it and has just shown it to me.”

Bernhard Jansen is delighted. The gear is perfect! “With Maschinenfabrik Reinhausen we can make this happen,” he thought to himself, and promptly placed an order with Oskar Scheubeck for more work. © Gernot Walter

“Excuse me? It took you just a day to make something that six metalworking shops in Regensburg haven’t managed in weeks? How did you even do it?”

The young man flushed red.
“I couldn’t say, Doctor. I just started and then… I can’t even explain it.”
Jansen couldn’t help but laugh.
“Well you’ve really impressed me, Xaver!”

Scheubeck grinned at his apprentice. The teacher was proud of his accomplished student. And with good reason. It was a truly extraordinary achievement.
Jansen put out his hand toward Xaver, who grasped it and flushed red again.
“Well done, young man!”
Then Jansen went to shake Scheubeck’s hand.
“Do you know what, Mr. Scheubeck? If your apprentices are already smarter than the experts elsewhere, I think I’ve found the right metalworking shop. I would like you to make more parts for me. Do you agree?”
“We would be truly delighted, Doctor.”

“I have some other drawings here,” Jansen said, pulling a few other pages out of his bag and placing them on the workbench. Scheubeck stood to his left, and the apprentice to his right.

Jansen began to explain.
“Right, so this is the tap changer.”


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