Rudolf Hell

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The Independent Online

Rudolf Hell, inventor: born Eggmühl, Bavaria, 19 December 1901; married (one daughter); died Kiel, Germany 11 March 2002.

Although little known outside Germany, except in specialist circles, Rudolf Hell was very much a man who helped to shape the world as we know it. In 1927 he invented a direction-finder for pilots and in 1929 he invented the Hellschreiber, a precursor of the fax machine. He was also responsible for contributions to scanner technology, television and printing.

Born in the small Bavarian town of Eggmühl, near Regensburg, in 1901, Hell studied electronics at Munich Technical University. His great idea was to divide letters, numbers and pictures into small points by electronic means, to transmit these by electronic impulses and to directly write images of characters on paper tape. Already in 1925 the young graduate invented a picture-disassembler tube which was the technical precondition for television. He became famous, however, in 1929, for his Hellschreiber (teleprinter). This machine was soon being used by the post, press, police and meteorological service. In 1929 Hell gained his doctorate in engineering for his Funkpeilgerät or radio-beam flight direction finder.

The Hellschreiber was patented in 1929, and is still in use today using the original format. Hell's machine was the first successful direct printing text transmission system, and was very popular at a time when teleprinters were complex and expensive (the Hell receiving mechanism had only two moving parts). At first the Hellschreiber was mostly used for land-line press services, which continued well into the 1980s. A military version, Hell-Feld, was used by the German Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil War in the Thirties. During the Second World War, Hellschreiber was widely used for field portable military communications, for which it proved to be very suitable because the equipment was simple and robust. His company also manufactured encoding machines and acoustic mine exploders.

Unlike many other inventors, Hell was a practical businessman who was able to market his ideas. In 1929 he founded his own firm in Berlin-Neubabelsberg, which prospered in the 1930s. Inevitably, given its importance for the German armed forces, it was an obvious target for Allied bombing and was plundered at the war's end when the Red Army arrived. As his business was in the Soviet sector of Berlin, Hell felt he would have little chance to continue his work there. Undeterred, he relocated to West Germany taking some of his staff with him.

He recommenced his operations and his experiments in Kiel in 1949. His firm began by repairing Hellschreiber machines, but later went on to produce another of his inventions, an electronically controlled printing block engraver, the Klischograph. By the 1960s Hell employed over 2,000 workers. He saw his firm as a producer of ground-breaking technology rather than just a volume producer in a market increasingly challenged by cheaper foreign products.

In 1964 Hell invented the Digiset, the first digital typesetter. The original fonts for these high-quality, high-production machines were the work of Hermann Zapf and Gerard Unger.

Although Hell gave up the management of the firm in the 1970s, when it became part of Siemens, he remained its chairman until the 1990s, when the company merged with Linotype, becoming Linotype-Hell, by which time he was himself over 90.

Towards the end of his life Hell's achievements were increasingly recognised. He was awarded the City of Mainz Gutenberg Prize in 1977 and the Grand Cross for Distinguished Service with Star of the Federal Republic of Germany. One of his last engagements was to attend a celebration of his 100 years in the Kiel City Hall last December.

Hell was known as a genial and modest person and a good employer. Norbert Gansel, the Mayor of Kiel, called him "the Edison of the graphic industry". In his spare time Hell was an enthusiastic yachtsman and lived near the Baltic Sea.

David Childs