Sophie Henschel (1841–1915)

Sophie Henschel led the Henschel engineering company, which built railway locomotives and other mechanical equipment, from 1894 to 1912. Under her management it was the largest employer in the city of Kassel, with over 2,000 staff, and the most productive locomotive factory in Europe, exporting across the world.

She was born Caroline Elisabeth Francisca Sophie Caesar, the daughter of Prussian landowners in Minden, Westphalia. Aged 21 she married Carl Anton Oscar Henschel, who led the engineering works of his family, Henschel and Son. The firm was established as a metal foundry in 1785 and built its first railway locomotives in the 1840s. Carl and Sophie had four children together, but she took a close interest in business affairs and was consulted often by her husband. When he died in 1894 she took over leadership of the company.

Many people were sceptical that, as a woman, she would be able to run the business, especially as it was not considered possible for her to go into the workshops and foundries. However, she organised the business from her home, and she was soon recognised for her ability. She decided against making Henschel a public company so that she could retained control. In 1900 the works celebrated having built 10,000 locomotives and it was making 800 more every year. She built a new administration building at Holländischer Platz, purchased the Heinrichshütte steelworks near Hattingen and acquired iron ore and coal mines. She continued working into her seventies and handed ownership of the company to her son Karl in 1912, three years before she died. The company later diversified into road vehicles, tanks and aircraft and was absorbed by ThyssenKrupp.

Henschel was one of the wealthiest women in Germany. She supported many causes in health and welfare, especially the Red Cross. The company also provided housing and baths for workers, schools for their children, health insurance, accident insurance and a forest recreation centre.

One of the sites of the engineering works is now used by the University of Kassel, where the Institute of Materials Engineering was named Sophie-Henschel-Haus in 2004. The Kassel Technical Museum is dedicated to the Henschel company.