Lazare Weiller (1858–1928)

Lazare Weiller was a French engineer, industrialist and politician who developed new technologies in several fields. His companies were major suppliers of wire for telephones and telegraphs.

Born to a Jewish family in Alsace, Weiller was sent away when the region was absorbed by Germany following the Franco-Prussian War. He was educated at the Lycée Saint-Louis in Paris and Oxford University in England, where he read Greek, physics and chemistry. After military service he took a job in a factory owned by his family at Angoulême that made copper-wire mesh, which was used particularly in paper-making.

Demand for copper wire was increasing for telegraph and telephone cables: Weiller examined methods of wire-drawing using hot rolls. He developed a bronze alloy that combined good conductivity with sufficient tensile strength to hang between poles 50-m apart – an important factor for telegraph and telephone companies setting out extensive new networks. In 1881, he established a company to make wires at a factory at Angoulême. In 1896, he expanded production at a factory on an 18-ha plot at Le Havre, where he could import copper and export his products easily. By 1898 the factory employed 2,000 workers. In 1901 the company was enlarged as the Tréfileries et Laminoirs du Havre (TLH) but a crash in the price of copper meant Weiller lost control and had to sell property to pay his debts. Nevertheless, by 1913 TLH was one of the largest industrial companies in France and the country’s third largest manufacturer of electrical equipment.

Weiller had several other interests in business and technology. In 1889 he published an article on remote vision by electricity, which influenced the development of television. He wrote other scientific papers on electricity and conductors. In 1903 he founded a company to manufacture his invention of meters for taxis. Then, in 1905, he established the first motorised cab company in Paris, the Société des Fiacres Automobiles, ordering 250 matching red cars from Renault. By 1911 it had some 3,000 cabs.

Sensing future developments in aviation, in 1908 Weiller offered a large cash prize for the first hour-long flight in France. This was won by the American aviators, the Wright brothers. Weiller created the Compagnie Générale de Navigation Aérienne to market aircraft on the Wright design. In 1912 he established the Compagnie Universelle de Télégraphie et Téléphonie Sans Fil and worked with Guglielmo Marconi and Telfunken to set up the first trans-Atlantic telegraph station. In the approach to the First World War the company was the subject of anti-German and anti-Jewish hostility and was forced to close. Weiller remained a senator in the French parliament from 1920 until his death.