From 1869 to 1876, Robert Bosch attended the Realschule (secondary-technical school) in Ulm, and then took an apprenticeship as a precision mechanic.
After his school and practical education, Bosch spent a further seven years working at diverse companies in Germany, the United States (for Thomas Edison in New York), and the UK (for Siemens). On November 15, 1886, he opened his own 'Workshop for Precision Mechanics and Electrical Engineering' in Stuttgart. A year later, he made a decisive improvement to an unpatented magneto ignition device made by the engine manufacturer Deutz. This gave him his first business success. The purpose of the device was to generate the electric spark needed to ignite the air/fuel mixture in a (stationary) combustion engine. In 1897, Bosch was the first to adapt such a magneto ignition device to a vehicle engine. In doing so, he solved one of the greatest technical problems faced by an automotive industry still in its infancy. The invention of the first commercially viable high-voltage spark plug as part of a magneto-based ignition system by Robert Bosch's engineer Gottlob Honold in 1902 made possible the development of the internal combustion engine.
Even before the 19th century came to an end, Bosch expanded his operations beyond Germany’s borders. The company established a sales office in the UK in 1898, and other European countries soon followed. The first sales office and the first factory in the U.S. were opened in 1906 and 1910 respectively. By 1913, the company had branch operations in the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Australia, and was generating 88% of its sales outside Germany. In rapid succession in the years following the First World War, Bosch launched innovations for the motor vehicle, including diesel fuel injection in 1927. In the 1920s, moreover, the global economic crisis caused Bosch to begin a rigorous program of modernization and diversification in his company. In only a few years' time, he succeeded in turning his company from a small automotive supplier founded on the skilled trades into a multinational electronics group.
From the very beginning, Bosch was greatly concerned to promote occupational and further training. And prompted by his keen awareness of the entrepreneur's social responsibility, he was one of the first industrialists in Germany to introduce the eight-hour working day. It was followed by other exemplary social benefits for his associates. Neither did Robert Bosch wish to make any money from the armaments contracts awarded to his company during the First World War. Instead, he donated several million German marks to charitable causes. A hospital that he gave to the city of Stuttgart was officially opened in 1940.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Robert Bosch was also politically active. As a liberal entrepreneur, he sat on a number of economic committees. He devoted a great deal of energy and money to the cause of bringing about reconciliation between Germany and France. He hoped this reconciliation would bring about lasting peace in Europe and lead to the creation of a European economic area without customs barriers.
But the National Socialist regime in Germany brought Bosch’s peacemaking efforts to an abrupt end. The company soon accepted armaments contracts, and employed forced laborers during the war. At the same time, however, Robert Bosch supported the resistance against Adolf Hitler: together with his closest associates, he saved people of Jewish descent and other victims of Nazi persecution from deportation.
Robert Bosch was keenly interested in agricultural issues, and owned a substantial farm to the south of Munich. He was also a passionate hunter. When he died in 1942, he was survived by four children from two marriages. A further son, from his first marriage, had already died in 1921 following a protracted illness.
In 1937, Robert Bosch had restructured his company as a private limited company (close corporation). He had also written up his last will and testament, in which he stipulated that the earnings of the company should be allocated to charitable causes. At the same time, his will sketched the outlines of the corporate constitution which was formulated by his successors in 1964 and is still valid today.
Heuss, Gillespie, Kapczynski: Robert Bosch - his life and achievements. New York 1994 (German edition 1946)
Hans-Erhard Lessing: Robert Bosch. Reinbek 2007 (in German)