1952 is seen as the dawn of electron beam technology. The physicist Dr. h.c. Karl-Heinz Steigerwald built the first electron beam processing machine. Much of what is now taken for granted first had to be painstakingly worked out all those years ago.

The history of electron beam technology began with the experiments by physicists Hittorf and Crookes, who first tried to generate cathode rays in gases (1869) and to melt metals (1879). These cathode rays were an interesting physical phenomenon and lead to the discovery of a particular type of ray by Röntgen (1895), Thompson (1897) and Millikan (1905), which were described as “fast moving electrons”.The heat created by electrons colliding was considered rather to have a damaging effect at the time of those experiments and attempts were made to prevent this by means of cooling.

The physicist Marcello von Pirani was the first to make use of this effect. He built a piece of apparatus for melting tantalum powder and other metals using electron beams. In the period that followed, more and more scientists occupied themselves with electron beam technology, which lead to the development of oscillographs, microscopes and the drilling of metals. The main obstacle at this time was the lack of sufficiently powerful vacuum pumps.


In 1948 a new era in material processing began with the physicist Dr. h.c. Karl-Heinz Steigerwald. At this time he was concerned with developing sources of rays to achieve higher power in order to build more powerful electron microscopes. His experiments with the electron beam as a thermal tool for drilling watch stones and for soldering, melting and welding in a vacuum were very promising and this development gathered pace:

  • In 1952 he built the first electron beam processing machine.
  • In 1958 he butt-welded 5 mm thick zircaloy together and in doing so he discovered the "deep welding effect".
  • In 1963 he founded the company Steigerwald Strahltechnik GmbH.
Outside of Germany, work began elsewhere, particularly in France and Great Britain, on developing new equipment.

Nowadays electron beam technology is widespread in the material processing field and it is difficult to give an overall view. Even at present, new applications are constantly being developed using EB technology.

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