The Rhine-Main region epitomises the “Second Industrial Revolution” in Germany that commenced in the mid-19th century. Natural resources such as coal or iron ore, which gave initial impetus to the industrial revolution, are scarce here, but the navigable rivers Rhine and Main and the traditional ... more
The Rhine-Main region epitomises the “Second Industrial Revolution” in Germany that commenced in the mid-19th century. Natural resources such as coal or iron ore, which gave initial impetus to the industrial revolution, are scarce here, but the navigable rivers Rhine and Main and the traditional east-west route from Paris to Leipzig have made the region as a centre for long-distance trade for millennia. In the 12th century at the very latest, the first trade fair was held beside the ford of the Main at Frankfurt, and the first stone bridge over the river was constructed soon after.
However, the patchwork of small states hampered economic growth until Prussia’s victory over Austria in 1866 paved the way for new opportunities in the form of territorial redistricting, the proclamation of trade freedom and the abolition of guilds. The newly emerging businesses could take advantage of a large potential labour pool, as the peasants working the highly fragmented plots in the surrounding regions were barely able to sustain a subsistence level. Capital came mainly from Frankfurt’s prosperous bourgeoisie, although it initially flowed into neighbouring communities on account of the city council’s anti-industry policies. Accordingly, the first true merchant bank, the Bank für Handel und Industrie, was founded in 1853 in Darmstadt.
Infrastructure expansion commenced early on: by 1839, just four years after dedication of the first German railway, trains were running between Frankfurt and Höchst. Wiesbaden was connected in the following year, followed by Heidelberg, and in 1852 the north-south line reached all the way to Kassel. Both technically and politically, the improvement of the Rhine to accommodate steam-powered tug traffic was a much more challenging undertaking: the regulations propagated starting in 1817 gradually transformed the Rhine from a meandering river into a heavily used traffic artery, with major ecological impacts.
The first steam engine went into operation in the Archducal Mint in Darmstadt in 1830. But in the decade following, the Frankfurt region experienced a machine-making boom, from Eschborn to Oberursel and even Hanau. The most successful enterprise was founded by Adam Opel in Rüsselsheim in 1862: like many carmakers, he started out manufacturing sewing machines, then transitioned to the mass production of bicycles before becoming world-renowned as an automobile manufacturer starting from 1900. By contrast, Heinrich Kleyer began producing bicycles in Frankfurt – where factories now were also springing up – in 1885, before adding typewriters and finally cars at his Adler works.
Chemistry began to overtake machinery around the start of the 20th century. As early as 1856, a fertiliser factory was founded in Bockenheim, relocated to Griesheim am Main shortly thereafter, took up the manufacture of coal tar dyes, then expanded into electrochemistry and flourished under the name Chemische Fabrik Griesheim-Elektron. The sought-after coal tar dies also launched the success story of a company founded in Höchst in 1863 that grew to global prominence under the name “Farbwerke Höchst”. An apothecary shop founded in Darmstadt in 1668 formed the nucleus for the pharmaceutical giant Merck, which has grown continually since the 1840s and still retains a leading role in the pharmaceutical industry.
The region is characterised by an industrial diversity that has persisted since the founding of modern Germany. The apothecary that Wilhelm Carl Heraeus assumed in 1851 grew into a high-tech corporation which today focuses primarily on medical and sensor technology. MAN Roland in Offenbach, founded in 1871 as Faber & Schleicher, has been a leading global manufacturer of offset printing systems until the 21st century. The cement factory Dyckerhoff & Söhne, founded in 1864, delivered construction materials for the foundation of the Statue of Liberty in 1884, and still manufactures in Mainz-Amöneburg today.
The region’s two most important cities underwent their own specific development. Mainz, long the residence of an influential archbishop and electoral prince, thrived on trade thanks to its convenient location at the confluence of the Main and the Rhine. Trades such as furniture and porcelain manufactories lived from court society, as did the carriage manufactory, which however relocated to nearby Mombach after switching over to railway rolling stock. Mainz experienced a tentative, limited industrialisation – in part because it lay on the west bank of the Rhine and was thus cut off from the rail network centred on Frankfurt until much later. New businesses preferred to settle on the Frankfurt side of the river, from Wiesbaden-Biebrich to Amöneburg and further to the confluence of the Main: operations such as the workshops of the Nuremberg machinery manufacturer Cramer-Klett in Gustavsburg, which after merging with MAN developed into a major fabricator of steel structures.
In 1843, the metropolis of Frankfurt saw the founding of a refinery for reclaiming precious metals from discontinued coins. This business grew to become the chemical giant Degussa. However, industrialisation did not commence until the 1870s. The city council designated the district of Sachsenhausen as its first industrial zone. Industry was dominated by companies such the Adler machinery works and the chemical plant Cassella Farbwerke until the International Electrotechnical Exhibition in 1891, after which electrotechnical companies increasingly put down roots here. Development of the huge industrial zone between the East Port and Fechenheim began in 1907. Deutsche Luftschiffahrts-AG, the world’s first airline, was founded in 1909, and the first airport opened in Frankfurt-Rebstock in 1912.
Rhine-Main Route of Industrial Heritage
The aim of the "Rhine-Main Industrial Heritage Route" is to salvage the numerous and diverse living testimonies of the manufacturing industry and the associated infrastructure of the Rhine-Main region, to bring them back to consciousness and make them accessible. It presents over 1,000 sites of local and national importance for the industrial history of the region. Excursion tours, sightseeing, guided tours and information on site enable visitors to experience and understand regional connections using concrete examples. The permanent information and events offered along the route as well as the annual "Days of Industrial Heritage" enliven the diverse cultural and recreational offerings of the Rhine-Main region and thus contribute to the formation of a stronger regional identity.