Berlin became an important city over the course of its industrialisation from the mid-19th century onwards, first with engineering and then with the electrical industry. Around the beginning of the 20th century, the city was at times the largest metropolis on the European continent and made economic, ... more
Berlin became an important city over the course of its industrialisation from the mid-19th century onwards, first with engineering and then with the electrical industry. Around the beginning of the 20th century, the city was at times the largest metropolis on the European continent and made economic, technological and architectural history. In doing so, Berlin was not only a site of research, development and production, but also served as an “experimentation field” for new technologies. Public power supply and electrical transport systems were an example for the rest of the world. As an “electropolis”, Berlin became synonymous with a modern, interlinked city at the beginning of the 20th century and was considered a prototype for economic growth and success.
In comparison with London or Paris, Berlin still had a rather provincial character around the beginning of the 19th century. Its development into an important centre of trade and industry over the course of the 19th century was helped by a number of different factors. The Prussian Customs Law of 1818 abolished domestic trade barriers. At the same time as a rapid growth in population (1801: 172,988 inhabitants, 1849: 410,726 inhabitants), efficient systems of trade and supply became established. Rapid industrialisation began in approximately 1830. Iron foundries and engineering institutes, such as those of August Borsig, established themselves at the gates of the city. The chemical industry was also of importance, with individuals such as the pharmacist Ernst Schering. He had a pharmaceutical factory built in 1864 which was to become the main plant of the Schering group (now owned by Bayer Pharma AG).
Berlin’s promotion to the German Empire’s capital city after the Empire was founded in 1871 ultimately led to the economic boom of the “founder years”. Berlin became an important financial centre, where innovative spirit and enterprise encountered the necessary capital. The city also had a good public education system at its disposal, as well as engineering research expertise and skilled workers thanks to the technical college. Numerous new companies were founded. As the inner-city spaces were no longer adequate, production was increasingly transferred to the outskirts. A number of new residential areas sprang up around the industrial sites, with garden suburbs, housing developments and tenement housing appearing in equal measure.
The electrical and power industries became increasingly important. Werner von Siemens and Emil Rathenau were just two of the important characters in this development. Werner von Siemens established “Telegraphenbauanstalt Siemens & Halske” in 1847 together with Johann Georg Halske. This was to become Siemens AG, one of the world’s largest electronic companies, within just a few decades. Emil Rathenau acquired the rights to use the patents of Thomas Alva Edison in 1881. He established “Allgemeine Electricitäts-Gesellschaft” – AEG. Siemens and Rathenau furthered technological developments and research in the use of electricity and shared the market between them. Berlin became a testing ground. The first electric tram line was opened in Lichterfelde in 1881 and the first roads were lit with electric light from 1882 onwards. The city’s public power, water and transport services were a role model for the rest of the world. Berlin became synonymous with a modern, interlinked city in which technology and culture interacted closely. The cityscape and the inhabitants’ coexistence changed rapidly. In 1882, Mark Twain stated in the Chicago Daily Tribune that Berlin was the “newest city I have ever seen” and called Berlin “the European Chicago”.
The financial crisis known as the “Panic of 1873” interrupted the economic boom but did not end it. Rises in income continued until the beginning of the First World War in 1914. Berlin remained a leading light in the German electronics industry until the beginning of the Second World War, with approximately one third of all production capacities concentrated in the city. After 1945, great portions of the production plants were dismantled and taken to the Soviet Union. The partition of Germany led to numerous companies transferring production to West Germany and Berlin’s importance as an industrial metropolis waned.
Due to Berlin’s special status, a number of superb but also typical products of its industrial and technological history have survived. West Berlin’s situation as an exclave meant that the demand for modern production areas was lacking, and former industrial sites were often used by stakeholders from the cultural and creative scenes. In many cases, the historical industrial buildings in East Berlin were used for production until 1990. The importance of Berlin as an industrial metropolis can therefore still be seen in today’s cityscape, where heritage buildings and monuments to technology have been preserved in a way which is almost unique. This is primarily the case for products of the electro-technical revolution. Production continues in the turbine hall in Moabit, designed by Peter Behrens for AEG and considered by connoisseurs to be a milestone of industrial architecture. Several power distribution plants, such as substations and transformer stations, have shed their previous function due to technological progress. A large number of them accommodate new forms of use today. Art and culture, museums, restaurants, youth hostels, hotels and event locations now attract visitors to experience the special atmosphere of former industrial buildings.
Route of Industrial Heritage
Berlin’s Route of Industrial Heritage is under construction. It links locations which demonstrate the technological, economic and social history of the city.
The German Museum of Technology is the route’s Anchor Point. It offers a comprehensive overview of all aspects of the history of technology. The link between population growth and necessary infrastructure expansion becomes clear, for example, in the Museum im Alten Wasserwerk Friedrichshafen, located in an old water works. The Museum für Kommunikation tells the story of communication and the reciprocal effects between the development of technical resources and human interaction.
Great civic involvement enabled the preservation of important artefacts of Berlin’s industrial heritage in many cases and it also characterises many sites today, such as Energie-Museum Berlin and Industriesalon Schöneweide, a forum for industry, technology and culture, where interested visitors encounter knowledgeable protagonists with whom they can talk shop to their hearts’ content. Some of these sites can only be accessed with a guide orby advance registration. Please check the relevant website before your visit!
The Berliner Zentrum Industriekultur (BZI) is the coordinator of the route. It is a scientific institution at the University of Applied Sciences (HTW) Berlin and a cooperation project between the HTW and the German Museum of Technology Foundation. The map of industrial heritage offers an overview of the city’s rich industrial heritage in addition to sites on the Route of Industrial Heritage.
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