KREUZBERGED BERLIN

Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin

TODAY IN KREUZBERG: FEBRUARY 22 – LICHTERFELDERSTRASSE

The plaque commemorating Zuse´s inventions on the remains of the wall of the house where his workshop and the destroyed ZUSE 3 used to be.

1876

My ever favourite street and the place where all this began – the loving part of my stormy relationship with Kreuzberg, the research, the book, the blog – gets its original name: Lichterfelderstrasse.

It can be found right behind the crossing Bergmannstrasse-Mehringdamm-Kreuzbergstrasse where, after risking your life and hurling abuse at fellow drivers (of course you will), you enter Kreuzbergstrasse and take the first sharp turn left. If you continue till its end you will pass Viktoria Park to your right and end up in Dudenstrasse.

Methfesselstrasse (since September 1936) might be small and unassuming, it might be off the beaten track but it has seen History dance up and down its cobble-stoned face more than once.

Tivoli – one of the entertainment establishments of the 19th century Berlin and later one of the breweries of the capital; the recently deceased restaurant Kaiserstein – among the oldest and most infamous eateries (and “drinkeries”) in Kreuzberg (more about Kaiserstein soon); Villenkolonie Wilhelmshöhe –  the no longer existing private villa cul-de-sack between today´s Methfesselstrasse and Mehringdamm: the object of my particularly strong attachment and fervent research; the bunkers under Kreuzberg… As if all that were not enough for a street of such meagre length, it was also here that the first freely programmable computer in the world which used Boolean logic and binary floating point numbers (what else?) was constructed. Since I have reasons to believe that, like myself, you might not be fluent in the history of computing or in IT-speak, here´s a short explanation.

Between 1936 and 1938 a young engineer named Konrad Zuse was busy re-decorating his parents´ living room in the house at Number 10. The refurbishment was taking place with the parents´ consent and their financial support but no grasp whatsoever of what was happening under their roof. Their home became a headquarters of mad scientists with Konrad as the commander-in-chief, his older sister Liselotte (who according to Zuse was “unlucky enough to be born in those times as an intelligent person and as a woman”) as his right hand and a group of the scientist´s little helpers from A.V. “Motiv” (academic society at Berlin Technical University). The living room was rendered completely unusable for its usual purposes by something that was to become the dawn of modern computing.

It was a spreading mechanism made of a metal frame, hundreds and hundreds of thin metal plates (invented and patented by Zuse himself) and a single electric motor. Strange strips of punched tape could be fed into it to make it whir and click. The machine was supposed to do what the inventor was loathe to: do boring, time-consuming engineering calculations. In short, Konrad Zuse was building a computer.

Z1 in the living room of Zuse´s parents´ flat (source: horst-zuse.homepage.t-online.de)

And not just any computer: his machine, named later Zuse 1 or Z1, was using the binary or the  “1-0” system. Our tablets, smartphones, PCs and notebooks are far descendants of Zuse´s full-metal-jacket baby. And like with all forefathers and foremothers of Progress also this one was far from perfect. The original Z1 did work but its inventor was hardly dancing for joy around its steel brain. It was jamming and making mistakes.

Isn´t it exactly how the world develops, though? With the imperfect first edition being replaced by its improved version? Konrad Zuse knew Z1 was not what he wanted it to be even as he was still busy with its genesis. He had another project in progress that would go down in history as Z2. Then Z3 (created at Methfesselstrasse 7 as the first ever working programmable computer in the world) and Z4 would follow, only to be overtaken by smarter devices. Which does not in the least lessen the amazing significance of Zuse´s discoveries.

Z1 with its 32 bites of memory and a 1Hz clock – that´s one cycle per second as opposed to the 1.4 Gigaherz I am penning these word with – could hardly be considered impressive. Still, so great was its impact that when the original mechanism and the whole documentation were destroyed along with the house in one the 1943 bombardments of Berlin it was considered to be a catastrophe for the history of computing sciences. No wonder then that years later somebody decided it had to be reconstructed. And only one person in the whole world was capable of recreating it: the master himself. He started in 1986, again making most of the parts himself. It lasted three long years.

Today the second Z1, the replica, can be seen at the Technical Museum in Berlin-Kreuzberg. In Methfesselstrasse a plaque commemorates the doggedness of one inventor, the endless patience of his parents and the astounding fate of one living room.

Methfesselstrasse in 1938 (number 7 marked yellow and red)

8 comments on “TODAY IN KREUZBERG: FEBRUARY 22 – LICHTERFELDERSTRASSE

  1. berlioz1935
    February 26, 2012

    You done it again. You are turning up in my memories like an otherworldly angel, poking me with facts and figures.

    Methfesselstrasse, as you describe it, it should be the most famous street in the history of the electronic computer. But it is not. If I tell any of my friends and family that Zuse invented the electronic computer based on the binary system I get a blank stare only.

    I put your blog on my Face book for all to see.

    Methfesselstrasse, thanks to my Great aunty, was for ever Lichterfelderstrasse for me. It was part of my long walk to school during the 40ties in the last century (what a statement to make). That was seventy years ago and then laden with a history supplied by the mentioned great-aunt. During summer we “stole” Elderberries from the breweries gardens in which French prisoners of war toiled.

    The street seemed endless for our short legs with the red brick walls on both sides. Opposite the brewery the wall on the other side was still covered in election slogans for the Reichspresidentenwahl in March 1932.

    Reaching the highest point of Methfesselstrasse we saw what looked like a miniature castle, behind which was a large beer garden with a covered stage. Once in a while we went there to be entertained by Onkel Pelle, a clown like entertainer.

    Further on the left the Viktoria Park started. Here, in the bushes, we found juicy wild apples, not bigger than cherries. From then on it was downhill to Kreuzbergstrasse. In one of the houses on the right, it could well have been number 7, lived a school friend of mine with his mother in a subterranean flat (Kellerwohnung). One day, he did not come back to school and his house had disintegrated. It could have been the same building where Zuse build his computer. (Googling the site I’m pretty sure it is the same house). So close to a place where history was made. What an irony of the modern age that my word processor shows “Zuse” as a spelling mistake. That is almost Orwellian in its dimension.
    Further down the street at the corner Kreuzberstrasse, where today is only an empty block., there was a house we found burning one morning after an air raid. It was not burning too fiercely but it could not be saved because the fire brigade could not be everywhere. It just smouldered to the bitter end.

    Viktoria Park on the Kreuzberg was our play and adventure park during my child hood. Thanks for the red marker at Dudenstrasse 26

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