Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
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.
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.