Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin


On June 19, 1816 a successful Berlin entrepreneur was granted a patent for a cylinder printing machine for textiles. Nothing special, you could say. After all, at the time Berliners were inventing new things on more or less weekly basis. But this particular invention goes back to a clever business idea, an audacious case of theft and to good old Prussian industrial espionage in England. A perfect canvas for a gripping Berlin story.

Johann Friedrich Dannenberger, a learnt wool-printer who already as a young man managed to collect a small fortune of 1,000 Talern, invested that wisely: he went for commercial independence.

Today´s U-Bahnhof Schlesische Strasse (the former Tax Cottage in the middle of the picture); right: today´s Kneipe “Zum Oberbaum” (Kneipe already then); left: Dannenberg´sche Fabrik

On April 1, 1812 the ambitious son of a clock-maker opened a small calico-printing business in Köpenicker Strasse 3 in Luisenstadt (today´s Kreuzberg SO 36). Calico – plain-woven, unbleached and often slightly rough cotton fabric – was one of the products of the Industrial Revolution in England (recommended reading for those interested in the topic: Friedrich Engels On The Condition of The Working Class in England in 1844).

The seemingly unstoppable triumphant march of the calico printing industry in and around Manchester must have been an inspiration to tens of thousands of continental entrepreneurs. Still, considering the ferocious competition in Europe or even in Berlin itself the step Dannenberger ventured was nothing if not risky. He took it at the time when most start-up businesses went bankrupt within a year. But Dannenberger had three secret weapons. Not only did they prevent him from going down with his shop, but, eventually, the clever businessman slowly began to rule the pond.

The first ace up his sleeve was put there by the Prussian government: aware of the threat which the early industrialisation in England posed to their national market, it provided necessary incentives and support to native businesses. The plan was to make them fit for competition (this desperate generosity lasted until the 1830s). The ever so valuable financial assistance was given to Dannenberg on the recommendation of his university professor, who – impressed with the pupil´s progress – backed up his application with the trade authorities.

The professor, famous pharmacist Sigismund Hermbstaedt, ran courses in chemistry and chemical technologies at Berlin´s university. Dannenberger attended them regularly in order to expand his already quite broad practical knowledge. Two apprenticeships as well as his personal ambition to better himself by reading technical literature armed him well for contact with the theory. You could say that once he began his theoretical education, he soaked knowledge in like woollen socks soak April rains.

And it was this knowledge that enabled him to develop and patent a revolutionary formula for a precious dye: “Turkish Red” was one of the most sought after dying colours of the day and awfully time-consuming to produce (hence the preposterously high price). Dannenberger managed to reduce the production process from almost two months to 5-6 days. A certain candidate for a Nobel Prize in Chemistry had there been one awarded then.

Dannenberg´s villa in Köpenicker Strasse 3-5 (1860s) (source: bildindex)

The third and possibly biggest asset of Dannenberg´s was his indisputable chutzpah. He shied away from nothing: bribery, stealing, smuggling and lying through his teeth. He was a 19th-century capitalist entrepreneur per excellence. His most famous “achievement” could be a canvas for a brilliant thriller even today.

In 1822 Dannenberger got on a ship that was to take him to the Heart of Darkness, to the lair of the lions of Industrial Revolution. He went to Manchester. There he bribed a local Prussian spy to perform something that was by all standards sheer industrial espionage. England was doing its best and “mostest” to keep the industrial monopoly (not to say “hegemony”) by preventing anyone from laying a hand on its patents and formulas. However, despite their efforts and thanks to the spy´s industriousness, very soon the businessman from Berlin was in possession of several original English printing machines. The only problem was getting them out of Great Britain and safely to Köpenicker Strasse 3.

The smuggling method he employed was simple yet beautiful: all the machines were dismantled, individual parts packed separately, shipped from different harbours and at different dates. Not even a potentially very uncomfortable short episode with the English customs authorities, who caught the wind of what was going on and impounded one of the containers, dampened Dannenberger´s business fervour. He paid several people to go and participate in the bidding when the seized goods were auctioned off. Needless to say, their bids were always the highest. Soon, the temporarily hindered shipping was on its way to Berlin again.

And not only the shipping. Fully aware of the fact that even the best machine won´t work to its full capacity or reach its full  potential without an experienced person operating it, Dannenberger left the shores of Albion in the company of two English calico-printers as well as the best iron-engraver in Manchester. What he paid them to encourage their support must have pretty well counter-balanced any possible patriotic qualms.

This cheeky stratagem gained him quiet if unwilling admiration of the English and open adoration among his Prussian colleagues. Soon the factory in Köpenicker Strasse 3-5 became the best calico-printing shop in Germany. Danennberger did not have to worry about demand: already by 1813 he needed to have 60 printing tables working simultaneously to keep the customers happy. In 1819 this number grew to 97 and later remained at this level. The personnel lists comprised the names of 350 people.

In time, Dannenberger became a synonym of success and one of  Berlin´s chief entrepreneurs. His instinct as to when to jump the ship did not forsake him either. He was very lucky in having sold his business before the 1848 troubles known as März Revolutionen (March Revolutions) began. One of the reasons for their outbreak was a well-grounded fear of mechanisation – workers losing their jobs to machines. Industrialisation meant using the latter to replace people, who were left out of the process of production, in order to reduce both production´s time and cost to minimum. Demand was there, supply needed to follow. The clever factory-owner did not have to worry about it any more.

Neither was Dannenberger bothered by the so called Gründerkrise, known as The Panic of 1873 or Long Depression, which was to the late 19th-century German economy what Vesuvius was to Pompeii or a Tube strike is to London on Monday. Retired, he did not take it very hard when his former business, Dannenberg´sche Cattun-Fabrik on the bank of the Spree went to the wall in 1871. Johann Friedrich Dannenberger died only two years later as a great Fabrikant and a statesman. One who also happened to be a thief.


  1. Gary Costello
    June 19, 2017

    A fantastic tale, thank you.


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