Before the take-off: Berlin-Alexanderplatz, Line 5 (Direction: Hönow).
Alexanderplatz, a monumental plaza in Berlin-Mitte, is the second most popular spot in the city after Kudamm. Well over 350,000 people visit it every day: it is by all means one of the busiest public spaces in Berlin. What began in the 13th century as a hospital site outside a city gate (Oderberger Tor, later known as Königstor), gained weight when re-purposed as a city market: at first, used mainly for trading cattle, it had a regular wool market added to it in the second half of the 18th century.
What Berliners called Ochsenmarkt or Ochsenplatz (Oxen Market or Plaza), was also used by the military: like most other Berlin markets it doubled as an exercise site for the numerous local troops. That explains the site’s other name used at the time: Paradeplatz.
Future Alexanderplatz in 1804, one year before it was given its current name. The shape it had back then remained more or less unchanged for centuries.
In 1805 to honour Prussia’s big ally in the war against Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I, the plaza was christened “Alexanderplatz”. The Russian Tsar had just visited Berlin and King Friedrich Wilhelm III, Alexander’s lifelong friend, welcomed him with a lavish military parade organised just there. A couple of days after the event the plaza changed its name.
As for the street named after the same Russian ruler, Alexanderstraße, it retained its original, baroque-sounding monicker – An der Contrescarpe am Stelzenkrug (Contrescarpe was the outer edge of the moat surrounding Berlin/Cöln fortifications) – until 1819.
The 19th century was the golden era of Alexanderplatz: the Stadtbahnof Alexanderplatz, a large city- and long-haul-train railway station which opened in 1882, allowed more and more people to contribute to the quick development of the neighbourhood. Guests arriving from outside the city were thrilled to stay at one of the 185 rooms inside the “Grand Hotel Alexanderplatz” which welcomed its first guests less than a year later.
After the Zentralmarkthalle, a new Central Market Hall, designed by the ingenious Hermann Blankenstein, replaced the need for the weekly market am Alex, the plaza was redesigned and received a new, far more elegant visage. Hermann Mächtig, the City Garden Director who had just turned a sandy hill in Tempelhofer Vorstadt into a stunning city park – Viktoriapark in today’s Berlin-Kreuzberg – modernised Alexanderplatz and helped it gain world fame.
Soon afterwards it was discovered by great Berlin department stores: Tietz, Wertheim and Hahn all wanted to partake of its prominence and unbelievably lucrative central location. Tietz, who was the first to erect his store there, needed seven years to complete his Alexanderplatz empire. But when the first section of the Warenhaus Tietz opened in 1905 (the last one was inaugurated in 1911), its 250-metre long façade was the longest department store front in the world. And it provided attractive background for the real Queen of the Plaza: Berolina. Emil Hunderieser’s giant bronze beauty surveyed over Alexanderplatz from 1890 until 1942 – with several years of a year when the U-Bahn station under the plaza was being refurbished.
Alexanderplatz captured by Max Missmann in 1925.
The break Berolina had to take take from guarding her post lasted several years: Berolina was removed from her original spot in 1927 to carry out construction works for the extended U-Bahn station “Alexanderplatz” as well as the erection of Peter Behrens’s Alexanderhaus and Berolinahaus (both survived the war and are wonderful examples of modern pre-WWII Berlin architecture). In 1933 she returned to Alex, after the District Council of Treptow where she had been stored in the meantime refused to keep her at a storage near the S-Bahnhof “Treptower Park”. Placed in front of Behrens’ buildings she looked slightly overwhelmed and never recovered to her old glory.
In August 1942 she was removed from her plinth – which, too, had to move from in front of the Tietz Department Store to before the new Alexanderhaus), transported to Neukölln and quite certainly melted.
Alexanderplatz in 1934: Alexanderhaus to the left, Berolinahaus and Warenhaus Tietz (centre and right) and Berolina installed in front of the Alexanderhaus (image via Bundesarchiv).
After WWII, as an important part of East Berlin, Alexanderplatz underwent another significant metamorphosis: it was given a completely new face again. But that story is featured in the next post from the treasure trove of Berlin Companion.

Did you know that in German sign language Berlin is symbolised by a bear’s ear? Even though, contrary to popular belief, the city’s name was not inspired by any large furry carnivore but has its root in a old Slavonic word barl (a marshland, a morass), the animal is Berlin’s symbol and is featured on its coat of arms.

This informative little video was created for those interested in learning the names of Berlin’s main old boroughs and localities in sign language – notice how the typical endings “-berg” and “-dorf” are pronounced. And make sure you learn at least several names by heart. Alexanderplatz should not be a problem to memorise, though;-)

 

Between 1936 and 1938 a young German engineer named Konrad Zuse – who was born on June 22 1910 in Wilmersdorf and later lived with his family in Kreuzberg – was busy re-decorating his parents’ living room. It happened in a house which used to stand in today’s Methfesselstraße No. 10 – sadly, the building fell prey to one of the Second-World-War air-raids.

The refurbishment was taking place with the parents’ consent as well as their financial support but hardly any grasp of what was happening under their roof. Their home became a headquarters of mad scientists with Konrad as the commander-in-chief, his good friend and fellow engineer, Helmut Shreyer, as deputy; Zuse’s 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” (an academic society at Berlin’s Technical University). The living room was rendered completely unusable for its usual purposes by something that was to become the dawn of modern computing.

Z1 in the living room of Zuse’s parents’ flat (source: horst-zuse.homepage.t-online.de)

It was a spreading mechanism built around a metal frame, using hundreds and hundreds of thin metal plates (invented and patented by Zuse himself and manufactured by the group working on the project) and powered by a single electric motor – one which had been “borrowed” from the family vacuum cleaner. The machine – meant to do what the inventor himself was so loathe to, namely perform boring, time-consuming engineering calculations – was to be programmable. To that end, Zuse used a simple but ingenious trick: programme was fed into the machine with the help of strips of punched film tape. That machine was we what refer to as a computer.

Konrad Zuse holding one of the key elements of his early computer (photo: AP)

And not just any computer: what was later named Zuse 1 or Z1, used the binary – the “1-0” – system. Our tablets, smartphones, PCs and notebooks are far descendants of Zuse’s metal wonder. And like with all forefathers and foremothers of Progress this one, too, was far from perfect. The original Z1 did work but being a mechanical thing made of not always perfectly manufactured elements, was prone to jamming and thus to producing false results.

However, is it now it exactly how progress works? With the imperfect first edition being soon replaced by its improved version? Konrad Zuse knew Z1 had not been what he had wished it to be. Soon enough, he had another project in progress that would go down in history as Z2. Then came his Z3 – created in Methfesselstraße 7 (where a half-ruined section of the facade wall of the building has been preserved until today) as the first working programmable computer in the world, followed by a Z4 soon afterwards. Of course, both were then overtaken by smarter devices – which, however, in no way lessens the amazing significance of Zuse’s discoveries.

Konrad Zuse (l) and Helmut Schreyer (r) working out the details of their project.

Today Z1 with its 32 bytes of memory and a 1Hz clock – that means one cycle per second as opposed to the 2.4 Gigaherz these words are being “penned” 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 where Zuse’s workshop was located at the time, it was considered to be a disaster in the history of computing sciences.

Not surprisingly, years later a decision was made to have the machine reconstructed. And only one person in the whole world was capable of doing it right: the master himself. Konrad Zuse began building the replica of Z1 in 1986, again making most of the parts himself. It lasted almost three long years.

Replica of Z1 at Berlin’s Technikmuseum (image by ComputerGeek at Wikipedia)

Today it can be seen at the Technology Museum in Berlin-Kreuzberg (Trebbiner Straße 9, U7 Gleisdreieck). In Methfesselstraße 7 a plaque commemorates the doggedness of one inventor, the endless patience of his parents and the astounding fate of one living room.

 

Konrad Zuse and his inventions are featured in an audio-tour of West Kreuzberg created by yours truly and available via voicemap.me under this link.

A newspaper ad from a Berlin daily in the 1920s.

“Whole Berlin Drives a Horch“, a 1920s advertisement for a Horch 8, a beautiful automobile produced by a car-manufacturer company established in 1899 in Köln-Ehrenfeld.

In 1904, its founder and namesake, August Horch, moved the factory to the Saxonian city of Zwickau (now probably better known as the cradle of the car of the DDR, the unforgettable Trabant). Horch, however, left the company only five years later, in April 1909 (due to a conflict with the board of supervisors). Not even half a year later he started a new enterprise in Zwickau: another car factory.

August Horch in his Horch Torpedo 11/22 PS during the 1908 race Prinz-Heinrich-Fahrt from Berlin to Frankfurt am Main (via Stettin, Kiel, Hamburg, Hannover, Köln and Trier).

Unable to use his own surname for the brand – Horch lost a court case against the old company he established – he and his partners came up with a very clever idea. They translated the old name into Latin and so horch (hear!) became Latin Audi.