(3) Heritage of Loss – The Power of Tubes

Vacuum tubes – still going strong at Industriesalon Schöneweide

Röhrensammlung 2

Visiting the vast display storeroom at Industriesalon Schöneweide is like entering a sculpture park: You are overwhelmed by the magnitude and strangeness of the objects. The display storeroom (‘Schaudepot’) with a mass of impressive exhibits tells the eventful and multilayered story of electrical engineering at Berlin-Treptow, of the first power plant producing alternating current here, of a cable plant and a transformer station – all of this in three various historical periods in German history. After the “Wende”, when Samsung shut down the place in 2009 and the collection of industrial artifacts from the 1980s was doomed for dumping, some courageous people succeeded in saving this incomparable industrial heritage and founded the Industriesalon Schöneweide as an industrial museum. The transfixed visitor from today’s transistor-based digital world may dwell and rummage at large here and, while doing so, discover the once so powerful kingdom of vacuum valves!

Röhrenparade 2

The (nearly) lost kingdom of vacuum tubes

Mostly, the vacuum tube has become obsolete in nowadays technology. Even if tubes are still used at microwave radio frequencies and special hi-fi audio systems sometimes, they have been replaced by an ultra-efficient transistor technology, without any evidence of a tube comeback –  except for  real audioheads who insist that tubes deliver better audio quality than transistors. So, during the last two decades vacuum tubes have become a cherished part of man’s industrial heritage. When looking at the schematic diagram of a vacuum valve, it’ll perhaps remind you of an illustration showing the interior of an Egyptian pyramid, complete with nicely coloured explanatory hieroglyphs, and in that way it reveals something of the complex process of developing and producing electron tubes on this industrial site.tubeworks

Eavesdropping onto industrial history at Schöneweide

Of course, everyone knows his lessons on batteries, tubes, transistors and the like, hours which proceeded sluggishly from current to voltage, from anode to cathode, from positive to negative and vice versa, out of the black box and back into. You had to accept the given facts and there was no point in mulling things over – that was meant for the chosen few who would get a job in some future electrochemical laboratory. AdobePhotoshopExpress_496070b7a36a48d68cfa158ad5be00b4

Halting in front of a bulky eavesdropping machine, you learn that it had been developed and used in the days of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) for spying on the enemy territory of the Federal Republic of Germany – from the top of GDR mountain Brocken (1.141 m). You look at the weathered photocopy showing the espionage station on the highest peak of the Harz mountain ranges and, yes, some sparks of long forgotten lessons come to mind: A vacuum tube is a device used to amplify and rectify electronic signals. Sure, in those days they needed tubes to spy from mountain heights. Current passing through the filament, or cathode (-), heats it up so that it knocks off electrons which have a negative charge.Why, oh, why? These electrons are attracted to the plate, or anode(+). A grid of wires between the filament and the plate is negative, repels the electrons and thus controls the current to the plate. In this process it will be able to amplify the voltage given to it. Control and miraculous precision!AdobePhotoshopExpress_385660b64f984c47a9b3e407d1d2c478

I take two steps back in the narrow corridor, which has led me to this amazing object, to take in the grandeur of the bulky spying machine. It speaks of a bold engineering spirit – ill-fitting to snoop on other people’s affairs but rather suitable to reach out across borders and exchange ideas on new technologies (like transistors, for example). A kind of “light bulb” moment makes me shake off the repelling spy v. spy stories, may they rest in silence. Instead, I can detect some of the former engineer’s mind in the exhibition and curiously turn to the rows of varied vacuum tubes: Here, the industrial, social and political heritage of a past era has become tangible and alive in a very human way!


(1) Heritage of Loss


Industrial heritage – understanding loss and digging into future!

Industrie Luftschloss

Industrial sites shape landscapes into settlements and communities. Where there used to be nature, agriculture or wasteland you find buildings, plants, architecture, machinery, products, transport, housing – all of which develops like an island sputtered up from the ocean of man’s industrial and commercial instincts. An island that is projected into the future and based on change. If you visit abandoned plants and look at the material remains of former industries, you’ll often sense the massive loss which their decomposition means.

Industrie Kunstschlaf

On the vast site of former AEG Schöneweide in Berlin-Treptow, where on rural grounds the industrial empire of AEG rose and collapsed in the course of little more than a century, you may find a sleeping giant. He was left behind in the industrial detritus. In his sleep he looks decrepit and promising at the same time, being sheltered under a neatly painted inscription from our days. The lines “Gib der Kunst Raum, dann wird sich die Schönheit ihrer Seele frei entfalten” (1) sounds like the beginning of an elegy addressed to ancient Greek ruins. The words deny the reality of industrial collapse and instead speak of art, beauty and unfolding of souls. As if the strong sense of abandonment, which is still omnipresent here, has miraculously given way to a new space for people to get started again, differently.

(1) “Lend space to art so that it may unfold the beauty of its soul in freedom”

Industriegebiet Kaisersteg

The ruins of social change are unlikely to raise romantic outbursts as those from ancient days do, particularly not so in affluent modern societies. Maybe the reason lies in the anonymity of the relics. We don’t see the people who once worked the plant but disintegrating industrial material. Moreover, these industrial leftovers are a shameful reminder of social defeat. Adaptive re-use didn’t work out, abandonment became inevitable and now decay has taken over. But however “marooned in time, we should understand that ruins have a value” (2) so that they can remind future generations of a “common wealth” which brought about products, skills and knowledge just as well as work identification and social progress.
Kaisers Neue Kleider
So, there are riches in the detritus which the former industrial community has left behind. If the ruins stay, future generations will have the opportunity of digging for them. Obviously, there are enough people who know that they don’t need the deception of the emperor’s new clothes and who get started with genuinely new projects. Walking about on the former industrial sites of Schöneweide you get a feeling that although the past is not yet over some digging into the future has already begun.
Industrie Kunsthallen


Former industrial communities – “(…) these are the nameless people. Our job is to pierce their anonymity so that future generations may understand their extraordinary achievements.The future of these working places is in our hands; to preserve for posterity, to recycle for tomorrow,
or to leave alone so that future generations can make choices for themselves based on our prudence and their values and judgments. We have a choice over whether it is treasure or trash.” (3)
Neil Cossons, Industrial Heritage: Treasure or Trash, Abstract for TICCIH (2), (3)