The country of poets and thinkers (and maybe engineers and inventors)


Sometimes back in the philosophical revolutions of the early 19th century, German intellectuals coined the phrase of the “Land der Dichter und Denker”, the country of poets and thinkers, to describe not so much an understanding, but a goal for their newly emerging modern nation. The term is used a lot today, for good reasons: In 2020 Germany has topped the Bloomberg list as “most innovative country on the planet”, and with close to 70,000 new patents filed in 2019, it also sits firmly in the top 10 of this ranking, which has been led by China for years, followed by the US, Japan and Korea – high tech nations that lead in terms of new IT technology and inventions.

IT is a traditionally weak field of German industry and science. In the late 20th century, this issue was a constant worry of economists during the first Internet hype, and subsequently a reason to praise the stable and reliable German mindset when the massive investment bubble burst. The strength of German innovation lies in engineering and old school technology, with a very robust setup in education and the scientific community.

The strength of German inventors always had a little tilt towards engineering and applied sciences, with the industrial revolution and Victorian times as powerful in Germany as they were in Britain. The most revolutionary innovation of these times was probably the Otto engine and the subsequent invention of the motor car. Few people know today that the motor bike was introduced even before the car – Gottlieb Daimler built the “Reitwagen” (rider cart) in 1885, the first car nearly simultaneous with Carl Benz in 1886. Daimler-Benz still builds cars up to this day, while many other huge industrial dynasties of the “Gründerjahre” (foundation years) have either changed ownership and name or even seized to exist.

Krupp, for example, in full name Fridrich Krupp AG, was the largest company in all of Europe at the beginning of the 20th century – an industry giant that built everything made of steel and made history by providing most of Germany’s arms in World War I and II. With the huge change in industrialisation at the end of the century, they first acquired competitor Hoesch, were then bought themselves by Thyssen and moved most of their production facilities out of the country. On my last visit in Shanghai I could witness the huge Thyssen Krupp factories in the Chinese city from the Transrapid train, the latter a prime German invention that never made it in Germany itself. The magnetic levitation trains remained experimental in its home country, but are in use in many Asian countries.

Fellow Steel producer Preussag went to a different direction, cancelled all its core business and is now known as TUI. Yes, the huge travel corporation used to make steel in the past.

Among those that survived the same way they started are plenty of famous names. Inventor Robert Bosch established Bosch, famous industrial giant Siemens was founded in 1847 by Werner von Siemens, who’s big invention was a telegraph that could point to letters with a needle instead of using morse code. While this idea never really made it into mainstream, his company did – so successfully and financially sound, that Siemens was often called a “bank with connected technology company” in Germany.

Interesting for football players and supporters: Adolf Dassler invented the studded shoe. Him and his older brother Rudolf built up an impressive sports shoe empire that even flourished throughout World War II (with shoes named “Blitz” and “Kampf”). The bond between the two brothers did not survive the war, though. Adolf was freed from military service, because he was seen as too important in his company by the German government. His brother Rudolf learned the hard way that he was only second in command, being drafted to the front twice. After the war, he left to start his own show factory just across the river and called it Puma, using American investments. His brother renamed his company after himself – Adidas was born. The small South German town Herzogenaurach became home to two of the leading global sports producers.

But back to mobility, the big topic of German innovation. “Too fast, too noisy, too dangerous” was the initial reaction to the invention of the motor car, which mirrored contemporary opinions about rail travel. At more than 20 miles per hour, so the verdict of medical professionals, the brain will hit the back wall of the skull, which would cause considerable damage.

Little did they know about German inventions still to come. After Otto Lilienthal built the first gliding plane, starting the era of airtravel, Ferdinand Adolf Heinrich August Graf von Zeppelin invented the rigid airship that sadly did not stand the test of time – the Hindenburg disaster ended his vision, making space for modern planes. 1936 Hans von Ohain introduced the jet engine, in the same year it was Henrich Focke who had the idea of a helicopter. All of these proved that the 20 mph theory was nonsense, but nothing as much as the space rocket that brought men to the moon in the 60s. It was originally developed by Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun – a genius who became one of the most important minds in NASA, but started out as one of the main scientiests of the Nazi regime, responsible for weapons like the V2, the first military rocket that was used to bomb London among other cities.

He was not the only Nazi brainiac to join the American ranks after WW2 (and even before). One of the most notable inventors of the modern age was Otto Hahn, who in 1938 for the first time in history made nuclear fission reality, discovered the nuclear chain reaction and created the scientific basis for nuclear energy as well as the nuclear bomb. He was, of course, not the only great mind working in this field. Manchester University, for example, claims to be the place where the first time in history an atom was split. Ernest Rutherford, who knew Otto Hahn from working with him in Canada, indeed split an atom in its parts in 1919 already, and this happened in Manchester. There were still plenty of steps needed to lead to actual fission, and these steps took much longer than the time from first chain reaction to the dropping of the first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. The American Manhattan Project won the race against German scientists under leadership of Robert Oppenheimer, who was of German descent but born in New York City. Ironically, his parents were Jewish – like so many of the brilliant minds that Nazi Germany expelled from the country.

Poets and Thinkers

“Die Dichter und Denker holt in Deutschland der Henker” so Bertolt Brecht, the famous writer, in the 1930s. The translation: In Germany, poets and thinkers go straight to the executioner. Hitler’s rule was a nightmare of anti-intellectualism (among all its other cruelties), and it is scary to see how this mindset seems to be back in the current climate of populism, with its despise of experts.

A bitter statement in the country that brought the world the most important breakthrough in providing knowledge and education to the masses: Johannes Gutenberg invented book printing with movable letters in 1440. His idea made it possible to provide books to average people at affordable prices and broke the education privilege of the wealthy upper classes. Like with many other famous inventors, today we know that he was not really the first to have this idea, though. Book printing with movable letters was already common in China in the 11th century – but to be fair: This was too far away to have any impact on Europe at the time.

The biggest competitor for the printed book – at least in the 20th century – also come from Germany: Manfred von Ardenne invented the television in 1930. From 1935 the first regular TV station started broadcasting – today more than 167 million TV sets are sold every year. Couch potatoes around the globe are indebted to Mr Ardenne. They also owe gratitude to Hans Riegel, who in 1922 started selling the first ever gummy bears. His company, Hans Riegel Bonn, still exists; most modern people will know it as Haribo.

Those who, after Covid lockdown, want to get off the sofa again, will be more intrigued with the medical achievements of Robert Koch, who inventend bacteriology by finding out what causes tubercolosis. The Robert Koch Institute is the German authority that today leads the fight against the current pandemic. Another important medical mind was Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, who brought the world the first x-ray machines. Felix Hoffmann discovered Aspirin in 1979 and made his employer, Bayer Leverkusen, one of the biggest pharmaceutical players on the planet.

Another famous German invented a system to make medicine accessible: Otto von Bismarck, the national-conservative, military-minded Iron Chancellour, introduced the first social law in history, giving German citizens health insurance as well as unemployment and retirement benefits in 1883. Nothing of this was comparable to modern standards, but it was the first time these ideas were ever implemented.

Bismarck was driven by the social democratic movement that was itself based in the philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, German thinkers who wrote their communist manifesto in Manchester, where Engels owned factories, exploiting the very workers he fought for. Marxism and its ideas were surely one of the most influential political philosophies of the 20th century.

Talking about influential German thinkers, the probably most famous cannot be missed. Albert Einstein, who in 1905 revolutionised physics with his theory of relativity. His fame outshines his colleague Werner Karl Heisenberg, who formulated the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, not so much for scientific valour, but because Einstein became a little bit of an early pop star of the scientific community.

Struggling to fit all the important information in, there is still the need to mention Konrad Zuse, who built the first working computer simply for being too lazy to calculate by hand. His invention starts the digital age in 1941 and changes the world probably even more than Marxism. This, like so many other scientific breakthroughs in this article, connects back to Manchester, where Alan Turing developed the Turing machine as a model of a computing device, making him the father of modern computing. The Zuse devices did fulfil the requirements, but due to the war and the strictly practical application of Zuse’s work, this was not proven in an experiment until 1998. Turing and Zuse met in 1947 in Göttingen to discuss computing – little did they know how much their ideas would change the world.

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