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Electrifying Germany

Lawrence Bush
June 19, 2017

Industrialist Emil Rathenau, who met Thomas Alva Edison in Paris at the 1881 international electricity exhibition and purchased the right to use his patents to bring power stations, railways, and electrical machines to Germany, died at 76 on this date in 1915. In 1884, Rathenau contracted with the magistrate of Berlin to string city streets with electricity lines, with Berlin receiving ten percent of the income. Rathenau founded the Allgemeine-Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft (General Electricity Incorporated, AEG) three year later, which eventually developed into a corporation with operations in eighteen countries on four continents, manufacturing light bulbs, turbines, streetcars, train lines, and more. Rathenau was also the first German engineer to manufacture aluminum for industrial use. His son Walter took over AEG before Rathenau’s death, and was himself assassinated by rightwing terrorists while serving as Foreign Minister for the Weimar Republic.

“Despite anti-Jewish feelings from many, Jews were well represented in many aspects, such as science. Emilie Berliner, an inventor and writer, for example, believed that Orthodox Judaism was compatible with the world of science. Berliner, like Rathaneu, was also heavily influenced by Edison’s inventions. . . . Not all successful Jews of the time were scientists however. In 1912, there were 12 Jewish members of the Reichstag (out of a total of 100 members). The Reichstag was not the only thing with increasing numbers of Jews. From about 47,500 Jews in 1871 to 200,000 Jews in 1910, the city of Berlin itself also saw an increase in the Jewish population. By 1910, the Jewish population accounted for about 10% of Berlin’s population.”

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.