The Museum of Communication

While I had some time in Frankfurt, I wanted to see the Museum of Communication. I’m pretty sure I visited it once as a child, though I just remembered it as the telephone museum. It’s so much more: it’s all about how people have communicated with one another at a distance since the earliest times. Starting out with Sumerian tablets, it moves on to the earliest mail routes and how they eventually evolved (in Germany) to the German postal service, and how that evolved itself. Telegrams, telegraphy, teletype, telephones, television, radio, fax, and computers, it’s all there and more. There’s special sections highlighting the consequences of miscommunication, as in the confused telegrams sent out from the Titanic as it was sinking, and Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast. And there’s a nod to encrypted communication, as the museum displays not one, but two Enigma machines: one with 3 cylinders, and another the more advanced model with 4.

Neil and I had read And Then There Were None together and the heliograph with which the people on the island used to send signals to the mainland was a new concept for us. The dictionary just said it was a device for signalling with mirrors. Here in the Museum of Communication was an actual heliograph, which looked somewhat different from how I’d imagined it:

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The museum had the full history of the German postal service, from when mail was delivered on carriages, to the days when it was sorted en route in special train cars, to all the various modern German postal service vehicles, including this motorcycle:

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These days (and long back into the early 1900s at least) everything associated with the German post is boldly painted yellow, including the mail boxes, the mail bags, and the jackets the postal workers wear. The bugle, also a symbol you’ll find on all their material, dates back to the days when mail was delivered by horse, and the mailman would sound the bugle as he rode into town, so people could come pick up their mail and packages.

One section upstairs in particular is a philatelist’s dream. There’s a letter on display that fell out of the burning Hindenburg zeppelin, since zeppelins were used for express international mail delivery:

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If you look closely, the stamp is a Third Reich stamp with a swastika sun behind the Earth. Nearby are plates you can pull out showing German stamps dating back to the 1800s. They include the different stamps from World War II reconstruction era with American/British sector stamps, French sector stamps, and Russian sector stamps. Peter likes stamp collecting because he says it gives you a glimpse of history, and the Museum of Communications’ stamp collection certainly reflects that.

Personally, I still like the impressive phone section, which even reflected the linguistic change from “Fernsprecher” (distance speaker) to the more international “Telefon.” Here’s what a commercial telephone looked like in 1878, if you were one of the few people to have one:

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The museum showed how human operators worked, but it also had a mechanical switch. In front of it, you could place a call from one rotary telephone to another and see how the circuits connect.

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And the easily forgotten telephone technology of yesteryear was fun to see too. There were the huge radio and satellite telephones, and the massive bricks that were the early cell phones of the late 80s and 90s. There were pagers (hey, remember those!) complete with the advertisements promoting them. And there was a reel-to-reel answering machine from way back in the day:

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The microphone in front is what you’d use to record the message that played when the device picked up a call.

I was also intrigued by the television section, which included a huge bank of televisions on which you could see snippets of West German television shows from the 1950s to this decade. In comparison, there were pictures of what early television broadcasts look like. If you had a TV in 1929, your television image would look like this:

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We’ve come a long long way from that to HDTV!

The museum includes some communication related art, like some sheep made out of landline telephone coils and paintings of 1800s mailmen in action, but the actual communication devices are more intriguing. For instance, check out this funky television set/console from the 1960s:

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or this doily macrame phone:

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Or this really attractive classic radio microphone:

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In the most modern corners, there’s a display on computer technology as a communication device, from early acoustic couplers

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to internet telephones dating to 2000, and a few internet stations for children.

Upstairs there’s more for children, in the form of a play area, where the children can create their own cards and even set print. When I found out the museum’s guidebook was in German and English (they’re all about communicating in whatever way works for you), I bought one. It was definitely a worthwhile museum, and if you find yourself in Frankfurt, I highly recommend it.

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