Motion Detector No. 23: It’s Off the Grid!

Museum Europäischer Kulturen

In the Motion Detector series, the Museum Europäischer Kulturen (MEK, Museum of European Cultures) shows objects from its collection and loans on current topics that are moving people in Europe.The 23rd Motion Detector deals with the global energy crisis. The presentation can be viewed in the lobby of the MEK until November 2023.

In light of the global energy crisis, we continue to seek ways to save energy where and when we can. It is hard to imagine that electricity was an innovation only a hundred years ago. It was initially used to illuminate streets and public squares: Potsdamer Platz in Berlin was lit up in 1882. With the construction of power plants and electrical grids, electricity was made available across many European countries. In the 1920s, electrical appliances such as irons, hoovers and washing machines made their way into people’s homes.

But how did life work without electricity? Clever inventions made it possible to convert physical power into mechanical energy to be stored and made available when required. For example, when winding an alarm clock, the energy is stored in a spiral-shaped steel spring. The ‘Sputnik’ travel razor applies a similar mechanism. In a coffee grinder and a hand-turned mixer, one’s movement is converted directly through the cogwheels.

Equations can be solved without electricity using an abacus. Rows of beads represent numbers, allowing very quick calculations. More complex calculations are possible with a slide rule. Indispensable for engineers, the use of the slide rule helped plan the first flights into space. Today, barely anyone knows how to use it.

The bicycle is an example of locomotion without electricity. The invention of the bike chain and air-filled tyres made cycling possible from 1900 onwards. For women in particular, this provided a certain degree of freedom and self-determination.

Many of these items still work today. Though they do not offer an immediate solution to the crisis, they might serve as an inspiration to save some energy.