Berlin - Paris had a centralised water supply, as did Vienna and of course London. Rome's famous aqueducts supplied Roman settlements with water more than 2,000 years ago. According to the census of 3 December 1849, Berlin had exactly 423,902 inhabitants, 5,600 wells - and an outbreak of cholera.

Between 1831 and 1873, the city suffered 13 epidemics; it was suspected that the diarrhoeal disease was transmitted by miasmas (vapours). The pathogen was unknown, but was thought to have come from the East, as indicated by the name "Asian Hydra". From September 1831 to February 1832 alone, 1426 people died of cholera in the Prussian capital.

Despite warnings that the epidemic might have something to do with water, the short-sightedly, thrifty magistrate refused to take preventative measures. From around 1840, industrialisation and the mass influx of new workers gained new momentum but it was not until 1852 that Berlin became the last European capital to start building a water pipeline.

Safety through hygiene

The driving force behind the project was police commissioner Karl Ludwig Friedrich von Hinckeldey - one of the most interesting figures went it comes to understanding the Prussian state in the era after the failed democratic revolution in 1848-49. On the one hand, Hinckeldey took repressive action against subversives, on the other he sought to alleviate social grievances because he had recognised them as a danger to the monarchy: he founded the professional fire brigade, reorganised the city sanitation service, set up bathhouses - and brought about the construction of water pipes and a waterworks.

In 1848 Hinckeldey recommended the construction of an aqueduct from the Wandlitz and Liepnitz lakes to Berlin. The answer was vague: "(...) but that we can only participate in this insofar as it does not incur us any costs (...)". The police commissioner, who in 1850 was given extended powers by a new city constitution and municipal code, was finally able to convince the Minister of Trade, the Minister of the Interior and also the City of Berlin. King Friedrich Wilhelm IV needed no convincing - he supported the project out of conviction.

But no suitable construction company could be found in Prussia. On 11 December 1852, Hinckeldey signed a deal with the English contractors Sir Charles Fox and Mr Thomas Rushell Crampton who agreed to build conduits to the "streets, lanes and squares" using the most modern methods. The projected cost was 1,500,000 thalers. Construction was to begin in 1853, with completion by 1 July 1856. The contract was to run for 25 years. The king added clauses to the contract stipulating, for example, that the city administration had no say in the matter, that the profits of the British entrepreneurs were not allowed to exceed 15 per cent, and in return the Prussian government granted them "special protection in all matters".

Berlin Water Works, London

The Berlin Water Works Company was founded in London. The Berlin gas works were also in English hands at the time - thanks to Britain's technological lead. The mayor of Berlin, Heinrich Wilhelm Krausnick, was still convinced that cholera had nothing to do with water. After all, cholera had raged even worse in other cities.

In light of our current experience with the corona pandemic, the almost 200-year-old reports of infections, hot spots, fear and helplessness sound frighteningly familiar. In 1831, the first cholera fatality was a boatman, a commuter so to speak, who had docked in Charlottenburg with his peat barge. Just one day later, the area around Schiffbauerdamm, where a lot barges docked at the time, was affected. Merely a few days later, the provisional cholera hospital reported overcrowding.

The cordoning off of Berlin didn't help. Ambulances and hearses rolled through the streets, ringing bells to announce their arrival. The Berliners weren't impressed. They'd say things like, "Just don't make it creepy", drank preventive schnapps and partied on as usual. The theatres remained open. Only the king, still Friedrich Wilhelm III at the time, temporarily retreated to Charlottenburg, worried.

Waterworks at Stralauer Tor

In the immigrant quarters, especially the "Neu-Voigtland" slum (later the Rosenthaler Vorstadt in what would become Mitte), cholera cases skyrocketed in the cramped dwellings with medieval hygiene conditions. The university professor Friedrich Hufeland wrote in shock: "It is certainly a disgrace for us Berlin doctors that since cholera has been prevalent in civilised countries, i.e. those where there is a medical police and lists of deaths are drawn up, in no place have so many people died from it in proportion to the number of people who have fallen ill as here."

In 1853, the first stone of Berlin's first waterworks was finally laid near Stralauer Tor (at today's Oberbaumbrücke). It sounds hard to believe that the English began operation on 1 July 1856, completely in accordance with the contract. Bit by bit, buildings were connected to the water supply - 314 after one year, 1,141 after three years. In 1859, the Berlin Water Works made a profit for the first time, and in 1868 the company paid out more than nine percent in dividends. One year later, the project stagnated. Negotiations about an expansion had failed.

In the meantime, the question of how to remove the wastewater was becoming more and more pressing. A sewer system was needed, but Prussian engineer's Eduard Wiebe first plan for such a system in 1861 was met with immediate opposition. Wiebe wanted to channel the sewer water underground through Berlin and finally into the Spree near today's Beusselstraße in Alt-Moabit. Citizens' initiatives arose, pamphlets were printed, petitions were taken to government offices, newspaper ads were placed. The resistance dragged on for more than 10 years, delaying the large-scale project while the city population exploded.

The first sewers

The objections revealed various interests: the construction of an underground sewer system was too expensive for the city; hauliers didn't want to give up the business of collecting latrine buckets every night; the latrine bucket carriers, mostly poor women, feared for their earnings; the idea of tearing up entire streets to lay the sewage pipes was frightening; the surrounding communities were worried about Berlin's excrement trickling onto their fields, and so on.

Nevertheless, the population continued to grow. Berlin now wanted to implement the large-scale plan for urban expansion by the city's chief architect James Hobrecht. The city terminated the restrictive contract with London Water Works on 31 December 1873 and bought the company, resulting in the first municipalisation of a Berlin waterworks.

Meanwhile, cholera had struck Berlin again in 1866.  A commission led by the physician Rudolf Virchow, head of the Berlin hygiene movement, was finally able to begin planning the underground sewage system. In 1849, Virchow had estimated the life expectancy of richer Berliners at 50 years, for poorer ones at 32. Cholera became a major motive for preventing infection from the drinking water supply and sewage.

Photo: Imago/Bernd Friedel
Engine house B at the Friedrichshagen waterworks, built between 1889 and 1899. Initially known as the Müggelsee waterworks. Today, the old plant is a protected monument and museum.

In 1873, the construction of 12 "radial systems" for wastewater removal began. Within four years, the first 80km were in place and 2,415 buildings were hooked up to it. The last segment of the radial system went into operation in 1893, and gradually the suburbs were also connected. The project, implemented by James Hobrecht, was expensive; in fact, Berlin issued its first municipal bond to pay for the sewer system. But the network still functions well today. Berlin gained the reputation of being one of the cleanest cities in Europe.

Ever since, the city has been spared from cholera pandemics. When Berlin scientist Robert Koch identified the vibrio cholerae bacterium in Egypt in 1883 - which the Italian Filippo Pacini had already done in 1854 - but also proved that it was transmitted through water, this marked a breakthrough. In May 1884, Berlin welcomed Koch in triumph - the world was capable of mastering the horror of cholera. Today, we don't seem to be much better prepared for new epidemics than Berlin was 200 hundred years ago.

This article was translated from the original German for Berliner Zeitung English Edition by Maurice Frank