Networkers in the age of stagecoaches

As early as the 18th century, the polymath Albrecht von Haller was already. century a life in the network

An exhibition at the Bern Museum of Communication presents Albrecht von Haller as a forerunner of today’s "Netjunkies". The polymath was active in disciplines as diverse as botany, poetry and anatomy. Haller’s profound knowledge was only possible thanks to a Europe-wide network of 1200 correspondents.

It is not only since the introduction of electronic communication media that "Networking" has been a career-defining factor. The Enlightenment philosopher and polymath Albrecht von Haller demonstrated long before our time how scientific efficiency and enormous expertise in various branches of science can be achieved thanks to a tightly woven network of contacts. Born in Bern in 1708, Haller first studied medicine in Tubingen and Leiden before being appointed professor of anatomy, botany and surgery at the University of Gottingen after years practicing medicine in his native city. Haller spent a total of 17 years in the German university city., before he returned to Switzerland again. Under the title "Ferngesprache – the 17,000 letters of the polymath Albrecht von Haller" the Museum fur Kommunikation in Bern is devoting itself to the scientist’s extensive correspondence and comparing his non-electronic networking with contemporary forms of communication.

As Ulrich Schenk, curator at the Museum fur Kommunikation and project manager of the exhibition "Long Distance Language" Haller’s communication behavior can be divided into two phases: already as a student, the young Haller actively sought contacts and wrote to the people relevant to his thirst for knowledge; from the second half of his life, the scientist, who by then was well known throughout Europe, no longer had to actively weave his communication network, he was literally overwhelmed with requests; however, this took on such proportions that in the last years of his life, Haller was sometimes only able to manage the extensive correspondence with difficulty.

The communications infrastructure in 18th century Europe was. The communication infrastructure in Europe of the 18th century was ensured in the form of the private Fischer-Post and other courier services. The German-speaking countries, as well as more distant destinations such as St. Petersburg, could be reached within a few days. Petersburg could be reached within a few days. At that time, the transport service was usually paid by the recipient. Since this was expensive for von Haller, who was a frequent communicator – there are 17,000 letters in his estate – he commissioned students who traveled from university to university to transport his correspondence. The enormous output – Haller received and wrote a letter a day during his adult life, and wrote two pages of print, not counting 9,000 reviews – was also reflected formally. Nowadays, e-mail correspondence is characterized by a loss of coarseness. Haller did not want a secretary, as the delay in dictation inhibited the scientist’s undisturbed thinking. Even while eating, Haller wrote, or when he wasn’t writing, he was reading. There is an anecdote that Haller held the book in his left hand and the fork in his right. The food in the plate was previously prepared bite-size for him by servants.

Other forms of "simultaneous work" Other forms of simultaneous work were, for example, writing letters while teaching students, or during medical consultations von Haller used to read treatises and listen to the patients’ descriptions at the same time. Thanks to such and other tricks, the communication genius Albrecht von Haller displayed a scientific work efficiency that no contemporary could match.

As a botanist, for example, Haller created a herbarium with around 10,000 plants, a considerable number of which he received by letter from scholarly friends from all over Europe – as the forerunner, so to speak, of today’s attachments. He also gave orders and loved to search specifically for plants. What is common practice today in the form of international research projects has its antecedents in the Age of Enlightenment. Thanks to his partners, Haller achieved groundbreaking results for that time. For example, thanks to his knowledge of the results of a botanical expedition to Siberia on behalf of the Russian tsarina, he was the first to establish a connection between the vegetation at higher altitudes in the Alps and in northern Eurasia.

The most direct reference to current forms of networking is shown in Haller’s activity as a practicing physician. Just as today medical advice can be obtained remotely by telephone and e-mail, so contemporary methods of treatment in the 18th century began remote diagnosis. century favored remote diagnosis. At that time, the doctor primarily gave advice, prescribed remedies on the basis of the described clinical picture, and examined the diseased part of the body only in the rarest of cases. As a networker with a multitude of contacts, von Haller also acted as a mediator of medical services – although he was always concerned with his own fame. A councillor from the city of Lausanne suffered from cataracts and asked von Haller for advice. He recommended that the eye condition be treated by the surgeon Jacques Daviel in Paris. The treatment was successful and subsequently a correspondence between the theoretician Haller and the practitioner Daviel was established. Daviel asked for the correspondence to be printed in a professional journal, which Haller agreed to, not least because this would keep his name in the conversation.

As a writer and poet, Haller specifically addressed his readers; the emerging interest in literary products among the wider population at that time facilitated communication between the author and the reader. Haller received reactions to his poems from his readership. This early form of "Fan mail" is presented in the exhibition "Long-distance language" the website "Poetry Machine" by the Viennese author Martin Auer.

The full extent of Haller’s work and research has not yet been definitively recorded and documented. For almost 10 years now, the scope of the legacy has been the subject of an interdisciplinary research project at the University of Bern, which is using extensive databases to study the work of the "last polymath" systematically.

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