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Deutsches Technikmuseum - July

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The Websites of the donation Stiftung Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin at a glance:


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Exhibit of the Month July 2016

Photo: Three detonators are situated on a piece of rail. The round discs are about as wide as the top surface of the rail and one centimetre high. Beside five transport containers in the warning colours of red and yellow, with the symbol for explosives.

Explosive warning of danger on the track: Railway detonators and transport containers. © SDTB / Photo: C. Kirchner

Railway detonators and transport containers from the German Railway, 20th century

Detonators are definitely among the most curious pieces of equipment to be found on a locomotive or in the pocket of a linesman.

They do, however, have a serious side to them: Up until 1986 the Deutsche Bundesbahn used them as the official warning signal "Sh 4".

These detonators were employed when a danger zone had to be secured and there was the risk of fog or snow flurries obfuscating the optical signals. In such cases, the detonators were laid out on the rails 700 to 1000 metres before the danger zone. When a locomotive ran over the explosive-filled capsules they set off a blast, but one that would not damage the train. The loud bangs were a signal to the locomotive engineer to immediately stop the train.

A locomotive running over a detonator is pictured. It explodes and small glowing fragments from the detonator fly all around. If a railway worker does not stay at least 50 metres away, he could be hit by the fragments and injured

Work safety poster, circa 1920: The use of detonators requires special caution! © SDTB / Historical archive

A safety device - but its use can be dangerous

The rail with the three detonators displayed here – without any explosives of course! – comes from the former Berliner Verkehrs- und Baumuseum’s historical collection from the time before 1945. The special containers that were used to safely store the detonators, on the other hand, come directly from the Deutsche Bundesbahn and became part of the Deutsches Technikmuseum’s collection in 1987.

Nowadays, the Deutsche Bahn no longer uses detonators. Various innovations, like for instance wireless train communication, have rendered their use redundant. The only exceptions are trains like the ICE 3 MF that serve the cross-border transport needs between France and Belgium where detonators continue to be part of the safety equipment.