Stasi / Facebook / Big Data DAAD Day 20 – Automation in Stasi postal surveillance: Kleindampfentwickler

Department M, along with the Stasi OTS (Operativ-Technische Sektor), developed and implemented numerous technical tools, intelligence checks, and operational activities to speed their postal surveillance in the GDR. By the 1970’s, the department was already using various modified household appliances or industrial devices to assist in steaming open and closing letters. One example is this “Kleindampfentwickler”—a “small steam generator,” which appears to be a modified espresso maker or water boiler, with an added, V-shaped steam outlet.

The Kleindampfentwickler (Credit: BStU)

The materials and intentional flat and curved lines in the design of the chrome base and plastic handle suggest it was mass produced. The Stasi probably chose the kettle for the wide base and low placement of the electrical connection which serve to keep the center of gravity low and prevent tipping. They used a V-shape for this and other steam outlets to match the angled shape of envelope flaps. This one is designed to loosen the glue on a single envelope, while other steam outlets could accommodate more.

The crude construction of the modified steam outlet sharply contrasts with the retail-ready kettle. The choice of soldered copper for the material of the pipe leading upwards and steam outlet were probably based on what was available, water resistant, and easy to work with. Copper is used for speciality roofs and gutters, with the seams joined together using heat and solder. The joinery on the Stasi’s addition is not pretty, making it stand out against the base, but it exemplifies the experimental methodologies of the engineers who worked behind closed doors, as well as the belief the aesthetics or secrecy of their work would never be scrutinized.

The Kleindampfentwickler Operational Carrying Case (Credit: BStU)