Felix Kunz and The Museum of Leftover Things

Felix Kunz spent his life saving technology collections that no one wanted anymore. Now the entrepreneur’s treasures can be admired in his own museum near Solothurn. By Dominik Landwehr

Felix Kunz is a self-made man, and he has now completed what is probably his greatest work to date. The Enter Technikwelt Solothurn museum has been open to the public since December 1st. It is located in the industrial area of Derendingen, five kilometers from Solothurn train station. Covering an area of over 10,000 square meters, the museum offers insights into the development of technology since 1800. The basis is the in-house collection with over 30,000 objects. These include original devices – many of them from the SRF radio and TV studios – as well as rarities such as the Apple1 or the Enigma cipher machine.

The eye-catcher in the entrance area is the Spitlight cloud projector from the 1950s, a Bedford truck with a body in the shape of a rocket. Kuhn bought the object a few years ago at the Technorama in Winterthur and had it restored because, in addition to old technology, he also has a flair for old cars – and the wallet to spare for this expensive hobby. Film vehicles such as the Rolls-Royce Phantom III from the James Bond film “Goldfinger” can also be seen in Derendingen.

Around fifteen years ago, Kunz opened his first museum, the Enter, in a former drinks depot at the Solothurn train station and found space here for his sprawling collection. The old museum had the charm of a Brocken room and attracted around 10,000 visitors per year. But the collection had an unexpected side effect: overnight, Felix Kunz became the go-to place for collectors of old electronics. For example, the holdings of the Vevey Audiorama ended up with him; One of the showpieces was Switzerland’s first radio station from Champ-de-l’Air at Lausanne Blécherette Airport from 1923, but also the entire Gutenberg Museum from Freiburg, which also provided a curator.

And then the bad news came from Bern: A few years ago, the SBB needed space for the station expansion and initiated expropriation proceedings – they agreed on compensation in the millions. The Enter Foundation, founded by Kunz, used the money to buy a factory site in the industrial area of Derendingen and developed ideas for a center for historical technology with national appeal.

Top secret encryption devices

On the upper floor of the new museum, for example, there is an IBM 370 series large computer from the early 1970s. A dozen cupboards can also be seen. Some contain tape machines that were previously used as storage and are now being brought to life – even if only as a simulation. Computers are the world of Felix Kunz. Although he had to drop out of high school because of poor performance in the old languages, that didn’t stop him from winning a prize twice in the “Swiss Youth Research” competition, including with a digital control system for a small solar power plant.

After his apprenticeship as a telecommunications, electrical and apparatus engineer, he studied engineering and soon afterwards founded the company Digital Logic, which develops systems for industrial controls. His “embedded computers” conquered the market. Even then it was clear to him how quickly the development of computers was progressing. And because he didn’t have the heart to give away his old devices, he collected them.

Part of the museum is a display warehouse where around 30,000 devices from the fields of computers, telecommunications and consumer electronics can be found. But Felix Kunz’s collection did not cover all of his wishes. For example, he spent ten years looking for an Enigma encryption machine. Purchasing the object proved to be difficult, but after word of his desire had spread in this scene, he was able to purchase an Enigma. These devices are sold at exorbitant prices of over 100,000 francs; machines from the Zug-based company Crypto AG, which no longer exists, are available for cheaper.

The encryption devices are now part of the new permanent exhibition and in the “Top Secret!” theme world. to find. The internationally active museum designers Steiner Sarnen contributed to the concept of the themed worlds. One of the rooms shows an analogue television studio, as was previously used by Swiss television. The museum works with volunteer technicians: former television and radio technicians meet here regularly and maintain the old equipment. The pinball boxes, which are in constant operation, are also maintenance-intensive; Kunz also has specialists who take care of the frequent maintenance work.

Felix Kunz aims to bring old devices to life – something that hardly any other technology museum does. If a transformer or a tube burns out, it’s no problem: the museum maintains a spare parts warehouse with 2 million spare parts, including 50,000 electron tubes. This makes Kunz one of the largest suppliers of such parts in the world. The workshop is huge and leaves nothing to be desired: There are lathes, welding machines, 3D printers, laser cutting devices, water cutters and even X-ray machines for material testing. In an emergency, a replacement part is produced in-house.

In the basement, in addition to the pinball machines and arcade games from arcades such as “Space Invaders” and “Pong”, around fifty unusual vehicles are parked: One of the showpieces is a DeLorean DMC-12, which was built in 1981 for the film set of “Back to the Future”. became. Kunz saw the vehicle in an internet advertisement, picked it up himself in Italy and transported it to Solothurn with his trailer. One of the most special vehicles is probably the Soletta 750, which the Solothurn engineer Willi Salzmann built in the mid-1950s. The car isn’t a beauty, but the engineer was actually just interested in a suspension that he wanted to show at the motor show.

A total of 18 million francs were invested in Derendingen. The public sector – including the Lottery Fund of the Canton of Solothurn and various foundations – contributed 4 million. A significant contribution came from the expropriation process for the old property, and a mortgage loan was also used. The owner and director of the museum doesn’t let his hand be too strong. Companies also rent the new building, including the Swiss section of the international engineering association IEEE.

“A living anachronism”

A survey in museum circles shows: Felix Kunz is something like the enfant terrible of Swiss museums. He is a collector, entrepreneur, patron, and he implements his own visions. His willingness to take on old collections surprises experts, as the stacks of most technical museums are already packed. “Felix Kunz is a living anachronism,” says Kilian T. Elsasser, President of the Association for Industrial Culture and History of Technology in Switzerland (Vintes). “Because the age of collectors is over.” Elsasser finds the contradiction interesting: Kunz, as an engineer, helped set the pace of technical development and at the same time was attached to devices that had become obsolete.

The director of the Museum of Communication in Bern, Jacqueline Strauss, is astonished by the project. “The Enter Museum focuses on technology and exchange with collectors.” When it comes to objects, Kunz relies on quantity. In recent years, however, museums have developed in a different direction. «The Museum of Communication sees itself as a democratic museum and seeks dialogue with society. We are interested in the stories that individual objects tell and the interactive discussion of communication and technical development.”

Either way: Felix Kunz’s plans are ambitious: 50,000 admissions – the Museum of Communication in Bern had around 115,000 before Corona. And what if that doesn’t work? “Then we just have to go through the books,” says the entrepreneur.

This text has been published in the Swiss Sunday Newspaper NZZ am Sonntag on Sunday, December 3, 2023.

The original version incuding two audio interviews as podcasts can be found here.