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Konrad Zuse (1910-1995)

Erfinder und Erfindungen
Inventors and Inventions

First Programmable Binary Computer

“I remember mentioning to friends back in 1938 that the world chess champion would be beaten by a computer in 50 years time. Today we know computers are not far from this goal.” - Konrad Zuse, in the 1980s

Biographie - Biography

At the age of 28, Konrad Zuse invented the world's first mechanical binary computer, the Z1, in Berlin (1936-1938), and he did so in the kitchen of his parents' home, much like the founders of Apple Computer many years later.

Konrad Zuse was born on June 22, 1910 in the Wilmersdorf district of Berlin (Berlin-Wilmersdorf). His father, Emil, was a mid-level official in the Prussian post office. His mother, Maria Crohn, was a housewife who came from Pomerania (Pommern) in eastern Prussia. Two years after his birth the family moved to Braunsberg, East Prussia, where young Konrad attended school and displayed talents in both basic construction and drawing.

In 1923 Emil Zuse was transferred to Hoyerswerda (today in Saxony/Sachsen) to run the local post office. Konrad graduated from the Reform-Realgymnasium (secondary school) in Hoyerswerda in 1928 and applied to enter the Technical College (Technische Hochschule) in Berlin-Charlottenburg to study engineering. During this time Zuse's family moved to Berlin-Kreuzberg. As a student Konrad earned money doing advertising graphics for automobiles. In 1935 he graduated as a Diplom-Ingenieur in structural engineering and was hired by the Henschel-Flugzeug-Werk (Henschel Aircraft Works) as a structural engineer. He was constantly looking for ways to reduce the time and drudgery of calculating structural designs, which led him to develop his first calculating machine (Rechenmaschine) or computer (Rechner). Soon he quit his job at the Henschel aircraft plant to devote all his time to invention and refining his new computer.

In 1939 the Second World War began and Zuse was drafted into the army. But within six months German authorities decided the war effort would be better served with Zuse back in engineering. He was soon working at Henschel once again, but in his free time he continued his computer work.

Die Rechenmaschine Z1
Among the remarkable features of Konrad Zuse's first computer, the Z1 Rechenmaschine had a keyboard for data input and flashing lights to indicate results. A restored but non-functional Z1 is on display in the German Technology Museum (Deutsches Technikmuseum) in Berlin. His Z1 design principles would not be formulated in the U.S. until 1940 by John von Neumann (1903-1957).

Zuse's Z2 (1940) was the first fully functioning electromechanical computer. A more advanced, programmable Z3 followed the next year. A replica of the Z3 and the original of a later Zuse (TSU-sa) computer, the Z4, can be found at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. The Z4 was developed between 1945 and 1949. The Z3 of 1941 is considered the world's first programmable computer and predates the ENIAC in the U.S. by many years. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in the war. Had it not been for the adverse war conditions and the lack of material support in Hitler Germany, one can only imagine what else Zuse might have produced. The Konrad-Zuse-Zentrum für Informationstechnik Berlin (ZIB), founded in 1986, is a working memorial to the German inventor of the computer. (See link below.)

The Computer Museum History Center in Mountain View, California issued the following statement in 1998, when it made an exception to its bylaws in order to honor Zuse: “In 1941, Konrad Zuse created the first fully-automated, program-controlled, and freely-programmable computer for binary floating-point calculations, and later, the basic programming system, Plankalkül. His contributions were so striking, and made under such adversity, that the History Center has made an exception to its usual practice and named him a Fellow posthumously.” - If all goes as planned, there may soon be a new museum in Berlin devoted solely to Zuse. Supporters are hoping to get a large donation from Bill Gates to help things along. (See the Konrad-Zuse-Computermuseum in Hoyerswerda.)

Konrad Zuse After 1945
Only months before the end of the war, Zuse married Gisela Brandes on January 6, 1945 in Berlin. The couple would eventually have five children. A short time after their marriage Zuse and his wife fled Berlin to Hinterstein in the Allgäu region, taking along his almost completed Z4 computer, and somehow managing to demonstrate it before scientists at the Aerodynamic Test Facility in Göttingen on their way to safety in Hinterstein.

Right after the war Zuse supported his family through his art, while developing the world's first universal algorithmic programming language named Plankalkül. You could also call Zuse the world's first founder of a computer startup company. In October 1946 he established the Ingenieurbüro Hopferau. According to son Horst Zuse, the venture capital came from a contract with IBM and the rental of the Z4 computer in Switzerland. In 1949 Zuse founded Zuse KG in Neukirchen. In 1950 the Z4 became the first, and for a time the only, programmable digital computer in practical use in Europe (at the ETH Zürich). It was followed by the more advanced Z5 in 1952. Today Horst Zuse, the eldest of Zuse's five children, is a professor at Berlin's Technische Universität, the new name of the technical college from which his father graduated in 1935. (See Horst's Web site below.)

The Z11 in 1955 was Zuse KG's first mass-produced computer. It was sold primarily to optical companies and universities. In 1957 the Z22 became the first computer to use magnetic storage. Before its purchase by Siemens in 1966, Zuse KG manufactured 251 computers. As for Zuse's prediction that a computer would one day beat the world chess champion, that happened just two years after the inventor's death. In 1997, the IBM supercomputer known as "Big Blue" defeated Garry Kasparov in a six-game match.

Zuse Links

  • Konrad-Zuse.de
    Konrad Zuse's son, Dr.-Ing. Horst Zuse, has a nice Web site in German and English offering information and links concerning his father. You can even order a CD of the "Konrad Zuse Multimedia Show, Version 2005."
  • Konrad Zuse und seine Rechner
    Professor Dr. Friedrich L. Bauer schreibt über Konrad Zuse. TU-Berlin.
  • Konrad Zuse: Erfinder
    DHM site with Zuse bio in German.
  • Konrad Zuse - Internet-Archiv
    The Zuse Institute Berlin (ZIB) Web site and pages devoted to Zuse, "Inventor of the first freely programmable computer." In German or English.

  • A nice illustrated feature on Zuse from the About Guide site for Inventors.
  • Konrad Zuse
    Read about Zuse and his Z1 through Z4 computers developed in Germany in the 1930s and '40s.
  • Konrad Zuse
    English or German information about Zuse and his computers, as well as Artwork by Zuse. Photos of the Z3 computer.
  • Konrad-Zuse-Computermuseum
    This museum in Hoyerswerda, where Zuse lived as a young man, has an excellent Web site with a bio and other information about Zuse and his computers (with photos).
  • Deutsches Museum - Zuse Z4 (Foto)
    "Ganz im Zentrum der Ausstellung stehen die historischen Maschinen von Konrad Zuse Z3 und Z4. Die im Krieg zerstörte Z3, die 1941 erstmals voll funktionsfähig war, gilt als erstes frei programmierbares vollautomatisches Rechengerät überhaupt."

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