Konrad Zuse – The Inventor of the Computer

Konrad Zuse
(1910 – 1995)

On December 18, 1995, German engineer and computer pioneer Konrad Zuse passed away. He is renowned to have constructed the very first functional program-controlled Turing-complete computer, the Z3, which became operational in May 1941.

Konrad Zuse developed the ability to build various kinds of machines in his early high school years, and he began his engineering-career at Berlin’s Technical University, where he earned his degree in 1935. Right after graduating, the inventor quit his promising engineering job at a company, responsible for transport machines and aircrafts. When he told his parents, he needed their entire living room to construct a machine that was able to do the moronic work of calculating automatically, he earned much astonishment, but also their complete support.

So this is, where one of the greatest inventions of all times started – in an ordinary family’s living room in Berlin-Kreuzberg, just a few years before World War II. Zuse was going to build a binary calculating machine based on mechanical bistable elements continuing the works of the congenial 19th century English mathematician Charles Babbage. Also, the entire machine was supposed to be based on propositional logic, which he developed the famous floating-point execution unit for. Zuse built a memory, as well as a control unit made of punched tape, which he received from the Babelsberg film studios and finished his first mechanical computer, the Z1 in 1938. [1] Because of the limited resources, Konrad Zuse was not quite satisfied with this new very loudly calculating “monstrosity” he had created at his parent’s home. He made a few adjustments, like using telephone-relays and designed the Z2 right after. He refined further details and partly financially supported by the government, Konrad Zuse was able to finish his famous Z3, the first computer world wide that was freely programmable and based on the binary number system as well as a binary circuit technology in 1941.

The construction of the Z4 began in 1942, but due to World War II, Zuse could not finish it in Berlin, wherefore he moved it to Neukirchen in Hessen, Germany. You may imagine, that moving a whole computer system (as big as a whole shelf unit and as heavy as a small car) in Germany near the end of the war was definitely not a walk in the park. Because all other machines have been destroyed by the bombs, the Z4 was everything he had left and therefore the move was even more risky. But fortunately, Zuse and his team made it just on time and five years after the war, the machine was completely reconstructed and calculated from then on at the ETH Zurich as the only commercial computing system in Europe. After the Z3 and Z4, Zuse was still motivated to build and sell fully automatic calculating machines, wherefore he founded a company in Neukirchen. Zuse and his wife, who lead the business sold more than 250 computers across Europe.

Another problem, regarding the Z3 was Zuse’s recognition as the inventor of the Computer. Howard Aiken presented the Mark 1 in 1944 in the USA, but Zuse’s Z3 was destroyed during World War II and only some sketches remained. However, he could collect numerous evidences for his achievement and during a mathematical conference concerning the fact ‘Who invented the Computer‘, a huge majority spoke for Konrad Zuse. Unfortunately, this was in 1998, three years after Zuse’s passing, but after this, he received the Computer History Museum Fellow Award, to be seen as the USA’s acknowledgement. Also, in 2010, the ‘Zuse Year’ was announced to honor his contributions and to emphasize the importance of his invention to the digital age.

At yovisto you can learn more about computer pioneer Konrad Zuse in a talk given by his son, Prof. Horst Zuse, about his father and the invention of the computer (in German language).

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