Konrad Zuse (June 22, 1910 - December 18, 1995) was a German engineer and computer pioneer. His greatest achievement was the completion of the first functional program-controlled computer, the Z3, in 1941. It is sometimes claimed that this is the "first computer", though this depends on complex and subtle definitional issues, as Zuse's machine was not truly general-purpose in the manner of later machines (see the article of history of computing for a thorough discussion). He also designed a high-level programming language, Plankalkül, allegedly in 1945, although this was a theoretical contribution, since the language was never actually implemented within his lifetime and did not directly influence early implemented languages. He also founded the first computer startup company in 1946 and built the Z4 , which became the first commercial computer, leased to ETH Zürich in 1950. Due to the circumstances of World War II, however, Zuse's work initially went largely unnoticed in the UK and the US; possibly Zuse's first documented influence on a US company was IBM's 1946 option on Zuse's patents.
Pre-WWII work and the Z1
Born in Berlin, Germany, Zuse graduated in civil engineering from the Technische Hochschule Berlin-Charlottenburg (today the Technische Universität Berlin or Technical University of Berlin) in 1935. During his engineering studies, Zuse had to perform many routine calculations by hand, which he found mind-numbingly boring. This experience led him to dream about performing calculations by machine.
He started work at the Henschel aircraft factory in Dessau, but only one year later he resigned from his job to build a programmable machine. Working in his parents' apartment in 1938, his first attempt, called the Z1, was a binary electrically driven mechanical calculator with limited programmability, reading instructions from punched tape. The Z1 never worked well, though, due to the lack of sufficiently precise parts. The Z1 and its original blueprints were destroyed during World War II.
The WWII years; Z2, Z3, Z4
World War II made it impossible and undesirable for Zuse and contemporary German computer scientists to work with similar scientists in the UK and the USA, or even to stay in contact. In 1939, Zuse was called for military service but was able to convince the army to let him return to building his computers. In 1940, he gained support from the Aerodynamische Versuchsanstalt (AVA, Aerodynamic Research Institute), which used his work for the production of glide bombs. Zuse built the Z2 , a revised version of his machine, from telephone relays. The same year, he started a company, Zuse Apparatebau (Zuse Apparatus Engineering), to manufacture his programmable machines.
Satisfied with the function of the basic Z2 machine, he built the Z3 and completed it in 1941. It was a binary calculator featuring programmability with loops but without conditional jumps, with memory and a calculation unit based on telephone relays. Despite the absence of conditional jumps as convenient instructions, the Z3 was a Turing complete computer (ignoring the fact that no physical computer can be truly Turing complete due to limited storage size). However, its Turing-completeness was never envisioned by Zuse (who had practical applications in mind) and only proven in 1998 (see History of computing hardware).
Zuse never received the official support that computer pioneers in Allied countries, such as Alan Turing, managed to get. The telephone relays used in his machines were largely collected from discarded stock.
Zuse's company was destroyed in 1945 by an Allied attack, together with the Z3. The partially finished, relay-based Z4 had been brought to a safe place earlier. Zuse designed a high-level programming language, the Plankalkül, allegedly from 1941 to 1945, although he did not publish it until 1972. No compiler or interpreter was available for Plankalkül until a team from the Free University of Berlin implemented it in 2000, five years after Zuse died.
Zuse the entrepreneur
In 1946 Zuse founded world's first computer startup company: the Zuse-Ingenieurbüro Hopferau. Venture capital was raised through ETH Zürich and an IBM option on Zuse's patents.
Zuse founded another company, Zuse KG, in 1949. The Z4 was finished and delivered to the ETH Zürich, Switzerland in September, 1950. At that time, it was the only working computer in continental Europe, and the first computer in the world to be sold, beating the Ferranti Mark I by five months and the UNIVAC I by ten months. Other computers, all numbered with a leading Z, were built by Zuse and his company. Notable are the Z11 , which was sold to the optics industry and to universities, and the Z22 , the first computer with a memory based on magnetic storage.
In 1967 Zuse also suggested that the universe itself is running on a grid of computers (digital physics); in 1969 he published the book Rechnender Raum (translated by MIT into English as Calculating Space, 1970). Since the publication of Stephen Wolfram's book A New Kind of Science, this idea has attracted a lot of attention, since there is no compelling physical evidence against Zuse's thesis. Critics of Wolfram's work claim that the fundamental ideas are essentially due to Zuse.
Between 1987 and 1989, Zuse recreated the Z1, suffering a heart-attack midway through the project. The final result had 30,000 components, cost 800,000 DM, and required four individuals (including Zuse) to assemble it. Funding for this retrocomputing project was provided by Siemens and a consortium of around five companies.
Zuse's machines today
- The Life and Work of Konrad Zuse, by Prof. Horst Zuse – An extensive and well written historical account of what can arguably be called the world's first working computer.
- MacTutor biography
- Konrad Zuse Internet Archive
- Technical University of Berlin
- Free University of Berlin
- Konrad Zuse
- Konrad Zuse, inventor of first working programmable computer
- Zuse's thesis of digital physics and the computable universe
- Zuse, Konrad (1993). The Computer – My Life. Berlin/Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag. ISBN 0387564535. (translated from the original German edition (1984). Der Computer – Mein Lebenswerk. Springer. ISBN 3-540-56292-3.)