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Zuse, Konrad

Konrad Zuse (June 22, 1910 ““ December 18, 1995) was a German civil engineer and computer pioneer of the twentieth century. His most notable accomplishment was his 1941 invention of the world’s first functional program-controlled Turing-complete computer, called the Z3. In 1964, he was honored with the Werner-von-Siemens-Ring for this project.

Zuse also contributed the design of the first high-level programming language, Plankalkül. In 1948, he published his design, but the contribution was considered notional because the language was not executed in his lifetime and so did not directly affect early languages. Rutishauser, a German inventor of ALGOL wrote this about Zuse: “The very first attempt to devise an algorithmic language was undertaken in 1948 by K. Zuse. His notation was quite general, but the purpose never attained the consideration it deserved.”

Not only did Zuse participate in technical work, but in 1946 he also established the first computer startup company. This company was accredited with building the second commercial computer, the Z4, which was leased to ETH Zurich in 1950. Because of relations with the UK and USA during World War II, Zuse’s work was largely overlooked in that time. Perhaps his first reported influence on a US company was in 1946 when IBM referenced his patents.

The Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany houses a replica of the Z3 and the Z4.

An exhibition solely devoted to Zuse at the Deutsches Technikmuseum Berlin in Berlin, demonstrates twelve of his machines, specifically a Z1 replica, some original documents, including the itemization of Plankalkül, as well as several of his paintings.

He was born in Berlin, Germany, but in 1912, his family relocated to Braunsberg, East Prussia where his father was employed as a postal clerk. Zuse attended the Collegium Hosianum in Braunsberg, and after his family moved away, he passed his Abitur in 1928. He graduated in 1935 with a degree from Technische Hochschule Berlin-Charlottenburg in civil engineering. In pursuit of his civil engineering degree, he had to practice many monotonous calculations by hand, resulting in daydreams of machines that would perform these functions.

He began his career as a design engineer at the Henschel aircraft factory in Berlin- Schönefeld. This was short-term, as he gave his resignation only after a year so that he could focus on building a program driven/programmable machine. His first endeavor, the Z1, was a binary electrically driven mechanical calculator with limited programmability, meaning it could only read instructions from a punched tape. He later, in 1937, submitted two patents that expected a von-Neumann architecture. The Z1 was completed in 1938. Unfortunately, despite Zuse’s anticipation, the Z1 never functioned well due to insufficient precise mechanical parts. Tragically, the Z1 and its original blueprints were lost during World War II.

Zuse later recreated the Z1 between 1987 and 1989, suffering a heart-attack during the process. It cost over $537,000, had 30,000 components, and demanded four individuals to put it together. Siemens, along with an assortment of five other companies funded this retrocomputing venture.

It was impossible for Zuse and other German computer scientists to work or even be in contact with British or American scientists while World War II was underway. Zuse was requested for military duty in 1939, but was able to persuade the army to grant him return to his computer work. The Aerodynamische Versuchsanstalt utilized his work for the production of glide bombs, in 1940. Soon after, he built the Z2, a modified version of the Z1. Later that year, he began his own company, Zuse Apparatebau (Zuse Apparatus Engineering) so that he could start manufacturing his machines.

To advance his unsophisticated Z2 machine, in 1941 Zuse created the Z3. This machine was a binary 64-bit floating point calculator featuring programmability with loops but without conditional jumps, with memory and a calculation unit based on telephone relays. Most of the telephone relays used in his machines was from discarded stock. The Z3 was a Turing complete computer, despite the absence of conditional jumps. However, Turing-completeness was never contemplated by Zuse and only demonstrated in 1998.

Computer pioneers of Allied countries, like Alan Turing, attained more support than Zuse did. The Z3 project was only fractionally funded by the German Experimentation-Institution for Aviation, which wanted their broad calculations automated. Helmut Schreyer, a co-worker of Zuse, requested government funding for an electronic descendant to the Z3, but it was not granted because it was “strategically unimportant.” In 1937, Schreyer tried to convince Zuse to use vacuum tubes as switching elements, but at this time he deemed it a crazy idea.

An Allied attack in 1945 devastated Zuse’s company, along with the Z3. To his advantage, the partially completed, relay-based Z4 had been relocated to a safe place prior to the attack. In 1941 to 1945, Zuse developed the first high-level programming language, Plankalkül, but did not publish the final work until 1972. Finally in the year 2000, a team from the Free University of Berlin executed an interpreter for Plankalkül because none had been available thus far.

In January 1945, Konrad Zuse wedded Gisela Brandes in a very dignified ceremony. Soon after in November of 1945, their son, Horst, was born.

Zuse established the world’s fist computer startup company in 1946 called, the Zuse-Ingenieurbüro Hopferau. Venture capital was raised through ETH Zürich, and with Zuse’s patent an IBM option was obtained.

Zuse founded a second company in 1949 called Zuse KG. Under this company, the Z4 was completed and delivered to the RTH Zürich, Switzerland in September 1950. It was the only functioning computer in continental Europe, at that time, and the second computer in the world to be sold. BINAC was the first. Zuse and his company built 43 computers, all the way up to Z43. The most notable of these were the Z11, which sold to the optics industry and to universities, and the Z22, the first memory-based computer with magnetic storage.

The Zuse KG built a sum of 251 computers by 1967. However, due to financial complications, it was sold to Siemens.

Zuse suggested in 1967 that the universe itself operates on a grid of computers (digital physics), and based on that idea he published his book in 1969 entitled Rechnender Raum, which translates in English as Calculating Space. This suggestion has fascinated many, since there is no tangible proof for Zuse’s thesis. Many other scientists including Edward Fredkin (1980s), Juergen Schmidhuber (1990s), and others have elaborated on it.

Zuse was awarded abundantly for his work. Some of his most notable awards include the Werner-von-Siemens-Ring in 1964, Harry H. Goode Memorial Award, Bundesverdienstkreuz in 1972, and the Computer History Museum Fellow Award in 1999. In retirement, he spent time enjoying his hobby of painting. He died in Hünfeld, Germany on December 18, 1995.

His spirit of invention echoes today when his quote is remembered: “The belief in a certain idea gives to the researcher the support for his work. Without this belief he would be lost in a sea of doubts and insufficiently verified proofs.”

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Zuse Konrad


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