05/12/2021

012 – By Zuse! – 1938

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It is not true that virtually all news in a totalitarian state is false.  Konrad Zuse

In Germany in the mid-1930s Konrad Zuse was a design engineer at the Henschel Company.  Originally a major locomotive, bus and truck manufacturer, in WWII the company went on to produce Panzer and Tiger tanks – and Hermann Göring’s staff car.

Aged 28, Zuse left Henschel to pursue the building of a programmable calculator, working from his parent’s apartment.   He designed the Z1 computer during 1938.  It was a punched-paper-tape driven device with limited programmability, electrically operated and based on the binary system.  

The Zuse Z1 is generally acknowledged to have been the world’s first program-controlled computer.

Operating a hundred years later than Babbage, Zuse too could not find the precision engineering equipment required for his components.  There were some 30,000 of them when he supervised a reconstruction of a Z1 in the late 1980s.

The Z1 performed an addition in five seconds and a multiplication in ten seconds, but its memory was just 176 bytes.  It proved complex and quite unreliable, and an improved Z2 followed in 1939.  This had a mechanical memory but its arithmetic and control logic used electrical relays.  The original Z1 and Z2 and their design documentation were lost in a 1943 Berlin bomb raid.

WWII isolated Zuse from others developing computers around the world, making his progress in the field the more remarkable.  In 1940 at the German Aerodynamic Research Institute he worked on glide bombs, designing two special purpose computers, the S1 and S2, to calculate course corrections for radio-controlled flying bombs.

The institute also funded his subsequent Z3 product.  Entirely based on electromechanical relays it was completed in May 1941 and is generally acknowledged as the first fully-functional automatic digital computer.

The Z3 included all the fundamental elements of a modern computer.  Zuse hired the mathematician Arnold Fast to help program it and Fast is said to be the first professional computer programmer.

1942-1945 Zuse created the first programming language, named Plankalkül – a high-level language with the standard features of today’s programming languages; a full decade before FORTRAN (formula translation).  Zuse used Plankalkül when designing the world’s first chess program.

After the war Zuse, Siemens and other German organisations were not permitted by the Allies to make any commercial computers until 1955.  For this reason after founding Zuse AG in 1949 he took his Z4 and worked at the ETH Zürich, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

The Z4 was the only working computer in continental Europe, only the second digital computer in the world to be sold (to BINAC designed by Eckert-Mauchly Computer Company for Northrop in 1949.

The Z4 beat the UK’s Ferranti Mark 1 and USA’s UNIVAC 1 to be completed.  In 1956 Zuse KG was acquired by Siemens AG.

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