Konrad Zuse first Computer Frist Computer Language German Inventors

If you were to take a survey to determine who in vented the computer, Bill Gates would likely be the most popular answer, followed perhaps by Apple cofounders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Wrong. In fact, the computer is one invention that no particular human can lay claim to inventing, not even Al Gore. Computers are an aggregate of concepts that developed over a hundred year period, beginning with George Boole’s invention of logical operators in 1848. There are plenty of others who have made significant contributions to computers, Charles Babbage for instance, but if you wanted the name of the man, or woman for that matter, most responsible for the computer architecture we still use today, that name would have to be Konrad Zuse. “Zuse you say, the Dr. Zues who wrote the Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham?” No not him.

He was born in Berlin on June 22, 1910. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life, be and engineer or an artist; he was pretty good at both. He finally settled on becoming a civil engineer, and was enrolled at Berlin University in the early 1930’s. In 1934, frustrated with all of the repetitive calculations he had to make, Zuse set out to design a computing machine to handle the tedious number crunching for him. As Plato first said: “necessity is the mother of invention,” and Zuse would certainly represent a contemporary fulfillment of this ancient axiom. In 1935, Zuse graduated from Berlin University, and went to work for the Henschel aircraft company. In his off-time he continued work on his computer design.

Between 1936 and 1938, Zuse would put his design into practice building the worlds first true computer prototype in his parents living room. By today’s standards the Z1, as Zuse called it was pretty primitive, but what is important is that it worked, and it was the first machine of its type. In fact, Zuse’s Z1 was full of firsts. First to use a binary floating point arithmetic architecture, first programmable computer, and so on. And later on, Zuse would also invent the first high level computer language called Plankalkl (Planned Calculus).

So why is Zuse not a house hold name in America today? Well, it seems that Zuse had a little competition in the U.K. and U.S., and although they were significantly behind Zuse on the technological evolution curve, they happened to be on the right side of the German boarder. While Zuse was master minding and prototyping his Z1 design, another German fellow, who was actually Austrian and Serbian to be exact, was stirring things up on the political scene in Germany. Besides, Zuse was not inventing computers for the German Third Reich or even the company he worked for, he was doing it on his own. But all this was about to change.

By 1938, Zuse’s Z1 computer was up and running and he was already working on design improvements. Unfortunately for Zuse, the following year the Nazi war machine had other plans for this innovative engineer, as he is conscripted for service in the Wehrmacht – having had a similar experience about 36 years ago I can fully appreciate his circumstances. Zuse is unable to convince the German military of the importance of his invention, and thus spends six months in an army uniform. Kurt Pannke a builder of tabulating machines attempted to intervene on Zuse’s behalf to get him transferred to Berlin. Helmut Schreyer, an engineering professor at Berlin University, also attempted to get Zuse released from the military. Zuse himself tried to convince the military of the importance of computers. He offered to build a computer controlled anti aircraft system that could be operational in two years. They responded that the war would be over in much less time. One has to wonder how the war would have turned out, had the Germans been able to put up a robust defense against the allied bombing with Zuse’s computer controlled A/A gun. But somebody in the Wehrmacht saw that Zuse was far to valuable of a mind to waste in battle, and he was ultimately released and sent back to Henchel Aircraft Company where he would work on guidance systems for the flying bomb; the V1 that would wreak havoc on London during the battle of Briton. But during his off-time Zuse was free to work on his computer.

His next machine was the Z2 which he had working by 1940, and which offered some evolutionary improvements over the Z1. The following year he would build the Z3 which used the same architecture as the Z1 and 2, but was totally implemented with relays replacing the mechanical components. Zuse was able to get some funding for construction of the Z3 and it was operational in 1941. He formed his own company, the first company in the world devoted only to computer design and manufacturing, and got a contract to build an even bigger version of his computer, the Z4, with memory capacity about 16 times that of the Z3. The Z4 was operational by 1945, but now the Russians were closing in on Berlin so Zuse moved his operations and the Z4 to southern Germany. Soon after the war was over, Zuse along with other engineers was interviewed by British and American agents to ascertain any potential technological value they might have to offer the allies. According to Zuse’s son Horst, he ran into Werner Von Bruan during his interrogation. Von Bruan of course would go on to the United States where he would develop the rocket engines to realize his dream of getting to the moon. Apparently like the German military, the Americans and British did not see much value at that point in computing machines, and Zuse stayed behind in Germany.

After the war, Zuse continued building new and improved versions of his computing machines in a partnership called Zuse KG. If others could not value the importance of Zuse’s inventions, one American company could, the IBM corporation, and in 1948, IBM bought options on some of Zuse’s patents. Zuse off course went on building his own machines culminating with the Z23 in 1961. His company was sold the following year to Brown Boveri and Co., which later would be bought out by Siemens. Zuse would spend most of the rest of his life building replicas of his original computers that had all been destroyed during the war, and trying to get the recognition as inventor of the the first true computer he was so deserving of.

Mean while, in the United States, IBM was rolling out its IBM 360 architecture, the first computer system to be a truly commercial success. When I went to work at IBM in the 70’s some of Zuse’s technology was still in use. There was a circuit board I worked on that was full of relays and called the “Zuse Rack Card.”

Zuse died in 1995, and in Germany at least he has been remembered and recognized for his contributions to the computer, and as the inventor of the first true computing machine. In 2000, IBM came out with a new mainframe architecture they call the “zSeries.” I immediately thought that the “z” was a reference to Konrad Zuse, and recognition of his pioneering contribution to a machine that has to be considered the most prolific of any mankind has invented. Prior to my deadline for this article, I was unable to confirm my speculation from IBM sources whether the “z” was attributable to Zuse, or simply coincidental. Irregardless, as I sit here writing this article on my IBM Thinkpad, which I perceive to be a mental prosthesis that augments and extends human cognitive enterprise, I am glad to have this opportunity to recognize Konrad Zuse for his profound contribution to the advancement of human intellectual endeavor.


J.A. N, Lee – “Konrad Zuse,” Online: http://ei.cs.vt.edu/~history/Zuse.html

Horst Zuse – “The Life and Work of Konrad Zuse,” Online: http://www.konrad-zuse.de/

Rojas, Raul – “Zuse, Konrad” On Line: http://www.zib.de/zuse/Inhalt/Kommentare/Html/0677/0677.html

David L. Hildebrandt – “Forbidden Fruit, The Evolution of Human Intelligence,” QM Publishing, Hat Creek, 2008.

“ZSeries” and “IBM” are registered trademarks of the International Business Machines Corporation. :http://www-03.ibm.com/systems/z/advantages/index.html