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BY MANFRED SCHROEDER
KONRAD ZUSE, German computer pioneer, died on December 18, 1995, in Hünefeld near Bad Hersfeld (Hessia). Zuse is widely credited with the creation of the first functioning, freely programmable, and fully automatic digital ...
KONRAD ZUSE, German computer pioneer, died on December 18, 1995, in Hünefeld near Bad Hersfeld (Hessia). Zuse is widely credited with the creation of the first functioning, freely programmable, and fully automatic digital computer. He also created, before 1946, the programming language Plankalkül, which anticipated essential aspects of modern programming languages. His concept of Rechnender Raum (literally: computing space) foretold computation by means of cellular automata.
Zuse was twenty-eight when, in 1938, he built his first sizeable computer, the Z1, occupying a large portion of his parent's living room. The Z1 was programmed by punched tape, stored sixty-four characters, and took three seconds for a multiplication. In the late 1930s, the German inventor built a functional computer, years before inventors in the United States and Great Britain would unveil similar machines. World War II restrained Zuse from claiming patents and seeking industry backing; it also left him in virtual obscurity.
“Zuse suffered from being in the wrong country at the wrong time,” says Maurice Wilkes, the British inventor whose work led to the first business computer, the LEO. “If he had been in the U.K. or the U.S., he may have had a much more prominent impact,” adds Gene Amdahl, chief architect of IBM's 360 mainframe.
During the war, Zuse tried to get support from the German government for a two-year project to develop a large new computer to help improve antiaircraft defenses. “And just how long do you think it will take us to win the war?” he was asked when the project was rejected.
Only weeks before the Third Reich fell, he moved his only remaining computer, the Z4 to Göttingen in central Germany to protect it from advancing Soviet troops. His first three computers were demolished in bombing raids, but he rebuilt the Z1 from memory (no pun) more than forty years later.
“Fifty years ago, as a student of civil engineering, I was struck by the immense calculations that had to be performed in the construction of buildings,” Zuse said.
“I became convinced that machines should be doing these calculations, but at the time I understood nothing about computers. I was not even aware of Babbage's work and of diverse parallel developments in other countries such as the United States.
“Deciding to try new ways, I built my own computer with the following features: calculation of long programs controlled by a sequence of orders punched on tape (I started by using punched strips of film); use of the binary number system; introduction of floating point arithmetic.
“I began with a strong preference for mechanical systems, but I did not succeed and was forced to switch to electromechanical technology. Finally in 1941, in my parent's Berlin apartment, I completed the Z3—the first computer of its kind. My work was based mostly on private initiative, with assistance from some friends. Only after 1940 had I received sponsorship from the DVL [Deutsche Versuchsanstalt für Luftfahrt] so that numerical problems, especially for aerodynamic applications, could be solved.
“During these developments, further aspects of computing became apparent. My friend Helmut Schreyer proposed the use of tubes in place of relays. The development of the switching algebra led to a connection with mathematical logic. These new ideas extended the concept of calculation beyond numbers and gave rise to the concept of artificial intelligence.”
Zuse says his life has been marked by what he terms the curse of being ahead of his time. Indeed, while later iterations of Zuse's computer attracted the attention of IBM's Thomas Watson in 1947, Big Blue rejected Zuse's work. Other instances of the curse are detailed in his autobiography, My Life—The Computer. The English-language version was published in 1993 by Springer- Verlag in New York. But instead of frustration and bitterness, what emerges in the book is a remarkable story of a young pioneer who, against all odds, succeeded in realizing his dream.
Born on June 22, 1910, in Berlin, the son of a postmaster, Zuse grew up in Braunsberg in East Prussia not far from the shores of the Baltic Sea and the Masurian lake country. In his youth he was drawn to painting and building. He later studied engineering at Berlin's Technical University. Upon graduation, he was employed by the Henschel Aircraft Company in Berlin as a structural engineer. The mathematics of the job, Zuse recalls, was “torture.” He decided only a “computing machine” could rid him of the tedium. A few months later, Zuse quit his position at Henschel and announced, to his parents' horror, that he would construct a computer in their living room. It was 1935—seven years before John Mauchly and John Eckert got approval to build the Eniac.
The Z4, the final versions of Zuse's original machine, contained features found in today's microprocessors, such as the retrieval of computer instructions before use and a cache memory.
Zuse received many, if belated, honors. Between 1956 and 1992 he was awarded honorary doctorates, from Reykjavik (Iceland), Zürich (Switzerland), Siena (Italy) as well as four German universities. In 1966 Göttingen University appointed him an “Honorarprofessor.” Among his many medals are the Wernervon-Siemens Ring (1964), the Diesel Medal (1969), the newly created Konrad Zuse Medal (1981), Bavaria's Order of Maximilian (1984), the Golden Honor Ring of the German Museum (1984), and the Philip Morris Prize (1987). In 1972 Zuse was decorated by Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker with Germany's highest civilian order, the Grosses Verdienstkreuz mit Stern.
Zuse was honorary member of the Leopoldina, the oldest German Scientific Academy. A number of streets and buildings were named for him, as well as a research center in Berlin and a scholarship program of the German government to support foreign guest professors. In 1981 Zuse was elected a foreign associate of the National Academy of Engineering.
Zuse loved hiking in his native country along the shores of the Baltic. He was an accomplished amateur painter and excelled at linoleum carving. Several of his works of art are reproduced in his autobiography. All his life he combined engineering insight with artistic vision.