At 85, Konrad Zuse, the creator of the first fully automated and program-controlled computer is enjoying some of the credit due him more than 50 years ago. His accomplishments and hardships are detailed in his autobiography, My Life – The Computer, recently published by the Springer-Verlag. He was recently awarded Germany’s highest honour, the Bundesverdienstkreuz, for his work in the field of science. And The Bank, an independent British film company is bringing the first-ever Zuse documentary to an English-language audience. Indeed, Zuse, a lost pioneer, has been rediscovered. Computer science students and admirers make pilgrimages to his home in a village near the former border to East Germany, where they find the restless genius still tinkering with motors and gears, working on self-regenerating systems, and contemplating the laws of a universe he believes is governed by a computer-like cosmos. Although Zuse will neither show guests his basement workshop nor discuss the details of his work, his slight smile shows he believes he is quite close to a breakthrough – someday.
I won’t reveal my work just yet, Zuse said with visible intensity. I’ve been branded many times because I’ve been too early with my inventions and I’m not about to do it again. Born June 22 1910 in Berlin, the son of a postmaster, Zuse was drawn as a youth to painting and building. Zuse recalls: I have always had a predominantly visual approach to my environment… This perhaps one-sided talent was also evident in the construction of my computer models. Here, too, I preferred mechanical and electromechanical constructions and left the electronics to others who were better qualified. Zuse later studied at the Technical University in Berlin. The work, however, was stultifying. he even dropped out once before finally earning a degree in civil engineering in 1935. Given my many detours and by-ways, Zuse would later write, I am still amazed that I earned a diploma at all. He was a serious student but his mind was preoccupied with other ideas matters. Vending machines, artificial intelligence, cloverleaf motorway intersections, photo-developing booths and rockets to the moon were among the ideas that kept Zuse from focusing his attention entirely on his studies – he later notes were again way ahead of their time. Above all, Zuse used his time to contemplate the construction of a computing machine and ways to rid himself of the tedious calculations an engineering student must endure. In 1935, the Henschel Aircraft Company in Berlin offered Zuse a job as a structural engineer.
By Peggy Salz-Trautman
A few months later his determination to build a computer was greater than his desire to hold a steady job. So he quit and announced to his horrified parents that he would construct a computer and turn their living room into a workshop in which to do it. At the same time as I started in Germany, Zuse recalls,(Howard) Aiken and a few others began their work in the United States. Thus a competition developed between Berlin and Boston, between Zuse and Howard Aiken, although neither man was aware of the other’s efforts. And the odds were extremely uneven: Aiken had the backing of the powerful business machines manufacturer, IBM Corp, and Zuse, who was forced to fashion thousands of computer components by hand with a jigsaw from industry throwaways, could depend only on friends and family for financial support. Armed with an idea, but no set plan, Zuse constructed a bulky machine made of hundreds of relays, second-hand sheet metal and mechanical pins. It stood six feet high and four foot six inches wide, and resembled a large living room cabinet. Later known as the Z1, the computer was the first of its kind. It operated with the help of a mechanical calculating unit and memory, built from metal strips stacked at right angles with steel cylinders in between and received its commands from old, hand-punched, celluloid film strips. Despite all the handiwork, Zuse now concedes It just never worked right. The Z1 remained a prototype and Zuse went back to the drawing board. In 1939, Germany declared war and drafted Zuse into military service. Zuse, who was never a member of the Nazi Party, wanted out. Ironically, when his friends tried to convince German military authorities that Zuse must be freed from service to work on his computer – a machine which could aid the German war effort – the authorities scoffed that Hitler needed only the courage of his armies to win the war. Zuse was able to produce the Z3 in 1941 – the long-awaited breakthrough. The Z3 was the world’s first general-purpose digital computer, a fully automated, program-controlled and freely programmable machine. The Z3 had what Paul Ceruzzi, academic and curator of aerospace computing and electronics at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, calls several striking features. It not only predated Aiken and his Mark I, which was first operational in 1944, but it was also widely considered to have been somewhat faster than the Mark I. In 1947, Zuse had his first contact with IBM. However, as Zuse later wrote in his autobiography, the Americans thought he had presented them with perfectly foolish conditions.
According to Zuse, they were only interested in my patents. Even at IBM no one then believed in the future of computers. IBM rejected Zuse because he insisted on continuing his work, and it later challenged his accomplishments in court. Although Zuse had filed patents, some rejected due to insufficient disclosure and some accepted as truly innovative, one patent, filed in 1941, would prove fateful. Zuse, bursting after the breakthrough of his Z3, applied in Germany for its patent. The patent was not published until 1952, with a total of 51 patent claims. With considerable support from IBM, Triumph AG, a German technology firm, was able to extend court proceedings until 1967. Twenty-six years after Zuse filed the patent, the German Patent Office decided a patent-worthy invention did not exist. It stated The innovation and the progressiveness of the object concerned in the main application are not doubted. Yet a patent cannot be granted due to insufficient merit. But for a short, sweet time Zuse did reign as Europe’s first entrepreneur to challenge IBM’s supremacy on the computer market. Zuse founded Zuse KG, the company many historians say produced the computer which steered the German Wirtschaftswunder.