When was the first computer found?

80 years ago: Presentation of the "Z3"


Technology story from the living room

80 years ago Konrad Zuse presented a device in his Berlin apartment that is now considered a milestone in the history of technology. What a small group of experts saw on May 12, 1941 at Methfesselstrasse 7 was the world's first functional, freely programmable computer based on the binary number system and binary circuit technology. Unfortunately, due to the war, the computer was never really used and was destroyed in a bomb attack in 1944. Therefore, it was later a complicated undertaking to prove the technical-historical rank of the machine.

Konrad Zuse, born on June 22, 1910 in Berlin, was already working as a child on an “automated photo laboratory” and a “money-changing vending machine”. In 1928 he graduated from high school in Hoyerswerda and began studying mechanical engineering at the Technical University of Berlin-Charlottenburg. But he quickly switched to architecture and finally to civil engineering.

After completing his studies, he started working as a structural engineer at Henschel Flugzeug-Werke in Schönefeld. On the side, he set up an inventor's workshop in his parents' living room. In order to be able to pay for tools and components, he encouraged friends and family. In June 1937 he wrote in his diary: "For about a year I have been studying the idea of ​​the mechanical brain." Zuse had found his life's theme. With incredible energy he developed the then completely new concept of a program-controlled calculating machine - at a time when neither the transistor nor the chip had been invented.

Solve everything with 1 and 0

Detail from Konrad Zuses DE924107

Zuse saw unlimited application possibilities for his new type of calculating machine: It could, he realized, be applied to all problems that could be solved by "yes" or "no" questions, i.e. everything that ended with "zero" and " One “can be processed. Based on this binary system, Zuse built his first computer, the "Z1", in 1938: a fully mechanical, programmable number calculator that received its commands from punched tape.

This apparatus already contained all the essential components of modern computers such as program control, memory, floating point arithmetic and micro-sequences. These individual components were realized with the help of Zuse's "mechanical switching elements", for which he applied for a patent as early as 1936 ( DE907948). In connection with this, in 1937 he applied for a "storage unit built up from mechanical switching elements" for a patent, which he finally received in 1955 ( DE924107).

Calculator made from leftovers

Drawing from DE975966

The Z1, which was literally built from scraps and used parts, never worked reliably due to mechanical problems, but it showed Zuse that he was on the right track. For the successor machine Z2 from 1940, he used more reliable telephone relays for the central unit. In the same year he founded his own company, "Zuse-Apparatebau", to manufacture programmable computers.

In a small apartment on Methfesselstrasse in Berlin-Kreuzberg, Zuse continued to work on an epoch-making machine with 2000 relays. On May 12, 1941, he presented his Z3 to a small group of experts. This is considered to be the first functional, freely programmable computer in the world based on the binary number system and binary circuit technology.

In the same year the “Atanasoff-Berry Computer” was completed in the USA and “Colossus” in Great Britain. Both were not “Turing-powerful” (or “Turing-complete”, i.e. universally programmable), whereas the Z3 was in principle entirely, as was only proven in 1998. Alan Turing, the ingenious mathematician and “Enigma” cracker, sketched his “Turing machine” in 1936, the theoretical model of a program-controlled computer.

Fight for a patent

Only one drawing of the Z3 survived World War II as it was destroyed in a bombing raid. This made it difficult for Zuse to prove his outstanding position in the history of technology. He registered the principle of the Z3 as a “computing device” on June 16, 1941 with the Reich Patent Office (old file number: Z 26 476 IXb / 42m). Probably due to the war, the registration was no longer processed.

In 1950, Zuse submitted an application to the re-established (West) Patent Office for further processing of his "old patent application" (new file number Z 391 IXb / 42m, DE0Z000391MAZ (5.17 MB)). It was published in December 1952, but a patent was ultimately not granted. Because now other manufacturers (including IBM) raised objections. The proceedings did not end until 1967 when all of Zuse's claims were rejected by the Federal Patent Court. The comprehensive "computer patent" that he was possibly striving for was refused to Zuse.

Fathers and forerunners

The Z3 - drawing by Claudia Summerer

Zuse was unlucky to have made his most important invention in times of war. Otherwise, the practical, entrepreneurially interested Zuse might not only be known today as a technology pioneer, but also as the founder of a global technology corporation of the rank of Bill Gates.

Despite Zuse's outstanding role, it must be noted that today's computers have several fathers. Its development was a complex historical process; sometimes the first real computer is seen in the American ENIAC from 1944 (although it did not work in binary). In any case, forerunners already existed in antiquity, for example with the Antikythera mechanism. Zuse himself only found out later about the pioneering achievements of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace in the 19th century and praised Babbage, the designer of the "Analytical Engine", as "the real father of the computer".

Calculator in the barn

Drawing from Zuse's registration from 1941/1950 (DE000Z0000391MAZ)

In addition to working on his calculating machines, Zuse developed fixed-programmed computers for Henschel Flugzeug-Werke during the war to measure the trajectory of the radio-controlled glide bomb "Hs 293". He mechanized the reading of dial gauges - and created the first analog-to-digital converters (it was not until 1960 that Zuse was supposed to apply for a patent for an “analog-to-digital converter with a scale device bearing the angular position of an axis or the like, encoded scale values”; DE1221672).

The computer system Z4, a further development of the Z3, was started in 1942, but was not quite finished at the end of the war. It was the only machine that Zuse was able to save from being destroyed by bombing - dismantled, packed and brought to safety in a village in the Allgäu by his employees in good time.

When, after the end of the war, Swiss mathematicians became interested in the mainframe computer housed in a barn, Zuse completed the Z4 and "rented" it to ETH Zurich in 1950 (Zuse was the first to earn money with a computer; another pioneering achievement!).


Another drawing from DE000Z0000391MAZ

In 1949 Konrad Zuse founded Zuse KG in Neukirchen near Hünfeld (Hesse) and established the computer industry in Germany. Before that, he had not been idle either and had developed the world's first high-level programming language, the “Plankalkül”. But its 1948 publication went largely unnoticed - a typical fate of inventions that are too far ahead of their time and for which there is no market yet.

In 1950 Zuse reported a "combined numerical and non-numerical calculating machine" ( DE926449) for a patent, which was able to “perform arithmetic operations both with numerical values ​​and with propositional expressions. ... In addition to performing numerical calculations, such a computing device can solve all tasks of theoretical logic with all and existential operators (...), perform statistical tasks of any kind, check the formal correctness of complicated arithmetic instructions, etc. ".

The patent for it was granted in 1955. The program examples in the patent are given in the "Plankalkül" programming language developed by Zuse. The patent application shows the interaction between computer hardware and programming language or software. Thus Zuse was not only a pioneer of computer technology, but also of programming languages.

Zuse as an AI pioneer

Zuse's patent application also includes considerations on artificial intelligence - years before the term was even coined. So Zuse was also an AI pioneer. And he wrote the first chess program!

In 1955 Zuse's first series production came onto the market, the Z11. The computer was mainly sold to the optical industry and universities. In 1957, Zuse presented the Z22, the first computer with magnetic memory. By 1967 the company had built a total of 251 computers.

Always ahead of its time

Konrad Zuse, 1992

Zuse remained inventive throughout his life and was also ahead of his time in other fields of technology. His "Backlight controllable lighting device for motor vehicles" ( DE1204158) described the principle of high beam assistants in 1962, which are used in more and more cars today. In old age he still developed a "wind turbine" ( DE4119428C1).

In 1964 Konrad Zuse left his company, which was initially taken over by BBC in Mannheim and then in 1967 by Siemens. After his retirement he devoted himself to his second great passion, painting. Gradually, his pioneering work was recognized internationally. Konrad Zuse has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates. One of his last patents is named “Zuse, Konrad, Prof. Dr.-lng. e.h. Dr.mult.rer.nat.h.c. Dr.techn.h.c. “As the inventor. He died on December 18, 1995 in Hünfeld.

A replica of the Z3, the world's first freely programmable computer, is located in the immediate vicinity of the DPMA in the Deutsches Museum. The original Z4 is also there. Konrad Zuse is of course also represented in the inventors' gallery of the DPMA.

Text: Dr. Jan Björn Potthast; Images: Claudia Summerer / DPMA, DEPATISnet, Wolfgang Hunscher, Dortmund CC by SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Status: May 18, 2021