Konrad Zuse, der Vater des Computers, was born in Berlin 101 years ago on June 22, 1910.
The centenary of his birth, last year, was marked by a series of exhibitions, lectures and workshops throughout Germany. A year on there is still plenty to celebrate and discover about this pioneer who has a strong claim to the title "inventor of the first computer".
His V1, "V" for Versuchsmodell or "Experimental model" which was later renamed as the Z1 (Zuse1) was fully mechanical binary digital computing device. Its "memory" consisted of one thousand thin slotted metal plates and input was via a tape reader that used old 35mm film stock rather than paper It also had a keyboard and showed its results via a row of lights. Zuse built it in 1936 which puts it well before the other well known attempts at building a computer.
The Z1 in living room of his parents home where it was built
In the next model, the Z2, the mechanical switches were replaced by electro-mechanical switches - relays. This is the earliest known use of relays in a computer. However the memory remained mechanical and while the Z2 was faster it still wasn't reliable.
The story of the Z3 is an amusing and fascinating one. Completed in 1941 it worked and was the first fully programmable calculator. The final model in the series, the Z4 was financed by the air ministry to continue the work in designing airframes and wings. The Z4 was financed by the German Air Ministry. It partially electronic and at last achieved a reasonable speed of calculation - 3 seconds per multiply.
During the the closing stages of World War II Zuse's machines were destroyed by bombing - all except the Z4 which, in the company of Werner Von Braun and his fellow rocket scientists, Zuse transported south with the idea was that it was better to be captured by the Americans than the Russians.
The Z4 in Zurich
The Z4 eventually found its way to the Technische Hochschule in Zurich where Zuse was living in 1950. It was used for some years and represented the only significant computer on the European mainland.
Zuse set up a company in 1949, Zuse KG, which grew to employing 1000 people building specialist scientific computers. He stayed with the company until 1966 when he retired to a little consulting and a lot of painting - his lifelong hobby. The company was eventually taken over by Siemens.
Zuse is also remembered for Plankalkül or "Plan Calculus" an algorithmic general purpose language for computation, but as with his computers, the authorities who might have put his inventions to greater use, tended to ignore it.
Throughout his life Zuse worked alone and virtually unsupported. This makes his achievement all the more amazing.
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