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Inventors of the Modern Computer
The First Freely Programmable Computer
Konrad Zuse


Konrad ZuseKonrad Zuse (1910-1995) was a construction engineer for the Henschel Aircraft Company in Berlin, Germany at the beginning of WWII. Zuse earned the semiofficial title of  "inventor of the modern computer" for his series of automatic calculators, which he invented to help him with his lengthy engineering calculations. Zuse has modestly dismissed the title while praising many of the inventions of his contemporaries and successors as being equally if not more important than his own.

computer inventionsOne of the most difficult aspects of doing a large calculation with either a slide rule or a mechanical adding machine is keeping track of all intermediate results and using them, in their proper place, in later steps of the calculation. Zuse wanted to overcome that difficulty. He realized that an automatic-calculator device would require three basic elements: a control, a memory, and a calculator for the arithmetic.

Konrad Zuse's Z1 Computer
Zuse's Z1 Circa 1938

computer inventions In 1936, Zuse made a mechanical calculator called the Z1, the first binary computer. Zuse used it to explore several groundbreaking technologies in calculator development: floating-point arithmetic, high-capacity memory and modules or relays operating on the yes/no principle. Zuse's ideas, not fully implemented in the Z1, succeeded more with each Z prototype.

computer inventionsIn 1939, Zuse completed the Z2, the first fully functioning electro-mechanical computer.

computer inventionsZuse completed the Z3 on December 5, 1945, with recycled materials donated by fellow university staff and students. This was the world's first electronic, fully programmable computer. Zuse used old movie film to store his programs and data for the Z3, instead of using paper tape or punched cards. Paper was in short supply in Germany during the war.

computer inventionsKonrad Zuse wrote the first algorithmic programming language called 'Plankalkül' in 1946, which he used to program his computers. (He wrote the world's first chess-playing program using Plankalkül.)

  The Plankalkül language included arrays and records and used a style of assignment (storing the value of an expression in a variable) in which the new value appears in the right column. An array is a collection of identically typed data items distinguished by their indices (or "subscripts"), for example written something like A[i,j,k], where A is the array name and i, j and k are the indices. Arrays are best when accessed in an unpredictable order. This is in contrast to lists, which are best when accessed sequentially.

computer inventionsZuse was unable to convince the Nazi government to support his work for a computer based on electronic valves. The Germans thought they were close to winning the War and would not support further research. Zuse left for Zurich to finish his work (the Z4) and later moved to the United States, where he formed his own company for the construction and marketing of his designs.

computer inventionsThe Z4 was finished in 1949 and escaped destruction. The Z1 through Z3 models were destroyed during the war. Zuse smuggled the Z4 from Germany in a horse-drawn cart, which he hid in stables on route to Zurich, Switzerland. He completed and installed the Z4 in the Applied Mathematics Division of Zurich's Federal Polytechnical Institute. It was in use there until 1955. The Z4 had a mechanical memory with a capacity of 1,024 words and several card readers. Zuse no longer had to use movie film to store programs; he could now use punched cards. The Z4 had punches and various facilities to enable flexible programming including address translation and conditional branching.

computer inventionsMore Reading On Konrad Zuse
Konrad Zuse biography and technical details on his computers.


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