Konrad Zuse and Modern Computing

When most people read about the historical development of modern computing, they hear about Babbage, Turing, ENIAC, Colossus, IBM 305, IBM 360s. They rarely hear about the Z1, Z3, Z4, Z5. These machines and their creator are overlooked for many reasons, including the fact that they were developed in the Third Reich and their creator was not an anglo-WASP. However the machine I am writing this post on and the one you reading it on, and indeed any digital computer is not the descendants of babbage differential engines, ENIACs or similar machines. They are the descendants of Zuse’s machines and concepts.

You can read more about him here: Konrad Zuse

From the wikipedia entry..

Konrad Zuse (pronounced [ˈkɔnʁat ˈtsuːzə]; 22 June 1910 Berlin – 18 December 1995 Hünfeld) was a German engineer and computer pioneer. His greatest achievement was the world’s first functional program-controlled Turing-complete computer, the Z3, in 1941 (the program was stored on a punched tape). He received the Werner-von-Siemens-Ring in 1964 for the Z3.

Note the date- 1941, the fact that it was Turing-complete and the program was stored on punched tape as opposed to hardwired into the machine like the ENIAC and Colossus.

Zuse also designed the first high-level programming language, Plankalkül, first published in 1948, although this was a theoretical contribution, since the language was not implemented in his lifetime and did not directly influence early languages. One of the inventors of ALGOL (Rutishauser) wrote: “The very first attempt to devise an algorithmic language was undertaken in 1948 by K. Zuse. His notation was quite general, but the proposal never attained the consideration it deserved.”

Note the attempt to demean his contribution to science, when even the guy who created ALGOL considers Zuse as the first.

In addition to his technical work, Zuse founded one of the earliest computer businesses in 1946. This company built the Z4, which became the second commercial computer leased to ETH Zürich in 1950. Due to World War II, however, Zuse’s work went largely unnoticed in the UK and the U.S.; possibly his first documented influence on a U.S. company was IBM’s option on his patents in 1946.

His indirect influence was very likely behind IBM evolving from decimal and analog computers in the 1940s to binary, digital computers with programs as software in the early 1950s. Remember that most working computers in the world were decimal, hard-wired machines- as late as the end of the 1940s.

In the late 1960s, Zuse suggested the concept of a Calculating Space (a computation-based universe).

He suggested that the universe is a computer simulation in the 1960s, more than a couple of decades before that idea became somewhat acceptable.

He started as a design engineer at the Henschel aircraft factory in Berlin-Schönefeld but resigned a year later to build a program driven/programmable machine. Working in his parents’ apartment in 1936, his first attempt, called the Z1, was a binary electrically driven mechanical calculator with limited programmability, reading instructions from a punched tape. In 1937 Zuse submitted two patents that anticipated a von Neumann architecture. He finished the Z1 in 1938. The Z1 never worked well, though, due to the lack of sufficiently precise mechanical parts. The Z1 and its original blueprints were destroyed during World War II.

Note the similarity to modern computer architectures, but this one is from the mid 1930s!

Improving on the basic Z2 machine, he built the Z3 in 1941. It was a binary 22-bit floating point calculator featuring programmability with loops but without conditional jumps, with memory and a calculation unit based on telephone relays. The telephone relays used in his machines were largely collected from discarded stock. Despite the absence of conditional jumps, the Z3 was a Turing complete computer (ignoring the fact that no physical computer can be truly Turing complete because of limited storage size). However, Turing-completeness was never considered by Zuse (who had practical applications in mind) and only demonstrated in 1998.

A request by his co-worker Helmut Schreyer for government funding for an electronic successor to the Z3 was denied as “strategically unimportant”. In 1937 Schreyer had advised Zuse to use vacuum tubes as switching elements, who at this time considered it a crazy idea (“Schnapsidee” in his own words).

Zuse was not enamored with vacuum tubes, and preferred something more reliable. But the decision makers had no clue and did not give him enough resources.

I might add more stuff to this post later or write a second part. Lets see..

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