On this day in 1941, Konrad Zuse delivered the Z3-the world’s first programmable computer

On this day in 1941, Konrad Zuse delivered the Z3-the world’s first programmable computer

Konrad Zuse (pronounced “Zoo-sah”) was born in Berlin, Germany in 1910. He was a creative man with many different interests. In fact, Konrad was a great example of “inside-out” culture, in that he enjoyed sketching, photography, acting, and even oil painting.

Like many undergraduates these days, Konrad had a difficult time deciding on a career. While studying at the Technical University of Berlin (late 1920s- early 1930s), he changed his major multiple times from mechanical engineering to architecture, before sticking with civil engineering, which allowed him to combine his artistic side with his scientific talent.

Upon graduating in 1935, he worked for an aircraft company in Berlin as a design engineer, but he quit fairly quickly to pursue his dream. Konrad wanted to build a machine that could automate the lengthy and tedious calculations relied upon for engineering. He was inspired to build a “mechanical brain,” something that could calculate anything, and he eventually did just that. Today, in 1941, Konrad released Z3— the first working electromechanical, programmable, fully automatic digital computer.

A key innovation of Konrad’s was his application of a binary versus decimal system. While in Germany working on his invention, he was unaware of what was being done in other parts of the world. In fact, around the same time, another computer was being developed that used the decimal system. As Konrad was isolated in Germany, he ended up developing his own machine with a binary system, which is the basis for modern-day computing. Watch this brief video for a great explanation of how Konrad’s computer worked.

He was awarded the Werner von Siemens Ring (highest technical science award in Germany) and the Harry H. Goode Memorial Award (information processing field achievement award from IEEE Computer Society) in 1965 for his development of the Z3. Despite these awards, Konrad’s achievements are lesser known. This is generally thought to be due to his work being overshadowed by World War II and because he received funding for his work from the Nazis in 1939, although not a Nazi himself. While money from the Third Reich did support Z3’s development, it also meant that Konrad was working in the middle of a war-torn country. He wasn’t just struggling with shortages of vacuum tubes for his inventions during the war, but in fact, much of his work (including Z1, Z2, and Z3) was destroyed during a bombing raid in Berlin. This setback didn’t stop him though, and he continued to iterate on Z3 throughout his career with the development of the infamous Z4, Z11, Z23, and additional models all the way up to Z43.

In terms of his personal life, he married Gisela Brandes in 1945 and was the father of five. Konrad aged gracefully and stayed active after retiring. Beyond oil painting in his later years, he also wrote an autobiography aptly called, The Computer, My Life. He kept on tinkering until passing away from a heart attack on December 18, 1995.

Overall, he is recognized for the following innovations:

  1. binary number system for numbers and circuits
  2. floating point numbers and algorithms for translation between binary and decimal system
  3. carry look-ahead circuit for addition operation
  4. development of Plankalkül, the first complete high-level computing language

If this post left you craving more information about Konrad Zuse, check out this entertaining video. If you find yourself in Munich, stop by the Konrad Zuse Museum in Hünfeld, Germany to see a modern reconstruction of the Z3 (completed by Raúl Rojas and Horst Zuse – yes the son of Konrad is also a German computer scientist!) Or, if you are into Legos, grab yourself one of Konrad Zuse.

And that’s the latest “dose” of InsideOut—until next time, be well!

Contributed by: Natalie Gilmore

Cartoon by: Jingyuan Chen

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