Programmable Computers and Konrad Zuse

Konrad ZuseIt’s quite a day for birthdays, as you can see from last year’s post, The Private Life of Billy Wilder. In particular, three women are retiring today: Meryl Streep, Lindsay Wagner, and Elizabeth Warren. But none of the people really inspired me. And talking about Freddie Prinze (who died at just 22) is too depressing.

On this day in 1910, Konrad Zuse was born. “Who?” you ask? He invented the first programmable computer. Up to that time, people built computers but they did whatever they were hardwired to do. His first attempt was the Z1 computer that he built in his parents’ apartment. It was programmable, reading instructions off “perforated 35 mm film.” I find that amazing. It was made of 30,000 parts and never really worked properly because of mechanical imprecision. As a result, it isn’t generally considered the first programmable computer, but it really ought to be.

Unfortunately, the original computer and the blueprints were all destroyed during a bombing mission in 1944. Toward the end of his life, along with three others and at a cost a half million dollars, he recreated the Z1 as you can see here:


He improved upon the initial computer, creating the Z2, which was based on telephone relays. It took up several rooms of his parents apartment. It is generally the Z3, however, that is considered the first programmable computer. According to Wikipedia, “The Z3 was a binary 22-bit floating point calculator featuring programmability with loops but without conditional jumps.” It was the first of his work to get actual government support—from the Nazis, but what was the guy supposed to do?

Perhaps as important as his hardware work, Zuse realized that coding in machine language was not going to work, so he designed the first ever high level language, Plankalkul (“plan calculus). It was not implemented in his lifetime. It looks kind of like the original Matlab code. But it is the idea that is critical.

After the war, he went into business making better and better computers. He was the first man to sell a working computer (another was sold before his but never really worked). His Z22 computer was the first to use magnetic storage. I don’t think he was much of a business manager, however. His company was sold to Siemens in 1967. I’m sure he was well placed financially, but as is typical, it is not the true pioneers who are rewarded the greatest. This is why the conservative movement fetishizes people who are large scale producers of commodities but not really the people who invented them.

Zuse died in 1995 at the age of 85. So he got to see the full extent of where his work had led. But by that time, he was retired and spending most of his time painting.

Happy birthday Konrad Zuse!

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