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The first computer in the world: Konrad Zuse's Z3 was hardly noticed at the time

The computer is celebrating its 80th birthday! So old is this device that changed the world? Yeah so old 80 years ago, on May 12, 1941, the computer pioneer Konrad Zuse presented the Z3 to the public. At that time, the presentation in his workshop in Berlin received hardly any attention. The box, the size of a closet, is considered to be the world's first computer.

Konrad Zuse's Z3 is considered to be the world's first computer. Zuse presented it to the public in Berlin on May 12, 1941. The photo shows a replica of the machine that was destroyed in the war in 1960 in the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

Photo: Konrad Zuse Internet Archive / Deutsches Museum / DFG

It was an ordinary Monday when Konrad Zuse presented his Z3 computer to a handpicked number of scientists in his workshop at Methfesselstrasse 7 in Berlin-Kreuzberg on May 12, 1941. A box the size of a closet with just 64 words of storage that took three seconds to divide or multiply. The enthusiasm was limited: "But there was no big echo: no press, no world sensation - there was war," says Horst Zuse, Konrad Zuse's eldest son.

Z3 had TActual frequency of 5 Hertz

Only later did mankind appreciate Konrad Zuse's great pioneering work. With the Z3, he built the first fully functional, fully automatic and program-controlled computer that works in binary floating point arithmetic. Konrad Zuse presented the world's first computer. This Z3 was a lame snail, it worked with a clock frequency of 5 Hertz.

Konrad Zuse with Z3, the world's first computer, in the Deutsches Museum: A replica of the machine that was destroyed in the war is now in the IT department of the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

Source: Deutsches Museum

Konrad Zuse was born on June 22, 1910 in Deutsch-Wilmersdorf. In 1923 the Zuse family moved to Hoyerswerda, where he graduated from high school in 1927. Then he began studying mechanical engineering at the Technical University of Berlin-Charlottenburg, but soon switched to architecture and finally to civil engineering, which he graduated with a diploma in 1935.

He found a job as a structural engineer at Henschel Flugzeug-Werke AG in Schönefeld near Berlin. In the same year he resigned because the static calculations were boring him. In a diary entry from June 1937 Zuse wrote: "For about a year I have been dealing with the idea of ​​the mechanical brain."

The Z1 calculating machine in the living room of Konrad Zuse's parents: The mechanical binary memory of the first test model of an automatic calculator was composed of numerous ingeniously shaped sheets. The memory was retrospectively referred to as Z1. Since the mechanics did not work reliably, Zuse then switched to electromechanical relay technology.

Source: Deutsches Museum

The result was the Z1, an electrically powered mechanical computer that never worked reliably because the mechanical derailleurs regularly jammed.

Z2 with electromechanical relay technology

Zuse transferred the mechanical circuit to electromechanical relay technology. In 1940 he presented the Z2 prototype to Günther Bock, the technical director of the German Aviation Research Institute, who then helped finance the development of the Z3.

Konrad Zuse working on the Z4 in 1948.

Source: Konrad Zuse Internet Archive / DFG

After the presentation, the Z3 was used to investigate the dangerous wing flutter. It was an ordinary Tuesday when the world's first working computer was destroyed in a bombing raid on December 21, 1943.

Zuse painted chamois in oil

Konrad Zuse was able to continue the further development of his Z3 despite the turmoil of the war and built a second universal computing system with the Z4 in the aerodynamic research institute of the KWI for Fluid Research. In the last days of the war, Zuse left for Bavaria, where he rebuilt the Z4 in the flour warehouse of a bakery in Hopferau near Füssen.

Konrad Zuse was not only an engineer, but also an enthusiastic painter. You can see Zuse's picture “Family in a Ford” from around 1930. During this time he tried his hand at a commercial graphic designer for the Ford company. Later, after leaving Zuse KG, he devoted himself largely to painting.

Source: Deutsches Museum

In the post-war years, Konrad Zuse initially kept his family afloat by painting chamois in oil for American tourists.

Zuse KG founded in 1949

But that’s not how Zuse's story ended. The rumors about the existence of the Z4 led mathematics professor Eduard Stiefel from ETH Zurich to track down Zuse in the Allgäu in 1949. He rented the Z4 at conditions that enabled Konrad Zuse to found Zuse KG in Neukirchen in the Hünfeld district.

At the time, the Z4 was the only working computer in Central Europe and also the first commercial computer in the world. From 1950 to 1955 the Z4 handled around 100 different problems. 100,000 commands were carried out. For external clients, a cent was charged per command, describes son Horst Zuse.

Control panel of the Z4 in 1950: The computer was rented from ETH Zurich for arithmetic operations. Today the Z4 is in the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

Source: Konrad Zuse Internet Archive / DFG

Today the Z4 and the replica of the Z3 are in the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

The inventor Konrad Zuse died on an ordinary Monday on December 18, 1995 in Hünfeld.

If you want to know more about Konrad Zuse, then the website of his son, Prof. Horst Zuse and the Zuse Internet Archive funded by the DFG are worthwhile. You will also find a lot of popular information on the website of the Deutsches Museum.

Konrad Zuse's certificate from the Reform Realgymnasium Hoyerswerda of March 12, 1925: The teachers rated the fifteen-year-old in most subjects with “good” or “satisfactory”, in freehand drawing even with “very good”, while they recorded his performance in gymnastics and writing Rated “poor”. Zuse was even exempt from singing.

Source: Deutsches Museum


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