Berlin. Year 1936. One man was bored. He hated his job’s tedious calculations, but he loved to build things, so he began assembling metal plates, pins and discarded movie film into what later became the first mechanical computer.
Photo by: Jorge Salvador, Unsplash
The bored man was Konrad Zuse. An inventor and a brilliant mind behind the first smart machine was born in Berlin-Wilmersdorf on June 22, 1910.During his civil engineering studies at the Technical College of Berlin Charlottenburg (Technischen Hochschule), student Zuse had to spend too much precious time solving for serious algorithms:
“I was a student in civil engineering in Berlin. Berlin is a nice town and there were many opportunities for a student to spend his time in an agreeable manner, for instance with the nice girls. But instead of that we had to perform big and awful calculations.”
To win some time for dating and playing, the young Kuno (as friends called him) started thinking of a possible solution. After graduating from the Technical College in 1935, he worked as a design engineer at the Henschel Flugzeugwerke (Henschel aircraft factory) in Berlin-Schönefeld, but resigned a year later, deciding to devote himself entirely to the construction of a calculating machine.
Photo by: Konrad Zuse, German Museum, Munich Archive
Much like years later Jobs and Wozniak started out building the Apple I in Jobs' garage, Zuse put together his first computer in his parents’ apartment. Among its remarkable features, the Z1 had a keyboard for data input and flashing lights to indicate results. He received help not only from his parents, who let him take over the largest room of their apartment and gave him some money (even though his father was a post office clerk and didn’t earn much), but also from his sister Lieselotte and from several of his university friends. Others who had nothing to give worked alongside in the workshop. He managed to collect several thousand marks to build his first computer model.
In 1936, Zuse finished the logical plan for his first computer, the V1 (V for Versuchsmodel, or experimental model). Ironically, all of the first computers of Zuse were named with V (V1 to V4), but after the WWII he changed their names to Z (Z1 to Z4) to avoid the nasty association with the V1-V4 military rockets (by the way, Nazis refused to fund Zuse’s work, saying that it had no practical value). The manufacturing began in the same year and the prototype was ready in 1938, making the Z1 the first relay computer in the world.
Z1 was huge – about 1,000 kg with 20,000 parts. It was a programmable computer, based on binary floating-point numbers and a binary switching system. Kuno and friends built it completely from primitive thin metal sheets, which they cut with a jigsaw. The only electrical part was an engine with power of 1kW, which provided a clock frequency of 1 hertz (or one cycle per second) and also had a crank for starting the machine manually.
After his first success, Zuse went on to develop three more improved electronic models before 1949, culminating with the Z4, considered the world’s first programmable digital computer (later Z-series devices went all the way up to the Graphomat Z64 punch-card-controlled plotter, Zuse’s last machine, in 1961).
Like it often happens with many brilliant minds, Zuse’s company Zuse KG was in heavy debt and was sold in 1964. As a retiree, he was still very much full of energy and ideas, however. He started writing, made many beautiful oil paintings, reconstructed his first computer (Z1) and in 1965 was awarded the Werner von Siemens Award, the most prestigious technical award in Germany. In 1969, Zuse published Rechnender Raum, first ever book on digital physics, and built a patented wind-catching tower (Helix-Tower) in 1992.
Kuno never stopped to live.He was the first boy to obsess over computer chess and dreaming that one day it will be a reality, a loved father (he had 5 children), a hard worker, a genius mind, and most of all – a visionary. We wish him a very happy birthday and remember this Berliner fondly.