Skip to main content

Brief Bio: Konrad Zuse

August 06, 2014 mgroves 0 Comments
Tags: Brief Bio

Welcome to the latest installment of the Brief Bio series, where I'm writing up very informal biographies about major figures in the history of computers. Please take a look at the Brief Bio archive, and feel free to leave corrections and omissions in the comments.

Konrad Zuse

Konrad Zuse (zoo-sah) was born in 1910 in Berlin, Germany. Some of you may be looking at that city and date and already saying "uh oh". Well, you didn't think it was just the allies making advances in computing, did you?

Zuse's father, Emil Zuse, was a postal worker, and in 1912, they moved to Braunsberg, East Prussia, which became Braniewo, Poland after World War 2. In college, Zuse studied engineering and architecture, eventually settling on civil engineering (there is some speculation that the film Metropolis influenced Zuse to pursue civil engineering).

After getting his degree, Zuse worked at an aircraft factory, where there were a lot of calculations that had to be made by hand. Zuse found these tedious (sound familiar?), so he thought about how much better it would to get a machine to do this work. He created a computer in his parents' basement in 1936 called the Z1. It was programmable, used boolean logic, and read programs off tape. It was destroyed in the bombings of Berlin in 1943 along with the plans. However, in 1986-1989 Zuse rebuilt a Z1, which is now on display at the German Museum of Technology.

Skip ahead to the 20 minute mark on this video, an episode of the The Machine That Changed the World, for some brief soundbytes with Konrad Zuse.

Zuse was drafted into the infrantry during the war, but persuaded the military to let him build a computer instead. Zuse worked in relative isolation from other major computing advances at the time. He even claims that he had never heard of Charles Babbage. The Nazis funded his work on the Z2 computer and then the Z3, which were electro-mechanical in nature. They also funded the S1 and S2 machines, which were not general purpose computers--they were designed for aerodynamic calculations of glide bombs.

This next video is an introduction to the Z3. However, unless you understand German, you should hop over to the YouTube page for the video, turn on captions, and then turn on translations to understand (at least partially) what is being said:

Zuse stared work on the Z4, privately, from 1942-1945. In February 1945, the unfinished Z4 was moved so that the Soviets would not get to it. It was later developed into a finished product, and sold to a university in Zurich, to be used until 1959. Zuse formed a company and delivered 251 computers by 1967.

It was while working on the Z4 that Zuse decided that the low level machine language was too difficult to write complex programs in. So he created a programming language called Plankalkül (the next time you get any ideas about how your favorite language is the best, maybe you should consider how many umlauts it has). This language did not get much attention, but he wrote a book about it and a compiler for it was eventually created in 1998.

Zuse's company was eventually purchased by Siemens, and Zuse retired, though he continued writing, applying for patents, etc.

Zuse wrote a book, Calculating Space, that suggests that the universe is one giant computation, which pioneered the idea of digital physics.

Zuse died in December, 1995, 85 years old. Konrad's son, Horst Zuse, was born in 1945, and is currently a professor of CS at the Technical University of Berlin.


Matthew D. Groves

About the Author

Matthew D. Groves lives in Central Ohio. He works remotely, loves to code, and is a Microsoft MVP.

Latest Comments