OBITUARY : Konrad Zuse

If Germany had been a victor in the Second World War, then today Konrad Zuse would probably be recognised world-wide as the father of the computer.

In 1941 he completed the Z1, the world's first fully operational automatic digital computer: a mechanical device of limited capacity and speed. Zuse then developed an electric model based on telephone relay technology, and planned a much faster machine to be built with electronic tubes. This had only reached the stage of a small prototype when, in 1942, the project was axed by the German Army Command. As one historian later wrote, Zuse "cracked open the door to an awesome and strange new world, but that door slammed shut before he could pass through".

Zuse was born in 1910 in Berlin, the son of a post office official. As a boy he was gifted in both the arts and sciences: an accomplished artist and an enthusiastic amateur actor, he also delighted in constructor sets and decided to make his living as an engineer. In 1927 he enrolled at the Technical University of Berlin-Charlottenburg, where he studied civil engineering. On graduating in 1935 he became a stress analyst for the Henschel Aircraft Company, where he worked on problems of aircraft vibration. Stress analysis involved formidable calculations, which could then only be performed with great difficulty using teams of human "computers" equipped with desk calculating machines.

Zuse was seduced by the calculating problem. Working in his own time in the evenings and at weekends, he began to design and build a mechanical computer in the living room of his parents' house. He called the computer the "V1" for Versuchsmodel 1 - Experimental Model 1. (After the war he renamed his machines Z1, Z2 etc, to avoid confusion with Wernher von Braun's flying bombs.) As a computer builder, Zuse worked as an amateur, completely outside the mathematical community, although he obtained some financial assistance from a local calculating machine manufacturer. He also persuaded a former university classmate, Helmut Schreyer, to work with him.

When it was completed in 1938 the Z1 was too small and crude for realistic calculations, so plans were laid for a full-scale machine. In 1939 war broke out, however, and Zuse was drafted into the infantry to serve in the front line. It took months of pleading for the German Army Command to accept the military significance of Zuse's computing work and allow him to return to his computer building. He now joined the Third Reich's Aerodynamics Research Institute which funded the building of a full-scale computer, the Z3. The Z3 became operational in December 1941, and was by two years the world's first practical automatic computer. A second machine, the Z4, was quickly commissioned.

Up to this time, Zuse's machines had been based on relay technology, which limited computing speeds to a few arithmetic operations a second. Schreyer proposed that their next machine should be based on electronic tubes, which would be potentially a thousand times faster. Only a 150- tube prototype had been completed when the project was discontinued as the German military authorities believed the end of the war was in sight.

In 1943, when the tide turned against Germany, the Z3 was destroyed by the Allied air raids on Berlin. With the intervention of Wernher von Braun the Z4 was taken to safety in the underground Harz mountain chambers where the V1 and V2 flying bombs were being developed. With extreme material shortages of every kind, Zuse and Schreyer had to abandon computer building. As the war came to its end, Schreyer, a Nazi Party member, fled to South America, while Zuse, who was neither a party member nor a dissident, retreated to an Alpine village, Hinterstein, for the next few years; there he first rescued and then preserved the precious Z4 computer in a stable.

He began to look at an aspect of computing that did not require physical resources - computer programming. He devised a remarkable system, the Plankalkul, which anticipated many programming concepts that only surfaced in the United States and Britain in the early 1950s. Like his earlier computer work, the Plankalkul was a kind of desert-island computing - entirely born of Zuse's mind, neither influenced by, nor influencing, the work of others.

In 1949, when the first electronic computers in America and Britain were becoming operational, the Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich acquired the carefully preserved Z4. Refurbished, it was pressed into service in 1950, helping to establish the institute as a leading centre of computing research in continental Europe.

In 1950, as German industry re-established itself, Zuse, still only 40, set up a successful computer manufacturing business, Zuse KG. The firm produced a number of slow but inexpensive relay-based computers, before making in 1958 the Z22, a full-scale electronic computer of which some 50 were sold. The 1960s were a difficult period for the European industry, with the onslaught of IBM and the American giants. In 1967, Zuse KG was acquired by Siemens. Zuse remained active as a consultant and researcher for several years. In his retirement he devoted his time to sketching and painting. He was an accomplished and natural draughtsman.

Outside Germany, Konrad Zuse was almost unknown until the 1960s, and his computer research had no discernible impact on the mainstream of computer development. Even his Plankalkul was not published in English until 1972, when software had advanced so far beyond his work of 1945 that it was little more than an academic curiosity. But a new generation of computer scientists and engineers recognised the enormity of Zuse's accomplishments, which were even more impressive for having been undertaken in almost total isolation. In the 1970s and 1980s Zuse was showered with honorary degrees, and awards and medals from the computer and electrical engineering institutions.

Martin Campbell-Kelly

Konrad Zuse, computer scientist: born Berlin 22 June 1910; married (two sons, two daughters, and one son deceased); died Hunfeld, Germany 19 December 1995.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003