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Konrad Zuse
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Konrad Zuse

Konrad Zuse (June 22, 1910 - December 18, 1995) was a German engineer and computer pioneer. His greatest achievement was the completion of the first functional program-controlled computer, the Z3, in 1941. He also designed a high-level programming language, Plankalkül, allegedly in 1945, although this was a theoretical contribution, since the language was never actually implemented within his lifetime. He also founded the first computer startup company in 1946 and built the Z4, which became the first commercial computer, leased to ETH Zürich in 1950. Due to the circumstances of World War II, however, Zuse's work initially went largely unnoticed in the UK and the US; possibly Zuse's first documented influence on a US company was IBM's 1946 option on Zuse's patents.

Table of contents
1 Pre-WWII work and the Z1
2 The WWII years; Z2, Z3, Z4
3 Zuse the entrepreneur
4 Later years and resurrection
5 External links
6 References

Pre-WWII work and the Z1

Born in Berlin, Germany, Zuse graduated in civil engineering from the Technische Hochschule Berlin-Charlottenburg (today the Technische Universität Berlin or Technical University of Berlin) in 1935. He started work at the Henschel aircraft factory in Dessau, but only one year later he resigned from his job to build a programmable machine. Working in his parents' apartment in 1938, his first attempt, called the Z1, was a binary electrically driven mechanical calculator with limited programmability, reading instructions from punched tape. The Z1 never worked well, though, due to the lack of sufficiently precise parts. The Z1 and its original blueprints were destroyed during World War II.

The WWII years; Z2, Z3, Z4

World War II made it impossible and undesirable for Zuse and contemporary German computer scientists to work with similar scientists in the UK and the USA, or even to stay in contact. In 1939, Zuse was called for military service but was able to convince the army to let him return to building his computers. In 1940, he gained support from the Aerodynamische Versuchsanstalt (AVA, Aerodynamic Research Institute), which used his work for the production of guided missiles. Zuse built the Z2, a revised version of his machine, from telephone relays. The same year, he started a company, Zuse Apparatebau, to manufacture his programmable machines.

Satisfied with the function of the basic Z2 machine, he built the Z3 and completed it in 1941. It was a binary calculator featuring programmability with loops but without conditional jumps, with memory and a calculation unit based on telephone relays. Despite the absence of conditional jumps as convenient instructions, the Z3 was a Turing complete computer (ignoring the fact that no physical computer can be truly Turing complete due to limited storage size). However, its Turing-completeness was never envisioned by Zuse (who had practical applications in mind) and only proven in 1998 (see History of computing hardware).

Zuse's company was destroyed in 1945 by an Allied attack, together with the Z3. The partially finished, relay-based Z4 had been brought to a safe place earlier. Zuse designed the first high-level programming language, the Plankalkül, from 1941 to 1945, for which no compiler or interpreter was available until a team from the Free University of Berlin implemented it in 2000, five years after Zuse died. Nevertheless, concepts of Plankalkül re-appeared in many later languages such as ALGOL.

Zuse the entrepreneur

In 1946 Zuse founded world's first computer startup company: the Zuse-Ingenieurbüro Hopferau. Venture capital was raised through ETH Zürich and an IBM option on Zuse's patents.

Zuse founded another company, Zuse KG, in 1949. The Z4 was finished and delivered to the ETH Zürich, Switzerland in September, 1950. At that time, it was the only working computer in continental Europe, and the first computer in the world to be sold, beating the Ferranti Mark I by five months and the UNIVAC I by ten months. Other computers, all numbered with a leading Z, were built by Zuse and his company. Notable are the Z11, which was sold to the optics industry and to universities, and the Z22, the first computer with a memory based on magnetic storage.

By 1967, the Zuse KG had built a total of 251 computers. Due to financial problems, it was then sold to the Siemens AG company.

Later years and resurrection

In 1967 Zuse also suggested that the universe itself is running on a grid of computers (digital physics); in 1969 he published the book Rechnender Raum (translated by MIT into English as Calculating Space, 1970); in the new millennium such wild ideas have suddenly started to attract a lot of attention, since there is no compelling physical evidence against Zuse's thesis.

Between 1987 and 1989, Zuse recreated the Z1, suffering a heart-attack midway through the project. The final result had 30,000 components, cost 800,000 DM, and required four individuals (including Zuse) to assemble it. Funding for the project was provided by Siemens and a consortium of around five companies.

Zuse received several awards for his work. After he retired, he focused on his hobby, painting. Zuse died December 18, 1995 in Hünfeld, Germany.

External links