Konrad Zuse

The first programmable, digital computer

The German civil engineer Konrad Zuse (1910-1995) is considered the inventor of the first digital and programmable computers – a feat he first accomplished in 1938, long before anyone else, anywhere in the world.

Konrad Zuse

Engineer and inventor Konrad Zuse

Zuse was born in Deutsch-Wilmersdorf, now part of Berlin, on June 22, 1910. Two years later, his family moved to Braunsberg in eastern Prussia, where his father Emil worked as a postal clerk. Later Konrad attended high school in Hoyerswerda. After graduating, he studied at the Technische Hochschule Berlin-Charlottenburg, where he obtained a degree in civil engineering in 1935. The artistic engineer also designed advertisements for Ford during his university years.

Bored by having to do routine calculations, at the age of 28, Zuse (pron. TSOO-zuh) invented the world’s first electro-mechanical binary computer, the Z1 in Berlin during 1936-1938. After that, he 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.

Konrad Zuse Z3 D Museum

Konrad Zuse stands next to a replica of his Z3 computer at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. Zuse himself helped recreate the Z3 replica, the original having been destroyed during WWII in 1943. The museum has several of Zuse’s pioneering computers on display. PHOTO: Deutsches Museum

Much like the founders of Apple Computer many decades later, Zuse put together his first computer in the kitchen of his parents’ Berlin apartment. Among its remarkable features, the Z1 had a keyboard for data input and flashing lights to indicate results. A restored but non-functional Z1 is on display in the German Technology Museum (Deutsches Technikmuseum, DTB) in Berlin. The DTB has an entire section devoted to Zuse, displaying twelve of his machines and several of his paintings. In Munich the Deutsches Museum, also devoted to science and technology, displays a replica of the Z3, as well as the original Z4.

Zuse’s Z2 (1940) was the first fully functioning electro-mechanical computer. The more advanced, programmable Z3 followed the next year. The Z4 was developed between 1945 and 1949. Replicas of Zuse’s Z3 and Z4 computers can be found at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. The Z3 of 1941 is considered the world’s first programmable computer and predates the ENIAC in the US by many years. It used punched tape (actually old film) to store its program. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in the war. Had it not been for the adverse war conditions and the lack of material support in Hitler Germany, one can only imagine what else Zuse might have produced. The Konrad-Zuse-Zentrum für Informationstechnik Berlin (ZIB), founded in 1986, is a working memorial to the German inventor of the computer. (See link below.)

Zuse's Z1 computer DTM

A restored model of Konrad Zuse’s Z1 computer (1938) at Berlin’s German Technology Museum. On the wall are also some paintings by Zuse.
PHOTO: Deutsches Technikmuseum

Information Pioneers
Konrad Zuse is one of 150 “information pioneers” chosen by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT. BCS selected people who have helped to shape the information society that we live in today. Other IT pioneers selected include Albert Einstein and the Austrian-born actress Hedy Lamarr. Learn more at the Information Pioneers site.

The Computer Museum History Center in Mountain View, California issued the following statement in 1998, when it made an exception to its bylaws in order to honor Zuse: “In 1941, Konrad Zuse created the first fully-automated, program-controlled, and freely-programmable computer for binary floating-point calculations, and later, the basic programming system, Plankalkül. His contributions were so striking, and made under such adversity, that the History Center has made an exception to its usual practice and named him a Fellow posthumously.“

Part of Zuse’s genius came about because he was unaware of the internal structure of typical calculators built at the time, and he thus started his project from scratch. While standard desktop calculators in the 1930s were based on the decimal system and used rotating mechanical components, the machine that Zuse created used the binary system and metallic shafts that could move only in one direction.

Zuse could also be considered the world’s first founder of a computer startup company. In October 1946 he established the Ingenieurbüro Hopferau (Engineer Office Hopferau). According to his son, Horst, the venture capital came from a contract with IBM and the rental of the Z4 computer in Switzerland. Later Zuse would found Zuse KG in Neukirchen (1949), which was bought up by Siemens AG in 1966.

Zuse married Gisela Brandes in January 1945. Today Horst Zuse, the eldest of Zuse’s five children, is a professor at Berlin’s Technische Universität, where his father studied. (See Horst’s website below.)

Konrad Zuse predicted that a computer would one day beat the world chess champion. Just two years after the inventor’s death, the IBM supercomputer known as “Big Blue” defeated Garry Kasparov in a six-game match in 1997.

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