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The Life and Work of Konrad Zuse
by Prof. Horst Zuse

Many encyclopedias and other reference works state that the first large-scale automatic digital computer was the Harvard Mark 1, which was developed by Howard H. Aiken (and team) in America between 1939 and 1944. However, in the aftermath of World War II it was discovered that a program controlled computer called the Z3 had been completed in Germany in 1941, which means that the Z3 pre-dated the Harvard Mark I.

The Z3's architect was a German engineer called Konrad Zuse, who developed his first machine, the Z1, in his parents' living room in Berlin in 1938. Although based on relays, the Z3 was very sophisticated for its time; for example, it utilized the binary number system and could perform floating-point arithmetic.

Zuse was an amazing man who was years ahead of his time. To fully appreciate his achievements, it is necessary to understand that his background was in construction and civil engineering (not electronics).

The full Z1. In the foreground is seen the manual crank.
The Z1 computer. In the foreground is the manual crank for driving the clock frequency by hand.

Also, Zuse was completely unaware of any computer-related developments in Germany or in other countries until a very late stage, so he independently conceived and implemented the principles of modern digital computers in isolation.

Self Portrait (1994)
Konrad Zuse Self portrait (1994)

Today, the Z3 is widely acknowledged as being the first fully functional automatic digital computer, and Konrad Zuse is acclaimed by computer scientists as being the most admired and respected computer pioneer.

However, much of the previously published material on Zuse comes from the same limited pool of source material. Also, this material tends to concentrate on Zuse the engineer and neglects Zuse the man.

EPE Online is therefore honored to present the following world exclusive article on the life and work of Konrad Zuse. This was written by Konrad's eldest son, Horst, and features many hitherto unpublished photographs and images from Horst’s private collection.

Part 1 Konrad Zuse prior to 1934.
Part 2 Konrad Zuse’s first ideas on computing.
Part 3 A detailed look at the architecture of Konrad Zuse’s Z1.
Part 4 A detailed look at the architecture of the Z2 and Z3 machines (also a glance at the S1 and S2 computers).
Part 5 Konrad Zuse’s Plankalkül programming language.
Part 6 The development of the Z4 and the Zuse Apparatebau from 1942 to 1945 in Berlin is described, and also the slightly modified architecture of the Z4 for the ETH-Zürich in 1950.
Part 7 Here we consider the very innovative Zuse KG company, which produced more than 250 computers with a value of 100 Million DM between 1949 and 1969.
Part 8 Konrad Zuse’s paintings and his last project, the Helix Tower.
Part 9 Other early computers in the USA and the UK
Part 10 A comparison of the von Neumann architecture and stored program computers with Konrad Zuse’s Z1-Z4 machines.
Part 11 Some conclusions.
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