Konrad Zuse

written on 08/10/2020
by Jürgen Sokull

The inventor of the first computer

Konrad Ernst Otto Zuse was a German civil engineer, inventor and entrepreneur who built (with the development of his Z3 in 1941) the first functional, fully automatic, program-controlled and freely programmable computer working in binary floating-point calculation and thus the first functional digital computer (Rechner) in the world. (Decision of the "1st International Conference on the History of computing")

As a structural engineer, Zuse is said to have been bored with the repetitive time-consuming arithmetic operations - "I was too lazy to calculate“. He wanted to build a machine that would make his work easier.

In the Deutsches Museum in Munich you can admire a functional replica of the Z3:

The Z3 was designed in electromagnetic relay technology with 600 relays for the calculating unit and 2000 relays for the storage unit. It was as big as three fridges and weighed a ton.

It could store 64 numbers, took 0,8 seconds for an addition and about three seconds for a multiplication. It automatically converted inputs into the binary system and displayed the results of its calculations using light bulbs.


Personal note by the author

When I worked in a civil engineering office in the 1970s, my boss had a so-called "mini-computer" the size of a man-high refrigerator with a hole strip reader and magnetic tapes on the front.

It was a PDP 8 from the company DIGITAL. The first computer to be sold in its simple version for under $20,000. Programming was done in Assembler, BASIC, Fortran, Focal and Dibol.

Initially, the software was primarily stored on perforated strips, later also on small magnetic tapes, 8-inch disks and hard drives. The main memory consisted of 4,096 12-bit words.

In the 1980s, during my studies in construction engineering in Aachen, I programmed a static program for a study paper to calculate maximum moments, transverse and normal forces on continuous beams over any number of fields with any inertial moments and any type of load on a Commodore 64 (Arbeitsspeicher 64 KB RAM) with Cass Recorder as program memory, programming language "BASIC".

My program was optimized so that it was not allowed to be a line longer at this storage size. 

Civil engineer Zuse would have been thrilled and so was my professor. A year later, he tried to get my continuous-beam program running on his new programmable pocket computer (with magnetic cards). It was a TI59 from Texas Instruments. His success was unknown to me.

In the mid 80’s, I bought my first home computer, and it was followed by more and more powerful PC's - the so called 286 - 486 . They consisted of more or less self-assembled, industrially prefabricated components and ran with the operating systems MS-DOS and Windows.

In 1995 I bought a PC Intel Pentium with a memory size of 64GB and the operating system Windows 95. Despite this memory size, I had to cache colored images on an external zip drive with 100 MB ZIP disks.

At the beginning of the 90’s I sent my first text e-mail from home.

In 2000 I programmed my first website for my own professional purposes in HTML, which was displayed under the desired search term „Baurecht“ for a few months in first place by the popular search engines, thanks to some tricks - at that time still free of charge.

Today, computers (generally I still call them "Rechner") for home use and with storage capacities of several Terabytes are almost a normality. And what's too big is stored on "clouds“ and sometimes you get annoyed by the slowness of your Rechner. Few users are aware of the fact that 1 terabyte (TB) are

= 1024 gigabytes (GB)

= 1,048,576 megabytes (MB)

= 1,073,741,824 kilobytes

= 1,099,511,628,000 bytes

= 8. 796. 093. 024. 000 bit

I mean, at least in the event of a power failure, one should remember the tremendous performance of the engineers who developed the machine, computer.

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Photo 1: ©picture alliance/dpa, Photo 2-10: ©Deutsches Museum