Konrad Zuse was a Berliner. He was born in the German capital on 22 June 1910. During his school days, he already impressed with his many talents. Zuse’s Latin master discovered drawings of locomotives in his language primer and drew his ability to the attention of the drawing master. Zuse’s talents, however, were not restricted to the accurate depiction of models; he also possessed a gift for caricature. Later as a student, he entertained friends with his humorous sketches. Indeed he almost decided on a career as a commercial artist. In addition to his artistic skills, Zuse however also possessed a passionate interest in technology. He was an inventive and skilled repairer of bicycles and came up with audacious machine constructions using a Stabil metal construction set. He completed his schooling in 1927 and began studying mechanical engineering at Technische Hochschule zu Berlin in 1928. Upon graduating, he would set himself the goal of becoming an inventor and begin seeking the object of his inspiration.
But first of all he switched subjects and began studying architecture before finally deciding on civil engineering. This seemed to offer him the opportunity he was seeking to combine his skills as an engineer and an artist. And it was here – after pursuing projects to invent an automatic photo laboratory, an elliptical cinema and a money-changing vending machine – that he finally settled on the object to demonstrate his talents as an inventor: a programmable computer. However, the times were most definitely not conducive for such an invention. 1933 saw the National Socialists take power, radically changing life at Technische Hochschule Berlin.
Research was now put to work for military purposes and quick results were demanded. Free spirits like Zuse were forced to work clandestinely. The computer was already regarded as a refined piece of technology requiring no further improvements. It was also not possible to communicate with engineers in the US, such as Howard Aiken, who was also working on computer technology. But Konrad Zuse dared to do the impossible. After completing his degree in 1935, Zuse began working as a structural engineer for the Henschel aircraft factory in Berlin. However, just one year later in 1936 he decided to construct a computer in his parents’ home. His parents, his sister Lieselotte and many of his friends from university helped him financially and worked with him on his project. The employment office wanted to know what he was doing and Zuse came up with the cunning explanation that he was developing a tank gauge as part of a competition organized by the Ministry of Aviation. With only friends and family to help him, Zuse began the construction of the “Z1” in the living room of his parents’ home. This was a still completely mechanical computer. Unlike Aiken at Harvard, however, Zuse worked on the principle of a binary numbering system. This was new and simplified the use of electrical and electronic switching elements. In 1937, kindred spirit Helmut Schreyer became Zuse’s assistant. One of Schreyer’s contributions was to suggest replacing relays with vacuum tubes. What at first seemed a somewhat “crackpot” idea was to prove very fruitful.
Schreyer also had contact to Professors Wilhelm Stäblein and Herbert Wagner, both of whom supported the computer project by, for example, ensuring that Zuse was excused from military service during the war, enabling him to work in armaments research. This was essential for the development of the “Z1”, which had been completed in 1938, as the “Z2”, which functioned satisfactorily using relays, and then as the “Z3”, which was completed in 1941 and is regarded as the world’s first fully functional programmable computer. Only the “Z4” survived the war and was later exhibited at the ETH Zürich. Somewhat belatedly, Technische Universität Berlin acknowledged Konrad Zuse’s contribution to the development of the computer by awarding him the title of honorary doctor of engineering in 1957.