I&G Thomas Goldstrasz and Henrik Pantle

Computers During World War Two


The Second World War,

      according to a well-known theory of the Berlin aesthetic theorist Friedrich Kittler, was necessary for the development of the computer. This theory forms part of his more general assertion that entertainment devices (i.e. media) have always, by nature so to speak, represented `misuse of military equipment'. And at first glance, i.e. on a first reading of Grammophon Film Typewriter (GFT), his argument seems watertight enough. In an impressive style, much inspired by Pynchon, Kittler gives us a description of war as a problem of information processing which is essential to the process of human media production.

      At this point, Bolz's interpretation, depicting war as the father of all media, converges with Kittler's (cf. EGU: 130). He has suggested that war creates embryonic communication technologies in minds and systems, as well as making enough money available to ensure that these children grow big and strong (the logic of this analogy states: without FatherWar, no ChildrenMedia).

      One example used by Kittler to illustrate his the `theory of misuse' for WWII is Bletchley Park, the top secret location where English cryptologists deciphered the Nazis's machine-generated Enigma codes. The world's first theoretical computer scientist, Alan Turing, worked there, applying his knowledge and genius to the problems of cryptology and initiating the development of the computer in England in the process.

Our discovery that the influence of the Second World War

      on the development of the computer was more a coincidence than a necessity, thus refuting Kittler's theory, was a result of our reading of Konrad Zuse's book The Computer - My Life (TCML).

      Zuse constructed his computers Z1-Z4 during but in no way due to WWII. Contrary to Kittler's claims, the Nazis quite simply missed the opportunity of exploiting Zuse's private computer seriously (i.e. with top priority and large sums of money) for the solution of their (information) problems. Zuse's machines remained civilian equipment throughout WWII, which shows that the computer is not a machine of war, at least not by nature.

      This independent invention of the computer outside the context of the war and of events in England also underlines the need to attribute fatherhood not to events but to individuals. The computer had several fathers, two of whom were undoubtedly Turing and Zuse, one of whom stood before his invention as a private person in civilian clothing.

Abstract | Alan Turing | Konrad Zuse | Kittler's Theory | Literature
War as a Problem of Information Processing | Simultaneous Independent Development of the Computer

© for the translation by Thomas Goldstrasz and Nicholas Grindell 1997