I&G Thomas Goldstrasz and Henrik Pantle

Computers During World War Two

Konrad Zuse

The Zuse Centre for Information Technology

      in Berlin (ZIB) writes the wartime biography of Konrad Zuse as the history of his computers:

      1938 Completion of Z1, a fully mechanical programmable digital computer (test model). This test model never functioned in practice for reasons of lack of perfection of the mechanical elements. (A rebuilt model can be seen in the Berlin Museum fuer Verkehr und Technik.)
      1940 Completion of Z2, the first fully functioning electro-mechanical computer in the world.
      1941 Development of Z3. First realization of a program control using the binary digits.
      1945/46 Development of Plankalkuel (plan calculus), perhaps the world's first programming language, a predecessor of the modern algorithmic programming languages also including concepts of logic programming.

This brief biography

      in contrast to that of Alan Turing, does not even mention the Second World War. And there is no real need to mention it, since WW2 had no constructive influence on Zuse. The opposite is in fact the case:

      After completing my studies, I became a structural engineer with Henschel Aircraft Company. The year was 1935. However, I soon left this job to set up an inventor's workshop in my parents' apartment. I wanted to be able to devote myself entirely to the computer. (TCML p33)

      This is how Konrad Zuse describes his initial situation in The Computer - My Life. The workshop of an obsessive inventor in the style of Edison. The Zuse family gave over the large living room of their apartment to their son. Friends and relatives provided financial assistance. Zuse's mother cooked for the assembled scientists. Fellow students, Helmut Schreyer in particular, helped Konrad ("Kuno") Zuse with their heads and hands during the phase of transpiration which necessarily follows hot on the heels of inspiration.

With his first computers

      Zuse applied a universal approach from the outset. His notebooks for 1937 already contain references to a "mechanical brain" capable of solving all problems which can be captured by mechanisms. Although Zuse's test runs were mainly oriented towards the problems of statics, he explained to his bemused co-engineers that one day his machines would even be able to beat world champions at chess.

      1938 saw the return of (Babbage's) computer technology, which had been forgotten for a century, with the practical innovation of digital technology, in the form of the Z1. A single creative mind in a private workshop came to the same results as the huge, hectic intelligence operation within the creative framework of Bletchley Park - independently and simultaneously. The much-sponsored COLOSSUS in England (Bletchley Park had at its disposal the equipment and workforce of an entire factory) as opposed to the low-budget computers of the Z(use) series in Germany. The two were never played off against one another.

More than of the meagre support

      received in the form of delayed partial funding of the Z3 (which still didn't prevent him from having to assemble his computers in the main out of waste parts), Zuse's autobiography tells of how it was possible to save the Z4 (along with far too little documentation) from being blasted back into oblivion as a result of the Blitzkrieg or Total Mobilisation or the bombing of Berlin.

      All attempts to interest those in power, i.e. the Nazi elite, in computer technology were met with hardness of hearing. No contract or order, no certification of military priority and no support for production reached the engineer who had long since begun to successfully carry out his project.

For work on the Z4, which began in 1942,

      Zuse was able, in the middle of the war and alongside his part-time work at the Henschel factory, to found an almost civilian company, the 'Zuse Ingenieurbuero und Apparatebau, Berlin'. It was a civilian enterprise in the sense that the only staff available were those who were of no further use to the war effort: untrained women, thieves, invalids and the insane (cf. TCML pp 65+82): workers for non-priority projects. Qualified workers had to be hired on a daily or hourly basis from the Henschel factory or the Telephony Office. Materials mostly had to be obtained 'illegally', since the project's priority rating wasn't high enough to merit their official allocation. Individual parts were always having to be scavenged from "waste boxes" or conjured up from other sources. Zuse got himself and his computer company through the war as well as he could - without ever receiving the protection and financial support accorded to urgent military matters. Zuse thus never invented anything exclusively for the war - he simply arranged things to fit in with it.

Zuse's only compromise with the war

      that got any further than the paper and planning stages (the construction of the Z-series computers was oriented exclusively towards the mathematics of statics (cf. FzK p12) and Zuse's encryption engine was never built) was the S1, a special computer which was used in the Henschel factory between 1942 and 1944 to calculate wing measurements for remote control flying bombs. It would take quite a usurpatory concept of 'military equipment' to infer a war-related development of computers in Germany from this piece of information. As far as can be ascertained from Zuse's writings, the S1 was not a technical innovation but an application of his knowledge. On account of the private, civilian sources of this knowledge, we would be inclined to reverse Kittler's theory in this case: the S1 was military misuse of civilian equipment.

      While WW2 was still going on, the history of the computer was forging a small, parallel path for itself 'on civvy street'.

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