The First Freely Programmable Computer was invented by Konrad Zuse (1910-1995), a German engineer for the Henschel Aircraft Company at the beginning of WWII.
Konrad Zuse earned the semiofficial title of “inventor of the modern computer” for his series of automatic calculators, which he invented to help him with his lengthy engineering calculations.
His greatest achievement was the world’s first functional program-controlled Turnin-complete computer, the Z3, which became operational in May 1941.
In 1936, Zuse made a mechanical calculator called the Z1, the first binary computer and in 1939 completed the Z2, the first fully functioning electro-mechanical computer.
Konrad Zuse completed the Z3 in 1941, with recycled materials donated by fellow university staff and students. This was the world’s first electronic, fully programmable digital computer based on a binary floating-point number and switching system.
Konrad Zuse wrote the first algorithmic programming language called ‘Plankalkül’ in 1946, which he used to program his computers. He wrote the world’s first chess-playing program using Plankalkül.
Zuse was unable to convince the Nazi government to support his work for a computer based on electronic valves. The Germans thought they were close to winning the War and felt no need to support further research.
The Z1 through Z3 models were destroyed during the war along with Zuse Apparatebau, the first computer company that Zuse formed in 1940. Zuse left for Zurich to finish his work on the Z4, smuggling the Z4 from Germany in a military truck, which he hid in stables on route to Zurich, Switzerland. The Z4 had a mechanical memory with a capacity of 1,024 words and several card readers.
The 100th anniversary of the birth of this computer pioneer was celebrated by exhibitions, lectures and workshops to remember his life and work and to bring attention to the importance of his invention to the digital age.
There is a replica of Zuse’s Z1 it the German Museum of Technology in Berlin.