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Computer History: From The Antikythera Mechanism To The Modern Era

Konrad Zuse's Z Series Computers & Plankalkül Programming Language

Konrad Zuse was a civil engineer who shortly before the start of the World War II began designing and manufacturing his own general purpose computers. He initiated his Z line of computers with the Z1, which in essence was a floating point binary mechanical calculator that had limited programming features. Zuse managed to build the Z1 in his parent's flat in Berlin instead of a spacious workspace, which is noteworthy, given the computer's large dimensions. Unfortunately, at the beginning of 1944 the Z1, including the original blueprints, were destroyed along with his parents flat during an air raid. Many years later, Zuse recreated the Z1 with the help of thee engineers and it took him two years along with $500,000 to finish the task.

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Zuse built the Z2 computer during his military service and finished it in 1940. The Z3, which was a Turing complete computer, followed in 1941. The Z4 was delivered many years after, because of the hard conditions of the post-war Germany and the lack of resources to build it. It is worth mentioning that Zuse founded the Zuse KG company in 1949, which built a significant number of computers before it was acquired by Siemens in the late 1960s.

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Besides being a great computer designer and manufacturer, Zuse proved to be very good with software as well. He realized quickly that programming can be extremely difficult with machine code, so a high-level language was needed. In his PhD thesis he described Plankalkül, the first algorithmic language, which was implemented many years later in 1975 because Zuse's PhD thesis was rejected when he forgot to pay his university enrollment fee.

Some people wonder how much Zuse's work could have pushed the advancement of computer science if his first computers and work hadn't been destroyed in World War II and if he had paid the fee and his thesis had been published much earlier. Without a doubt, Zuse was a brilliant inventor who built the first program-controlled, electromechanical digital computer and described the first high-level programming language.

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Aris Mpitziopoulos
Aris Mpitziopoulos is a Contributing Editor at Tom's Hardware US, covering PSUs.