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Just when you thought you've heard it all... (archive)

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Posted by Wade on March 29, 1999 at 21:14:52:

Truth is stranger than fiction sometimes. I came across this while doing research for an ethics paper earlier this evening. Not only is our beloved roadster a work of automotive art, it's also the first digital computer (I thought the Mark I was but ehhhh what do I know) Below is the text from

'99 ///M

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In the aftermath of World War II, it was discovered that a program controlled calculator called the Z3 had been completed in Germany in 1941, which means that the Z3 pre-dated Howard Aiken's Harvard Mark I.

The Z3's architect was a German engineer called Konrad Zuse, who developed his first machine, the Z1, in his parents' living room in Berlin in 1938. Although based on relays, the Z3 was very sophisticated for its time; for example, it utilized the binary number system and could handle floating-point arithmetic. (Zuse had considered employing vacuum tubes, but he decided to use relays because they were more readily available, and also because he feared that tubes were somewhat unreliable). In 1943, Zuse started work on a general-purpose relay computer called the Z4. Sadly, the original Z3 was destroyed by bombing in 1944 and therefore didn't survive the war (although a new Z3 was reconstructed in the 1960s). However, the Z4 did survive (in a cave in the Bavarian Alps) and by 1950 it was up and running in a Zurich bank.

It is interesting to note that paper was in short supply in Germany during to the war, so instead of using paper tape or punched cards, Zuse was obliged to punch holes in old movie film to store his programs and data. We may only speculate as to the films Zuse used for his hole-punching activities; for example, were any first-edition Marlene Dietrich classics on the list? (Marlene Dietrich fell out of favor with the Hitler regime when she emigrated to America in the early 1930s, but copies of her films would still have been around during the war.)

Zuse was an amazing man, who, in many respects, was well ahead of his time. For example, in 1958 he proposed a parallel processor called a field computer, years before parallel computing became well understood. He also wrote (but never implemented) Pkankalkül, which is a strong contender as the first high-level programming language. To fully appreciate Zuse's achievements, it is necessary to understand that his background was in construction engineering. Also, Zuse was completely unaware of any computer-related developments in Germany or in other countries until a very late stage. In 1957, Zuse received the honorary degree of Dr.techn. in Berlin, and he was subsequently showered with many other honors and awards.

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