Programmed for success: the history of the computer

A to Z and Z to A: From the abacus to the Z3 and from the Z4 to the Apple 1—A journey through the world of computing machines.

By Deutsches Museum

Deutsches Museum

Konrad Zuse bei der ArbeitDeutsches Museum

Saved: the invention of the computer

People have been using tools to help them with mathematical problems for over 5,000 years. But it was not until the 20th century that mankind succeeded in programming and automating a computing machine. Konrad Zuse (pictured) is regarded as a pioneer in computer research. He developed the precursor to the universal computer: the Z3. As devices grew smaller and smaller over the following decades, the number of users grew bigger and bigger. What was once reserved for small circles is now an everyday companion for billions of people.

AbakusDeutsches Museum

The Sumerians used the abacus almost as early as 3,000 B.C. Used for adding and subtracting, it was just as indispensable for Roman merchants as it was for bookkeepers in the early modern period. In China, the abacus is still used today in schools and offices. In Europe, on the other hand, it's most commonly found as a toy in children's bedrooms.

Die Rechenmaschine von Braun und Vayringe (1736)Deutsches Museum

During the 17th century, computing machines became masterpieces of precision mechanics. However, they also took some time to develop. This invention by the Swabian mechanician Anton Braun (1686–1728) was only finished by French designer Philipp Vayringe after Braun's death…

…at least, that's what the inscription "Braun invenit/Vayringe fecit" suggests: Braun invented it, Vayringe completed it. But in actual fact, there is no reliable evidence as to how big a part each of them played in its creation. In France, the prevailing opinion is that Vayringe should also be credited for the invention.

Z3: the First Functional Programm-Controlled Automatic Calculating Machine (1939/1941) by Konrad ZuseDeutsches Museum

In 1941 Konrad Zuse built the Z3: the first functional program-controlled automatic computer and the forerunner to the first fully programmable universal computer. However, the Z3 was never used by the public. In 1944 the machine was destroyed during an air raid.

Die Z3 von Konrad Zuse im Deutschen MuseumDeutsches Museum

Konrad Zuse: Der Computer Z4 (1945)Deutsches Museum

From as early as 1942 Konrad Zuse was working on its successor, the Z4. In the last days of the war Zuse fled from Berlin with his machine and hid the device in a shed in Hinterstein in the Allgäu region.

Using the command keys and the keyboard to create the program, users could enter commands…

…that the computer then saved as a program on a perforated 35 mm film strip. Each calculation had a different punch hole which was clocked in in accordance with a task in the Z4.

This keyboard was used to enter the values to be calculated. The result then flashed in the indicator field above...

...or was churned out onto a sheet of paper wrapped around the roller by this teleprinter, the predecessor of today's home office printers—the original printer for the original computer.

Der Lehrcomputer Kenbak-1 (1971)Deutsches Museum

At the end of the 1960s the development of the home computer took a step forward. The Kenbak-1 went on sale for $750 US dollars, but only 50 of these devices were produced in total. Its success was minimal.

Der Altair 8800 (1975)Deutsches Museum

Flip switches and flashing diodes: named after a star system in Star Trek, the Altair 8800 is still considered a pioneer of personal computers today. Developed in 1975 by John V. Blankenbaker, the device cost 395 dollars and users had to assemble it themselves.

Der Apple 1 (1976)Deutsches Museum

The Apple 1
A milestone on the path to the PC for the everyday user: the Apple 1. Steve Jobs and Steven Wozniak assembled this was a home computer at home from 1975 to 1976 and tested it in Jobs' parents' garage in Palo Alto, laying the foundations for the most successful company in the world today. The Apple 1 cost $666.66 US dollars at the time, but only 200 devices were sold. They then achieved true worldwide success with the next series: the Apple 2.

The garage of Steve Jobs' parents' house on Crist Drive in Los Altos, California, where Jobs and Steve Wozniak assembled the Apple 1.

Der Commodore C64 (1982)Deutsches Museum

The Commodore C64
A true product of the '80s, the Commodore 64 made its way into many living rooms and kids' bedrooms where a whole generation grew up with it. The C64 sound chip, the SID (sound interface device), was a sensation at the time, and many musicians programmed their songs on the C64 with real synth sounds. Of course, most other people just used the C64 to play games.

Cubulus: a combination of a Rubik's Cube and Tetris where the player had to put together 9 squares of each color as quickly as possible.

A classic space fighting game from the shoot'em up genre. Shut down enemy spaceships, reach the death star, save the universe. It can't be that hard, right?

A Japanese C64 game from 1982 where you had to push as many objects as possible onto the specified targets. A rather simple game.

Konrad Zuse und sein Computer Z3 (1941)Deutsches Museum

The inventor

Konrad Zuse (1910–95) is regarded as a pioneer in the field of computer science, and the creator of the computer. He is said to have built a total of 251 machines over his lifetime. Although many of his devices were never used, their technology was considered groundbreaking for advancing the development of increasingly modern high-performance computers. When asked why he developed programmable machines in the first place, he once said, "I was too lazy to do the math."

Die Z1 im Wohnzimmer von Konrad Zuses Eltern (1936)Deutsches Museum

A world map can be seen in the background, with coat hooks on the left. Konrad Zuse assembled the Z1 in his parents' living room. His father Emil helped by sawing all the sheet metal parts to fit.

Konrad Zuse im Deutschen Museum am Relais seines Z3Deutsches Museum

After the construction of the Z2 prototype, Konrad Zuse received 25,000 Reichsmark from the German research institute for aerospace engineering (Deutschen Versuchsanstalt für Luft- und Raumfahrttechnik) to support the development of the Z3. When he was temporarily drafted into the war in 1941 he complained that "while others leave their families behind, I'm leaving the Z3."

Konrad Zuse mit seiner Z4 (1943)Deutsches Museum

Konrad Zuse's Z4 was the first computing machine that was actually used: at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich from 1950. It was the only functioning computer across the whole of continental Europe at the time.

Konrad Zuse und sein Helixturm (1993)Deutsches Museum

The last invention that Zuse built before his death was the Helix-Tower: a variable, extendable, and retractable tower. He envisioned that this mechanism would be used to automatically construct buildings to accelerate their completion, although his model is only 8.9 feet tall.

Credits: Story

Erstellt vom Deutschen Museum.

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