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Replica of the Z3, Professor Dr. Horst Zuse: “The German Federal Patent Court held that the first computer in the world could not be patented."

The roots of digitalization

He knew what he had started

Professor Dr. Horst Zuse, lecturer in computer science and son of computer pioneer Konrad Zuse, about his father’s fascinating world of thought and his struggle for a fair place in the history of digitalization - and his own enthusiasm for bits and bytes.

Professor Zuse, Konrad Zuse is not only your father, but also the father of the computer as we know it today. How does it feel to be a close relative of an invention that has radically changed the world in just a few decades?

I have to explain to most people who speak to me about my father that it was not really so long ago, and that I am not his grandson, but his son. He had already developed the Z3 before I was born in 1945. But after that I witnessed many things up close. The world that my father inhabited was fascinating to me – and not just as a child, it still fascinates me today. That is why, since his death in 1995, I have been spending a large part of my time keeping his intellectual heritage alive and bringing people closer to his work. At first I thought that would hardly be of interest to anyone anymore, but I was wrong. There was a tremendous response to my first publications on the Internet, and it continues to be the same to this day. My regular lectures at the Deutsches Technikmuseum – the German Museum of Technology –  in Berlin are certainly well attended. And even when I pay for something with a credit card, people read my name and I often have to tell them about my father.

Computer pioneer Konrad Zuse: “My father did not believe that you could make money with software.”

The legendary Z3, the first functional computer in the world, was ready for use as early as 1941. Did Konrad Zuse have even a vague idea of what he had started?

First of all, let me clarify one thing, because the literature is all rather confusing on this point. In many publications, the Z1, created in 1938, is listed as the first computer in the world. However, it is the Z3, which he completed in 1941, that really deserved the title. The two machines had the same architecture, but a different technical structure, and this is decisive for the classification. But now to your question: Yes, by 1945 at the latest, my father realized what he was doing with his Z3 concept. He had already hinted at that insight in an article that he had published during the Second World War – which in those days was anything but easy, as we all know. In this article, he predicted that the new technology and its applications would become the field of research of tens of thousands of scientists. And the fact that he retrospectively gave his series of computers consecutive numbers from Z1 to Z4 in order to avoid confusion suggests that he may have thought it possible that the conceptual details and their chronological sequence would become important for future generations.

You once described your father as a madman who wanted nothing else than to build and sell computers. What was it that fascinated him so much about digital technology?

In his eyes, the bit was the basic building block of everything. It was on this idea that he built the first draft of his programming language, Plankalkül. And he was definitely right about that. Compared to all other devices of the time, his machines were small and compact. When, in 1944, a friend in the German secret service gave him the photo of an American machine that was about 35 meters long, he said: My God, they are crazy, why so big?

For my father, the bit was the basic building block of everything.
Professor Dr. Horst Zuse

These days every child knows the big names of the modern IT world such as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. But the early pioneers such as Charles Babbage, Alan Turing and Konrad Zuse are clearly less well known. Was your father really satisfied with the role in the digital revolution that historiography has allocated to him?

I do not know if he would be completely satisfied with it today. In his lifetime, in any case, he always fought very hard for his place in history. People had long disputed who had developed the first computer. Some named Charles Babbage, while others brought Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and his computing machine of the 17th century into the discussion. My father had the greatest respect for both of them, while he certainly had no respect for John von Neumann, who also described the architecture of a computer in 1945: 90 percent of what von Neumann described there in theoretical terms had already been conceived by my father in 1936. And as for the remaining ten percent, there are no computers in existence today that work according to the Neumann principle. He wanted to change instructions in the memory – not the operating sequence, but the instructions. No computer manufacturer would come up with such an idea.

In 1967, the German Federal Patent Court rejected your father’s patent application for the world’s first computer in the last instance. On what grounds?

The judges were of the opinion that he had not actually invented anything. Punched tape existed already, as did lamps, and relays. However, the fact that he had created something completely new out of known components was clearly not patentable.

Konrad Zuse later witnessed the rise of companies like Microsoft or Apple over several years. Do you remember the contents of your father-and-son chats on the subject?

Whether he was envious of their success, I cannot really judge. Rather he had great respect for their entrepreneurial achievements, I would say. You have to see this in its historical context. My father was building his machines at a time and in a country where everything was in ruins. You could not expect to get things going as fast as other hardware and software developers have done in later years. Seen against this background, he was actually quite successful in business. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Zuse KG had a market share of about 20 percent. Unfortunately he was not able to hold on to the company later than 1964. But you cannot say that companies like Microsoft or Apple stole anything from him. Let's take floating– point calculation as an example, a concept that today is considered to be the standard. My father had been using it consistently in his entire series of computers from the Z1 onwards, and thus was ahead of his time. IBM did not catch up until 1957.

You were there when your father met Bill Gates at CeBIT in 1995. How well did the two pioneers get along with each other?

Very well indeed. At the time, my father’s health had taken something of a downturn. But he still made the trip to Hanover. He was probably honored that the Microsoft boss wanted to get to know him. Gates had prepared perfectly for the interview and knew exactly who was standing in front of him. Only one thing surprised him: My father told him that he had never expected that software could make so much money. In his active days, he himself had always heard his customers argue along the lines of “when I buy a washing machine, I get the manual for free – why not software, too?" At the end, my father presented Bill Gates with a picture that he had painted himself, which is apparently still on the wall in Gates’ office in Redmond.

One of the many awards received by Konrad Zuse was the Werner von Siemens Ring in 1964, named after the founder of today's global corporation. Could you make a guess what the two men would have talked about, had they been contemporaries?

About hardware presumably. At the end of the day, my father was a hardware man. The programmed control by means of punched tape, something that turned a calculator into a computer, was really nothing more than a brilliant ingredient as far as he was concerned. I am quite sure that Werner von Siemens and my father would have got along very well and would have enthusiastically exchanged notes about their innovations and creative ideas. That was what it was like with Heinz Nixdorf, for example: The two of them did not really consider themselves to be competitors, because right from the beginning Nixdorf concentrated on small computers for the commercial sector. They were not very close friends, but held each other in mutual esteem and sincere goodwill. And what did they talk about? About hardware too.  

In 1985, in an interview of the German TV channel ZDF on the occasion of his 75th birthday, Konrad Zuse said that it would be a hard task for us humans to come to terms with all the consequences of his invention over the next 100 years, or words to that effect. What exactly did he mean?

My father had very specific ideas about what computers should do and what they should not do. He built his machines to make life easier. He thought calculating was terrible, he looked at all the number crunchers working away in the calculation departments in the 1930s, and he wanted to change all that. He was always an advocate of digitalization, where it makes sense, but under a clear condition. Humans should control everything. He always said, pull out the plug, pull the plug out of the socket when these machines become too cheeky. Today that would be unthinkable, of course. If we switched off every hard drive today, we might survive another week, if that long at all.

Professor Dr. Horst Zuse

You were born in 1945. At what age did you actually fully understand to what extent your father's work has influenced and is still influencing the destiny of mankind?

This started very early, about 1950, when I was five years old. I was often allowed to go with him to the company in Neukirchen near Hünfeld. The admiration with which the staff spoke about him made me realize how important my father's work was. And I also saw who came to visit us at home. It wasn’t unusual to see important people such as the Minister-President of Hesse come by.

Would it ever have been thinkable for you to study anything other than electrical engineering?

Not really. Yet, this was not simply something to do with my father's views, but above all with my own enthusiasm for the subject. I had no end of possibilities to learn the ropes of the matter. For example, I was often allowed to take home any components and tools that were no longer needed in the company: circuit breakers, relays, soldering irons, transformers – around 1950, this was still a very special privilege. And at home there was my Märklin train set, for which I developed program control at the age of twelve - the first program control for a model railway, as Märklin later confirmed to me.

You watched the digitalization process first from the perspective of a son and later on from that of a computer scientist with a doctor’s degree and qualified as a university professor. What are the main differences in your observations, made from these two different viewpoints?

As a child, I did not yet know the term, but I soon realized that digitalization simplifies many things that were previously very complex, especially in the field of communication. Of course, my father went a long way very early, so far that even as a young adult I could not follow him. I still remember when he formulated his idea of the cellular automaton in 1969. He wrote a book entitled "Calculating Space," in which he argued that the entire universe works like a gigantic computer. Today I know that with that treatise, he was laying one of the foundations of digital physics. At that time, when he explained the theory in a speech given at the official function for his honorary doctorate in Berlin, I thought: What is he talking about? Why don’t they throw him out? 

What scares some people is the enormous speed with which their lives are being changed by digitalization. Will the process continue at this rate? 

No one can say yet. It’s a fact that since the Second World War developments have accelerated enormously, certainly not least because there was a long period of peace in Europe and North America. But I would not like to speculate about what the future will bring and how fast it will do so. This is for the simple reason that human beings are involved in the effects of such developments and no one knows what speed they can or want to move on. In essence, this is a decision that each individual has to take him- or herself. My father, for example, did not like PCs, he never owned one. I do not have a smartphone. Why not? Because I do not need it. I do not have to check my e-mails every minute, I will do that at home this evening. If anyone doesn’t like that, then they do not need to write me an e-mail.

MULTIBEAM LED: “In 1958, he invented the principle of partial main beams on cars, but the technology available at that time did not yet allow the implementation of this idea.”

What do you personally see as the outstanding benefits of digitalization for humanity?

Beyond all the efficiency improvements, for me the hope for more peace in the world is of greatest importance. Digitalization is communication. And communication allows understanding between people. If these days some people communicate only via Twitter, then that is OK with me.

Did your father ever deal with mobility-specific topics?

Yes, he kept thinking about how mobility systems should be organized. For example, he thought about how the connections in the tram system could be made more effective. His idea was that the trains should not stop, but rather move a little slower at the points where the different lines meet, very close to each other of course, so that the passengers could safely change trams during the journey. In 1958, he also invented the principle of partial main beams on cars – or, in other words, an automatically controlled dipped beam that detects the oncoming traffic with photodiodes. However, the technology available at that time did not yet allow the implementation of this idea. Once LED technology arrived, the system could be put into serial production. When Daimler presented the innovative lighting system MULTIBEAM LED in 2016, my father's patent for "Apparatus for controlling headlights by counterlight" was mentioned in the press release. 

What is currently making the highest waves in our mobile society is the imminent automation of road traffic. What would your father have said about a road full of autonomous vehicles, fully connected with each other and with the infrastructure, and about self-learning algorithms turning the road into an Internet of Things?

He would have probably said, “This will work, let them go ahead with it.” He had a great confidence in the performance of automated machines. For example, in 1944 – more than 50 years before it actually happened – he predicted that one day a computer would defeat the reigning chess champion. That is why I think that it would not have been a problem for him to delegate the control of a car to a computer.

Would he have accepted to be chauffeured by a self-driving car?

Yes, I think he would have tried it out, because he was curious. He himself was unfortunately a really bad driver – and what is even worse, he absolutely failed to see it.  

And what about you – would you take your seat in an autonomous vehicle?

Yes, I would also be interested in trying this out. Actually, this would bring me a step closer to my personal dream of mobility: I’d love to have a small space ship in my front yard. It would not have to be very big, and it would not need to be there all the time, only when I want to use it.

Space ship sharing so to speak?

Exactly, that is what it would be called today.

Professor Zuse, thank you very much for talking to us.

Picture credits: Horst Zuse / Alamy /Daimler