In 2021, we are celebrating the 80th anniversary of Konrad Zuse's
crowning achievement: Z3, the world's first functional program-controlled general computer, based on his patent application from 1936.
Today, computers are ubiquitous. Billions of people depend on them.
Only 20 years to go until the Z3 centennial in 2041!
Between 1935 and 1941,
Konrad Zuse (1910-1995; pronounce: "Conrud Tsoosay")
created the world's first working programmable general-purpose computer: the Z3.
The corresponding patent application of the "father of the computer" dates back to 1936.^{[ZU36-38][Z36][RO98]}
In 1946, he also founded the world's first computer startup company:
the Zuse-Ingenieurbüro Hopferau (IBM provided some of the venture capital for an option
on Zuse's patents).
As if that was not enough to cement Zuse's legacy in computing, in the early 1940s,
Zuse also designed Plankalkül,
the first high-level programming language^{[BAU][KNU]}
(compare the first formal language by Gottlob Frege^{[FRE]}).
He applied it to chess in
1945^{[KNU]}
and to theorem proving
in 1948.^{[ZU48]}
In 1967, he also suggested what's known as
Zuse's thesis,
namely, that physics is computable, and that the universe
is computed by some sort of cellular automaton.^{[ZU67][ZU69][ALL2]}
Where does Zuse's Z3 fit in the history of computing?
The first known gear-based computational device was the
Antikythera mechanism (a kind of astronomical clock) in Ancient Greece over 2000 years ago.
1.5 millennia later, Peter Henlein still made conceptually similar machines—albeit smaller—namely, the first miniaturized pocket watches (1505).
But these devices always calculated the same thing, e.g., divide minutes by 60 to get hours.
The 1600s brought more flexible machines that computed answers in response to input data.
The first data-processing gear-based special purpose calculator for simple arithmetics was built in 1623 by
Wilhelm Schickard,
one of the candidates for the title of
"father of automatic computing," followed by the
superior Pascaline of Blaise Pascal (1642).
In 1673, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
designed the first machine (the step reckoner) that could perform all four arithmetic operations, and the first with a memory.^{[BL16]}
He also
described the principles of binary computers governed by punch
cards (1679),^{[L79][L03][LA14][HO66]}
and defined the formal Algebra of Thought (1686)^{[L86][WI48][LEI21,a,b]} which is
deductively equivalent^{[LE18]} to the later
Boolean Algebra^{[BOO]} (1847).
Leibniz, one of the candidates for the title
of "father of computer science," has
been called "the world's first computer scientist"^{[LA14]}
and even "the smartest man who ever lived."^{[SMO13]}
He was not only the first to publish infinitesimal calculus,^{[L84]}
but also pursued an ambitious project to answer
all possible questions through computation.
His ideas (inspired by Ramon LLull^{[LL7]})
on a universal language and a general calculus
for reasoning
(Characteristica Universalis & Calculus Ratiocinator^{[WI48][RU58]}) were highly influential.^{[GOD21,a,b][WI48]}
In the early 1930s, however,
Kurt Gödel dealt a blow
to Leibniz' project. He created a
universal language for encoding arbitrary formalizable processes,^{[GOD][GOD34]}
and used his so-called Gödel Numbering to
show that there are fundamental limitations to what
can be decided or computed,^{[GOD]}
thus laying the foundations of the modern version of
what's now known as theoretical computer science.^{[GOD21,a,b]}
The pragmatic Konrad Zuse
was apparently not particularly interested in such theoretical work.
In 1936, five years after Gödel's famous publication,^{[GOD]} he filed his patent
application on a very practical real computer.^{[ZU36-38][Z36][RO98]}
It described the digital circuits required by programmable physical hardware,
extending Leibniz' principles of binary computers governed by punch
cards (1679),^{[L79][LA14][HO66][L86][WI48][LEI21,a,b]} and
predating Claude Shannon's thesis on digital circuit design (1937).^{[SHA37]}
Zuse's Z3 of 1941 lacked an explicit conditional jump instruction "IF ... THEN GOTO ADDRESS ..."
(added with little effort to a later variant for ETHZ called Z4).
Of course, this
did not prevent Z3 from being a universal computer.^{[RO98]}
For example, simple arithmetic tricks (e.g., multiplication by 0) can be used to temporarily
make a no-op out of every instruction that should not be executed
because some condition is not fulfilled.^{[RO98]}
Ignoring the inevitable storage limitations of any physical computer,
the physical hardware of Z3 was indeed
universal in the modern sense of
the purely theoretical but impractical constructs of
Gödel^{[GOD][GOD34,21,21a]} (1931-34),
Church^{[CHU]} (1935),
Turing^{[TUR]} (1936), and Post^{[POS]} (1936),
which also did not allow for "modern" conditional jumps (they did not even have
numbered memory addresses to which an instruction pointer could have jumped).
Zuse's Z3 used
electromagnetic relays with visibly moving switches.
The first electronic special purpose calculator
(whose moving parts were electrons too small to see)
was the
binary ABC (US, 1942) by
John Atanasoff (the "father of tube-based computing"^{[NASC6a]}).
Unlike the gear-based machines of the 1600s,
ABC used vaccum tubes—today's machines use the
transistor principle
patented by
Julius E. Lilienfeld
in 1925.^{[LIL1-2]}
But unlike Zuse's Z3, ABC was not freely programmable.
Neither was the electronic
Colossus machine by Tommy Flowers (UK, 1943-45)
used to break the Nazi code.^{[NASC6]}
On the other hand,
the concept of programs was well-known by then.
Perhaps the world's first practical
programmable machine was an automatic theatre made in the 1st
century^{[SHA7a][RAU1]} by Heron of Alexandria
(who apparently also had the first known working steam engine—the Aeolipile).
The energy source of his programmable
automaton was a falling weight pulling a string wrapped around pins of a revolving cylinder.
Complex instruction sequences controlling doors and puppets
for several minutes were encoded by complex wrappings.
The 9th century
music automaton
by the Banu Musa brothers in Baghdad
was perhaps the first machine with a stored program.^{[BAN][KOE1]} It used pins on
a revolving cylinder to store programs controlling a steam-driven
flute—compare Al-Jazari's programmable drum machine of 1206.^{[SHA7b]}
The first commercial program-controlled
machines (punch card-based looms) were built in France around
1800 by Joseph-Marie Jacquard and others—perhaps the first "modern"
programmers who wrote the world's first industrial software.
They inspired Ada Lovelace and her mentor
Charles Babbage (UK, circa 1840). He planned but was unable to build a
programmable, general purpose computer (only his non-universal special purpose calculator
led to a working 20th century replica).
Unlike Babbage, Zuse (1936-41) used Leibniz'
principles of binary computation (1679)^{[L79][LA14][HO66][L03]}
instead of traditional
decimal computation.
This greatly simplified the hardware.^{[LEI21,a,b]}
Today, most computers are binary like Z3.
In this context it seems worth pointing out the difference between
programs and the more limited user-given input data of the 1600s mentioned above.
Programs are instruction sequences stored on some medium, e.g., on punch cards,
and can be run again and again, without human intervention.
Over time the physical objects required to store programs have become lighter.
Ancient machines stored
them on rotating cylinders;
Jacquard stored them on cardboard;
Zuse stored them on 35mm film,
today we often store them using electrons and magnetizable material.
The first general working programmable machine built by
someone other than Zuse (1941)^{[RO98]} was Howard Aiken's decimal MARK I (US, 1944).
The much faster decimal ENIAC by Eckert and Mauchly
(1945/46) was programmed by rewiring it.
Both data and programs were stored in electronic memory
by the "Manchester baby" (Williams, Kilburn & Tootill, UK, 1948)
and the 1948 upgrade of ENIAC, which was reprogrammed by entering numerical instruction codes into read-only memory.^{[HAI14b]}
Already in 1936-38, however, Zuse may have been the first to suggest to put both program instructions and data into memory.^{[ZU36-38]}
While Zuse's work on automatic chess players (1945)^{[KNU]}
and theorem provers (1948)^{[ZU48]} (predating Newell & Simon's work^{[NS56]}) was groundbreaking,
it was not the first work on Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Already in 1914, the Spaniard
Leonardo Torres y Quevedo became
the 20th century's first AI pioneer
when he built
the first working chess end game player
(back then chess was considered as an activity restricted to the realms of intelligent creatures).
The machine was still considered impressive decades later when
the AI pioneer Norbert Wiener played against
it at the 1951 Paris conference,^{[AI51][BRO21][BRU1-4]} which
is now often viewed as the first conference on AI—though the expression "AI" was coined only later
in 1956 at another conference in Dartmouth by John McCarthy. In fact, in 1951,
much of what's now called
AI was still called Cybernetics,
with a focus
very much in line with
modern AI
based on deep neural networks.^{[DL1-2][DEC]}
In 1941, Zuse's Z3 could perform roughly one elementary operation (e.g., an addition) per second. Since then,
every 5 years, compute got 10 times cheaper (note that his law is much older than
Moore's Law which states that the number of transistors^{[LIL1-2]}
per chip doubles every 18 months). As of 2021, 80 years after Z3,
modern computers can execute about 10 million billion instructions per second for the same
(inflation-adjusted) price.
The naive extrapolation of this exponential trend predicts that
the 21st century will see cheap computers with a thousand times the
raw computational power of all human brains combined.^{[RAW]}
Where are the physical limits?
According to Bremermann (1982),^{[BRE]}
a computer of 1 kg of mass and 1 liter of volume can execute at most
10^{51} operations per second on at most 10^{32} bits.
The trend above will hit
the Bremermann limit roughly 25 decades after Z3,
around 2200. However, since there are only 2 x 10^{30} kg of mass in the solar system,
the trend is bound to break within a few centuries,
since the speed of light will greatly limit the acquisition
of additional mass, e.g., in form of other solar systems,
through a function ploynomial in time,
as previously noted back in 2004.^{[OOPS2]}
In 1970, long before computers had become ubiquitous, Peter's renowned
Atlas of World History already
listed Zuse among the 20th century's 30 most important figures, along with
Einstein,
Gandhi, Hitler, Lenin, Roosevelt, Mao, Picasso, etc.
Zuse's historical importance has only grown with the exponential growth
of computing since then.
By the turn of the millennium, more than 80 streets and squares carried the name of Zuse.
A collection of his writings and pictures of his
machines can be found in this
online archive.
In 2021, we are not only celebrating the 80th anniversary of Zuse's 1941
computer, but also the
90th anniversary of Kurt Gödel's groundbreaking 1931 paper^{[GOD][GOD21,a,b]} which laid the foundations of theoretical computer science and the theory of AI. Gödel identified the fundamental limits of theorem proving, computing, AI, logics, and mathematics itself.^{[GOD][GOD34,21][BIB3]} This had enormous impact on science and philosophy of the 20th century. It seems incredible that within less than a century something that
once lived only in the minds of titans has become something so inalienable from modern society.
The world owes these scientists a great debt.
Ten years to go until the Gödel centennial in 2031,
and twenty years until the Zuse centennial in 2041!
Enough time to plan appropriate celebrations.
Acknowledgments
Thanks to Moshe Vardi, Herbert Bruderer, Jack Copeland, Wolfgang Bibel, Teun Koetsier, Scott Aaronson, Dylan Ashley, Sebastian Oberhoff, Kai Hormann, and several other expert reviewers for useful comments on the contents of the four companion articles.^{[LEI21,a,b][GOD21,a,b][ZUS21,a,b][TUR21]} Since science is about self-correction, let me know under juergen@idsia.ch if you can spot any remaining error. The contents of this article may be used for educational and non-commercial purposes, including articles for Wikipedia and similar sites.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
References
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[L03]
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[L84]
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[Quote: "The history of the modern computing machine goes back to Leibniz and Pascal. Indeed, the general idea of a computing machine is nothing but a mechanization of Leibniz's calculus ratiocinator."]
[SMO13]
L. Smolin (2013). My hero: Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. The Guardian, 2013.
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[CHU]
A. Church (1935). An unsolvable problem of elementary number theory. Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, 41: 332-333. Abstract of a talk given on 19 April 1935, to the American Mathematical Society.
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[First explicit proof that the Entscheidungsproblem (decision problem) does not have a general solution.]
[TUR]
A. M. Turing. On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem. Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, Series 2, 41:230-267. Received 28 May 1936. Errata appeared in Series 2, 43, pp 544-546 (1937). [2nd explicit proof that the Entscheidungsproblem (decision problem) does not have a general solution.]
[TUR21] J. Schmidhuber (AI Blog, Sep 2021). Turing Oversold. It's not Turing's fault, though.
[POS]
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J. Schmidhuber (2000).
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More.
See also:
Hierarchies of generalized Kolmogorov complexities and nonenumerable universal measures computable in the limit.
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PDF.
More.
See also:
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Proc. COLT 2002.
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[DEC] J. Schmidhuber (AI Blog, 2020). The 2010s: Our Decade of Deep Learning / Outlook on the 2020s.
[HAI14]
T. Haigh (2014). Historical reflections.
Actually, Turing did not invent the computer.
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[HAI14b]
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[ZU36]
K. Zuse (1936).
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[First patent application describing a general, practical, program-controlled computer.]
[ZU37]
K. Zuse (1937). Einführung in die allgemeine Dyadik. [Mentions the storage of program instructions in the computer's memory.]
[ZU38]
K. Zuse (1938). Diary entry of 4 June 1938.
[Description of computer architectures that put both program instructions and data into storage—compare the later "von Neumann" architecture [NEU45].]
[ZU48]
K. Zuse (1948). Über den Plankalkül als Mittel zur Formulierung schematisch kombinativer Aufgaben.
Archiv der Mathematik 1(6), 441-449 (1948).
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[Apparently the first practical design of an automatic theorem prover (based on Zuse's high-level programming language Plankalkül).]
[ZU67]
K. Zuse (1967). Rechnender Raum,
Elektronische Datenverarbeitung,
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PDF scan.
[ZU69]
K. Zuse (1969).
Rechnender Raum,
Friedrich Vieweg & Sohn,
Braunschweig, 1969.
English translation:
Calculating Space, MIT Technical Translation AZT-70-164-GEMIT,
MIT (Proj. MAC), Cambridge, Mass. 02139, Feb. 1970.
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[BRE]
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J. Schmidhuber.
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PDF.
HTML.
HTML overview.
Download
OOPS source code in crystalline format.
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A. Newell and H. Simon.
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R. Rojas (1998). How to make Zuse's Z3 a universal computer. IEEE Annals of Computing, vol. 19:3, 1998.
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S. Faber (2000). Konrad Zuses Bemühungen um die Patentanmeldung der Z3.
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An influential 1951 conference in Paris considered the computer as a model of—and for—the human mind.
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[SHA7a]
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[SHA7b]
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[ZUS21]
J. Schmidhuber (AI Blog, 2021). 80th anniversary celebrations: 1941: Konrad Zuse completes the first working general computer, based on his 1936 patent application.
[ZUS21a]
J. Schmidhuber (AI Blog, 2021). 80. Jahrestag: 1941: Konrad Zuse baut ersten funktionalen Allzweckrechner, basierend auf der Patentanmeldung von 1936.
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Der Mann, der den Computer
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[LIL1]
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[LIL2]
US Patent 1900018 by Austrian physicist Julius Edgar Lilienfeld: "Device for controlling electric current." Filed on 28.03.1928. [The patent describes a thin film field-effect transistor.]
.