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The World’s First Computer Startup

konrad-zuse全球首家计算机初创企业 The digital computer has many fathers, some better known than others… but two of them stand out: Alan Turing in the UK, and Konrad Zuse in Germany. These two took very different approaches to inventing the computer, and comparing their stories leads to interesting insights.

Presenting the First Computer

Konrad Zuse (1910-1995) was a young civil engineer in 1935, when he decided to develop his Z1 computing machine. This consisted of 30,000 flat sheet metal parts cut by hand. Everything was mechanical: the memory, the processor… an entire computer made from a ton (literally) of interlocking metal parts. Check out this animation to get the idea.

And what a computer it was! The Z1 used Boolean logic and binary floating point numbers. Today every computer does, but in 1938 it was unheard of. Its successor, the Z3 (1941), was the first programmable, Turing-complete automatic computer. And although these machines did not store program instructions in memory, Zuse also anticipated the stored program concept in two patent applications from 1936, and created the world’s first high level programming language in 1945.

Presenting the First Computer Startup

Unlike the early computers in the US and the UK, which resulted from major projects involving academia, corporations, and lavish military funding, Zuse’s business was a true “Garage Startup”. He built the Z1 in his parents’ living room, using funding from family and friends, who also pitched helped saw those 30,000 pieces. Zuse did the design from scratch, without access to previous research; and while he had a commercial purpose in mind he had no customers lined up. He was driven by a vision, and after the Z1 he continued to develop ever stronger machines.

Zuse’s life as an independent entrepreneur was hardly helped by being isolated in a country at war. His first prototypes were destroyed in the bombing of Berlin, and he barely made it with his family and the Z4 computer to a village where he lacked the electricity to power it. So, what was for some years the only computer in Europe remained crated in a barn, waiting for better days. Yet as soon as conditions changed he regrouped and created a successful new company which continued to develop and sell mainframe computers through the 1960’s. A real entrepreneur always keeps trying!

Same goal, two paths: Zuse and Turing

UK London -- 1951 -- Portrait of the famous early computer inventor and war hero Alan Mathison Turing ( 23 June 1912 – 7 June 1954 ). His work at Bletchley Park in World War II was instrumental in cracking the Nazi Enigma code - which was a major factor in the Battle of the Atlantic -- Picture by Elliott & Fry/Lightroom Photos

The story of Alan Turing (1912-1954), is much better know today, following the recent appearance of books, movies, and efforts by the UK to atone for its persecution of him. Turing also has a strong claim to the birth of the computer, and of the science behind it. But although Turing and Zuse both started their work in their mid-twenties, in 1936 – Turing with his seminal paper “On computable numbers”, and Zuse by starting work on the Z1 – They took very different paths.

Turing was a mathematician and philosopher, and his initial approach was motivated by a desire to understand the theory computability. By contrast, Zuse was an engineer intent on building a useful machine he could sell. Both converged on the precursors of the computers we know today, but from opposite directions. And then there’s the fact that Turing had a deeper quest – a desire to fathom the mysteries of the human brain – which Zuse didn’t share.

Another difference is that Turing – who was also eager to build a working computer – started later but got there on a faster trajectory. His first design, the Pilot ACE, went operational in 1950 and was based on vacuum tubes while Zuse – despite years of head start – was still using relays and mechanical memory. The use of vacuum tubes on a large scale was at the time considered bleeding edge technology of unproven reliability. Turing’s presence in the wartime code-breaking effort, where vast resources were assigned to developing the tube-based Colossus, exposed him to the feasibility of this technology, whereas Zuse, working in isolation in war-torn Europe, had rejected proposals to use electronics precisely because he doubted their reliability. Not being an Electrical Engineer must have added to his preference for mechanical systems – Turing wasn’t one either but he was surrounded by many electronics wizards at Bletchley Park. In this instance, being part of the “heavy” military apparatus allowed better innovation than being agile and independent!

On the other hand, Zuse did have more of the attributes of the entrepreneur – the intense risk-taking, the inner drive, the willingness to fail and try again. Just think – can you even imagine the sheer courage it took him, to quit his paying job on the faith that he can design a computer – something no human had done before – and then cut by hand 30,000 intricate metal plates and assemble them into a functional device? With no government funding, no academic backing, no assured market… would you be willing to take such a risk? If you would, you may qualify to become a startup founder!

Zuse and Turing had never even heard of each other in those days. Yet I wonder, what would happen if there were no war, and they were to get in the same room in 1936? Could they find common ground to discuss their so different approaches? Might they have decided to leverage their different skills, join forces, and become an unbeatable startup founder pair with Zuse as CEO and Turing as CTO?

What would you give to be a fly on the wall of that room?

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