Who invented the computer?

If you ask someone in the United Kingdom the question “who invented the computer?”, then one of the most likely answers is “Charles Babbage”.

But, as I was reminded last week during the opening speech of a “Computer Art” exhibition, people in Germany would give a different answer.  Most of them would probably answer with “Konrad Zuse”.

So why the difference?

A mechanical calculator - ©Can Stock Photo Inc. / friendlydragonOne reason might be that each country looks to its own citizens and their inventions.  The telephone is a similar example.  Whilst people in the UK and USA will tell you that it was Alexander Graham Bell who invented the telephone, most people in Germany – especially in the Taunus region – say that it was Philipp Reis.

The truth is usually that both Babbage and Zuse had a hand in the development of the computer at some time.  Babbage devised a machine that would perform calculations (“difference engine”) and later one that could be programmed using punch cards (“analytical engine”).  His machines were mechanical, and would be operated by turning a wheel on a crank shaft.

Zuse on the other hand worked with electronics.  He built his first computer, the “Z1”, in the 1930s.  It was programmed using punched tape, and he went on to develop the Z2, Z3 and Z4.

What made these machines different to computers in other countries, was that Zuse was already using binary methods in his machines, ie. the computer did not count from 0 to 9, but only used 0s and 1s to represent numbers.

But even when other countries did start developing binary computers, such as the Colossus at Bletchley Park, they were programmed by plugging in cables.  By this time, Zuse was using punched film to program his computers, making them more flexible as the program could be changed much easier.

You might at this point be wondering why Zuse is therefore not more well known?  The fact, is that until some years ago, even in Germany his name was relatively unknown outside the computer industry.

His machines Z1, Z2 and Z3 were all destroyed during the Second World War.  The Z4 survived and was even evacuated, along with its inventor, to the same village in southern Bavaria as Werner von Braun was hiding in.

Yet in a quirk of history, the allied forces were more interested in Braun’s rocket science than they were in Zuse’s computer.

After the war Zuse did go on to successfully manufacture computers with his own company, which he eventually sold to Siemens.  The Z4 saw an active life in Switzerland and later in France.  It is now in the German museum in Munich.

But whilst his machines were used in the German industrial sector for many years, they were not widely exported.  And so it is, that unless you live in Germany or have studied the history of computing, you’ve probably never heard of Konrad Zuse.

On reflection though, would you have answered “Babbage”?


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About Graham

Graham Tappenden is a British ex-pat who first came to Germany as a placement student in 1993, returning in 1995 to live there permanently. He has been writing for AllThingsGerman.net since 2006. When not writing blog posts or freelancing for the Oberurseler Woche and other publications he works as a self-employed IT consultant solving computer problems and designing websites. In 2016 he gained German citizenship.


  1. Richard Morley says

    So, ignore your innovators at your peril. If the Enigma machine has used Zuse´s electronics rather than being a mechanical encoder / decoder, the course of history could have been very different.

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