The first hacker, 70 years on
The original meaning of hacker included “A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities”, “One who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively)” and even “One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations”. These are all descriptions of Konrad Zuse, who probably qualifies as the world’s first hacker. He graduated as an engineer in 1935, found a job but quit after a few months to build a “computing machine” to perform “tedious calculations”, based on ideas he had been pursuing during his studies. He took over his parents loungeroom, and over the next 3 years built a large cabinet holding over 20,000 parts, metal pins and hand cut metal sliders (his friends also helped cut them). It was a 1 hertz machine (powered by a vacuum cleaner motor), and programmed by holes punched in old movie film. It could perform a multiplication in 5 seconds and was the first working programmed computing device .
Like many prototypes, as Zuse said, “It just never worked right.” as the metal sliders frequently jammed. In design, it is clearly a computer , and unlike the first American computer it was both programmable (not configured by cabling), and binary (input numbers were not stored as base 10 but converted to base 2).
So 70 years on from then, we now recognize the 67th anniversary of what was truly the first reliable programmable computer. On May 12, 1941 , 67 years ago , Zuse debuted his Z3, the world’s first general-purpose digital computer, a fully automated, program-controlled and freely programmable machine (having ditched steel sheets for relays). Unlike some early computers, it was quite small - only the size of 3 refrigerators!
Zuse continued on his hacking way, defining the first programming language Plankalkuel (which was finally implemented 55 years later), and founding a computer company, which grew to 1000 employees and later pioneered the use of magnetic memory. After losing a 15 year fight for a patent on his computer ideas, he sold his company and became a reclusive painter.
He was rediscovered in the 1980s, turned his mind to wind power but unfortunately died before he published his ideas.
While the Z3 was destroyed during the war it was rebuilt later in the 1960s. The Z1 was rebuilt in the 1980s, but like the first version it had similar reliability issues.
So the Z1 was buggy hardware. What testing feature did the Z3 have? Amazingly enough it had a debug mode, allowing a programmer to stop the execution and examine the values stored in the machine! I was lucky enough to meet a German post-graduate student who had met Zuse in the 1980s, but most people have not even heard of him. Next time someone has a new software product they are creating, how about naming it Zuse?