Bringing back the first computers: The world's greatest restoration projects

Z1 - Stiftung Deutsches Technikmuseum

In the 1930s a 26-year-old German named Konrad Zuse was looking for a way to automate tedious calculations that took up so much of his time as a civil engineer.

Zuse created the Z1, a mechanical calculator that could add, subtract, multiply and divide and was programmable using punched 35mm film tape.

The machine offered many features still found in computers today, such as a control unit, a 64-word mechanical memory, floating-point logic and input-output devices.

The Z1 could handle 22-bit floating point numbers, had a 64-word memory and had nine instructions in its instruction set, which took between one and twenty cycles per instruction to execute.

Numbers were input as decimal numbers, were converted into binary so mathematical operations could be carried out and then converted back into decimal.

The original Z1 was destroyed in a bombing raid on Berlin and Zuse followed it up with further machines, the electro-mechanical Z3 and Z4. He also began work on the world's first high-level language "Plan Calculus".

The Z1 destroyed during the war was reconstructed by a 79-year-old Zuse in 1989, and is on show at the Stiftung Deutsches Technikmuseum in Berlin.

Later on, a team from the museum led by Professor Raul Rojas began a virtual reconstruction of the Z1.

Through the meticulous research of Professor Rojas, a team of his students was able to construct a 3D visual simulation of the Z1's arithmetic unit, which they made available online alongside hundreds of high resolution photos of the machine.

The virtual recreation was the joint winner of the Tony Sale Award. The judging panel said: “Z1 Architecture and Algorithms is a remarkable vision of how such complex artefacts might be delivered to a worldwide audience. It is a project that will undoubtedly give museum curators pause for thought.”

© SDTB / Foto: Frank-Michael Arndt

By Nick Heath

Nick Heath is a computer science student and was formerly a journalist at TechRepublic and ZDNet.