Howard Aiken

If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.
Lewis Carroll

Howard Aiken (1900-1973)
Howard Hathaway Aiken (1900-1973)

Sometime in 1936 or possibly in early 1937, the Harvard physician Howard Aiken started to make plans about an automatic calculation machine. The shift came about while he was doing research for his thesis. The subject of the thesis was space charge. Before long his thesis research came to consist primarily of solving nonlinear (differential) equations. The only methods then available for numerical solutions to problems like his made use of electromagnetic desk calculators, and calculations like those he needed were extremely time-consuming. It became apparent to Aiken that the labor of calculating could be mechanized and programmed and that an individual didn’t have to do this. He also realized that a computing machine would be of great use in solving pressing problems in many scientific fields, in engineering, and even in the social sciences.

As Aiken had been fully aware that making such a computer a reality would require money and a lot of it, he decided to go to one of the biggest manufacturers of mechanical and electromechanical calculators in the USA—the Monroe Calculating Machine Company. On 22 April 1937, Aiken presented to the Chief Engineer of Monroe—George Chase, his plans to provide automatic computation in:
• the four rules of arithmetic;
• pre-established sequence control;
• storage and memory of installed or computed values;
• sequence control that could automatically respond to computed results or symbols, together with a printed record of all that transpires within the machine;
• recording of all the computed results.

Aiken was encouraged by Chase’s enthusiastic support of his project. Chase went to his management at Monroe and he did everything within his power to convince them that they should go ahead with this project, although it would be an expensive development. He had the vision and foresight to recognize that the proposed machine would be invaluable in the company’s business in later years. But, although the Chief Engineer could see this, his management after some months of discussion turned him down completely.

Aiken was not tied to the relay technology at all. He was a student of Chaffee, a specialist in vacuum tubes and vacuum-tube circuits, and was aware of this technology. So why wasn’t Mark I an electronic device? The answer is money. Aiken was aware, that it was going to take a lot of money. When he applied for the financial support of Monroe, he was ready to make his computer out of mechanical parts and relays. If an electronic company had been interested, it might have been electronic. And finally, it was made out of tabulating machine parts, only because IBM was willing to pay the bill.

Monroe’s decision not to support Aiken’s project was certainly a blow, but Aiken must have been heartened by Chase’s enthusiasm for the new machine. Furthermore, it was Chase who suggested that Aiken turn for help to Professor Theodore Brown at Harvard, a close associate of Thomas J. Watson, president of IBM. Thus Aiken made successful contact with IBM. Brown recommended Aiken to IBM’s senior engineer Bryce, who approved his project and recommended that his dream machine be built. Bryce’s opinion was crucial to IBM’s decision and gained president Watson’s support for the Harvard calculator project.

Aiken prepared a formal proposal titled Proposed Automatic Calculating Machine (see Aiken’s proposal). It occupied 22 double-spaced typed pages and opens with a brief history of aids to calculation, a discussion of Babbage’s engines, mentions of the difference engines of Scheutz, Wiberg, and Grant, and a brief account of Hollerith’s invention of punched-card tabulating, counting, sorting, and arithmetical machinery. It is known that Henry Babbage, the son of Charles Babbage, assembled about six small demonstration pieces for Difference Engine Number 1, and one of them he sent to Harvard, which was known to Aiken. Later he wrote that on seeing the machine “he felt that Babbage was addressing him personally from the past”.

Aiken observes also that the machines manufactured by IBM have made it possible to do daily in the accounting offices of industrial enterprises all over the world the things Babbage wished to accomplish. Aiken then turns to the need for more powerful calculating methods in the mathematical and physical sciences.
Aiken outlined the areas of use of his computer—theoretical physics, radio communication and television, astronomy, the theory of relativity, and even the rapidly growing science of mathematical economy and sociology.
Aiken specified four design features that differentiated ordinary punched-card accounting machinery and calculating machinery as required in the sciences:
1. A machine intended for mathematics must be able to handle both positive and negative quantities, whereas accounting machinery is designed almost entirely for problems of positive numbers.
2. Calculating machinery for mathematical purposes must be able to supply and utilize many kinds of transcendental functions (e.g., trigonometric functions), elliptic functions, Bessel functions, and probability functions.
3. For mathematics, a calculating machine should be fully automatic in its operation once a process is established. In calculating the value of a function in its expansion in a series, the evaluation of a formula, or numerical integration (in a solution of a differential equation), the process, once established, must continue indefinitely until the range of the independent variables is covered usually by successive equal steps.
4. Calculating machinery designed for mathematics should be capable of computing lines instead of columns, since often, in the numerical solution of a differential equation, the computation of a value will be found to depend on preceding values. This is actually the reverse of the way in which existing calculating machinery is capable of evaluating a function by steps.
Aiken concludes that these four features are all that are required to convert existing punched-card calculating machines (such as those manufactured by IBM) into machines specially adapted for scientific purposes.
In the conclusion of his proposal, Aiken estimates that the machine will multiply a three-significant-figure number by an eight-significant-figure number (zeros not counted) in about 3 seconds. Multiplying an eight-significant-figure number by another eight-significant-figure number will take about 5 seconds. He proposes that there be 23 number positions (10 to the left of the decimal point and 12 to the right, and an extra position to indicate the sign—plus or minus). Clearly, he was thinking of a fixed rather than a floating decimal point. Aiken is reported to have said later that his reason for having 23 digits was that he intended to recompute the planetary orbits. Aiken proposes that the results of computations be printed out in tabular form so that they can then be printed by photolithography, thus eliminating errors that arise when numbers are copied by hand from a machine and those that occur during the various stages of typing, typesetting, proofreading, and printing from type.

At the beginning of 1938 Aiken started his investigations in IBM, and later on, began the official contacts between IBM and Harvard representatives, but the final agreement had been drawn up and signed as late as by 31 March 1939. IBM agreed to construct for Harvard an automatic computing plant comprising machines for automatically carrying out a series of mathematical computations adaptable for the solution of problems in scientific fields, the machine was called ASCC (Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator), but later on, it became also known as Harvard Mark I. The construction began in May 1939 at the IBM laboratories at Endicott, New York, and was supposed to prolong two years, but actually, the construction required almost five years. Mark I was completed and ran its first problem in Endicott in January 1943. It was moved to Harvard (see the lower photo) and became operational in March 1944. In August 1944, IBM formally presented the machine to Harvard. The total cost of the machine to IBM is usually reckoned to be around $200,000, which was a very large sum of money for the time.

Mark I at Harvard
Mark I at Harvard

A senior engineer from IBM, Clair Lake, was assigned to oversee the project. Francis Hamilton was responsible for most of the practical decisions, and Benjamin Durfee did most of the actual wiring and assembly of the components. Beginning in 1938, Aiken spent long weekends and two whole summers in Endicott, explaining the operations the machine would have to perform and helping design the circuits that would let it execute the commands. Over the next years, he also spent many days in Endicott helping translate his requirements into machine componentry. It was soon apparent that although the IBM engineers who were assigned to the task of translating Aiken’s theoretical specifications into practical machine reality were extremely gifted men, skilled in circuits and componentry, they knew very little mathematics. They could not really understand the kinds of problems the new machine was being designed to solve.

In April 1941 Aiken, as an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve, was called to active duty, so he could no longer pay regular visits to Endicott. He designated Robert Campbell, a graduate student in physics at Harvard, to serve as his deputy during the final stages of construction. Campbell played an important role in February 1944, when the giant machine was disassembled and shipped from Endicott to Harvard, where it was installed in a large room in the basement of the Physics Research Laboratory. He was in full charge of the machine until Aiken was assigned to Harvard by the Navy in the spring of 1944, and he programmed and ran the first problems. He also took responsibility for working out all the initial problems of error and unreliability.

The first two problems set for the new machine were to calculate some integrals and tables. In May 1944 the machine was turned over to the Navy for the duration of the war and became an official unit of the Bureau of Ships under Aiken’s command. By August the Mark I was in full operation with a large staff of Navy personnel, including a number of officers, among them Grace Hopper and Richard Bloch, who became the chief programmer. There was a funny story, that namely Grace Hopper found the first computer “bug”: a dead moth (see the lower photo of notes from Hopper) that had gotten into the Mark I and whose wings were blocking the reading of the holes in the paper tape. The word “bug” had been used to describe a defect since at least 1889 but Hopper is credited with coining the word “debugging” to describe the work to eliminate program faults.

The first "bug"
The first “bug”

In 1944 and 1945 Mark I ran almost continuously, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. The wartime problems the machine was asked to solve included studies of magnetic fields associated with the protection of ships from magnetic mines and mathematical aspects of the design and use of radar. No doubt the most important wartime problem was a set of calculations for implosions brought from Los Alamos by John Von Neumann. Only a year or more later did the staff learn that these calculations had been made in connection with the design of the atomic bomb. The outstanding success and backlog of jobs of the computer led the Navy to ask Aiken in early 1945 to design and construct a second such machine. Aiken did so. It became known as Mark II.

Mark I was gigantic, an imposing sight, 2.5 m. high, 16 m. long, and almost 1 m. deep. It weighed five tons and contained 760000 parts, used 530 miles of wire and 3000000 wire connections, 3500 multiple relays with 35000 contacts, 2225 counters, and 1484 ten-pole switches. Relying on technology developed by IBM for statistical and accounting business machines, it used traditional IBM parts such as electromagnetic relays, counters, cam contacts, card punches, and electric typewriters but also incorporated elements of a new design, including relays and counters never before used in an IBM machine. These were smaller and faster than those in use. The input consisted of a punched tape, and the output was a series of punched cards or a printout from a standard IBM electric typewriter.

Its operation was powered by a long, horizontal, continuously rotating shaft that made a hum that has been described as being like that of a gigantic sewing machine. The shaft rotated with some 3 revolutions per second. The storing and calculating devices of the machine had a word length of 23 decimal digits, with a twenty-fourth place reserved for an algebraic sign. Calculations were done in decimal numbers with a fixed decimal point.

Mark I (left part)
Mark I (left part)

A typical line of coding in the program would instruct the machine to take the number in a given input register (either a constant or a number in the store) and enter it in some designated register in the store. If there already was a number in that register, the new number would be added to it. Programs were fed into the machine by punched tape. The programmer first reduced the problem to a sequence of mathematical steps and then used the “code book” (stating the designation of each location and each operation) to translate each step into the necessary coding or instructions. The instructions were essentially single-address instructions. Those who wrote programs for Mark I later recalled that the process was very much like programming later computers in machine language. After preparation of the program by means of the code book, the programmer passed on the information to the operator, who perforated appropriate tapes. There was also a special contact board, which can change the links between the modules of the computer, some kind of hardcoded logical reprogramming of the machine.

ASCC (Harvard Mark I) drawing
IBM ASCC (Harvard Mark I) drawing

The machine consists of 7 basic modules, arranged from left to right (see the upper drawing), as follows:
1. Two sections with 60 registers for the input of numerical data (the constants that appear in any algebraic or differential equation), each containing 24 dial switches corresponding to 23 digits and 1 for sign (plus/minus). The location of each of these 60 registers was assigned a number so that the instructions could use the location to identify a number being called up in the course of a calculation. For any problem, these had to be set by hand.

2. Seven sections, containing 72 additional registers (called accumulators, because they can not only store numbers but also add and subtract, actually the subtraction is performed by adding). Each register was made up of 24 electromagnetic counter wheels, again providing the capacity for 23-digit numbers, with one place reserved for a sign. This second set of panels comprised both the store or storage and the processing unit. Adding and subtraction required 1 cycle of the machine (some 330 mS). 70 of the accumulators are general-purpose, 2 are of special-purpose, very interesting is the last accumulator, by means of which can be done something like conditional operator (after comparing two numbers). A more powerful conditional operator however was added to the Mark I after 1945, when was added a second tape reader for commands.

3. Three sections with the arithmetical (multiplying and dividing) devices. There were separate devices for multiplication and division.

4. Two sections with functional counters. They maintained function interpolation and logarithms, trigonometric functions, and printing.

The tape reader of Mark I
The tape reader of Mark I

5. Three sections with interpolators, each with a separate tape reader, which is reading data for functions.

6. A section for sequence control. It maintains the work of the machine, during problem-solving.

7. In the rightmost sections are electrical typewriters, a tape reader for commands, and the card puncher. The typewriters printed the final solution to the problem. The card puncher automatically punches cards with data. The tape had 24 columns (i.e. 24 holes in a row). One row of data required 4 rows (23 digital positions and 1 for the sign for each number, each position required 4 holes, 24×4=96). There are four tape readers. One was used to feed the instructions into the machine, and the other three held tables of functions and could supply values as needed. There was also a provision for the interpolation of values given on the tapes. Thus there were built-in “subroutines” (as Aiken called them) providing for a number to be converted by some built-in function (such as sine, an exponential, a logarithm, or raising to some power) before being entered into the store.
The coding of commands required 1 row of tape, which can be divided into 3 parts (8 positions each). In the first part (so-called out-field) is specified from which register to get the operand. In the second part (in-field) is specified where to go the result. In the third part (op-field) is specified code of operation, if it is necessary (e.g. for adding and subtraction it is not necessary, because the accumulators are adding by default). 8 holes are enough (28=256) for addressing all addressable devices—72 accumulators, 60 constant registers, typing machines, punchers. etc.)

Mark I (right part)
Mark I (right part)

The multiplication was performed not by consecutive adding, as with most mechanical calculators, but using a mechanism, proposed by Babbage a long time ago—when the multiplying device read the multiplicand, it immediately calculates its nine products with the numbers from 1 to 9 and writes them in accumulators. Then it reads the multiplier and one by one reads appropriate products from the accumulators and adds them, shifting left for tens, hundreds, etc.

Although similar in many ways to later machines, Mark I incorporated one feature that today’s sequenced program computers do not have: If you did not explicitly tell Mark I to go ahead and execute the next instruction, it stopped. Programmers had to enter a seven after each command to instruct the computer to proceed. If the machine didn’t get that signal or some other automatic signal, it just stopped dead and waited for directions. From some points of view, this was a tremendous advantage; for example, it was wonderful for debugging step by step. Mark I was the only sequenced program computer to include this feature.

The chief programmer, Dick Bloch, kept a notebook in which he wrote out pieces of code that had been checked out and were known to be correct. One of his routines computed sines for positive angles less than π/4 to 10 digits. Rather than use the slow sine unit built into the machine, Grace Hopper simply copied Bloch’s routine into her own program whenever she knew it would suit her requirements. This practice ultimately allowed the programmers to dispense with the sine, logarithm, and exponential units altogether. Both Bloch and Bob Campbell had notebooks full of such pieces of code. Years later the programmers realized that they were pioneering the art of subroutines and actually developing the possibility of building compilers.

Mark I continued to function at Harvard for 14 years after the war, producing useful work until it was finally retired in 1959. During that time, it also served generations of students at Harvard, where Aiken had established a pioneering program in what was later to be called computer science—with courses for undergraduates and graduate students leading to a master’s degree or a Ph.D. Many important figures in the computer world were introduced to the subject on Harvard Mark I.

In retrospect, Mark I’s greatest significance may have lain in its dramatic public demonstration that a large-scale machine could actually perform an automatic sequence of calculations according to a program, and do so without error. Mark I did not, however, influence later computer technology as a machine since its computing elements were made of electromagnetic relays rather than vacuum tubes, such as were used in ENIAC, and thus lay outside the path to the future of computers.

Because Mark I used mechanical and relay technology, it was very slow. It produced results faster than conventional computing methods could but not nearly as fast as machines to be unveiled soon afterward, such as ENIAC. Addition or subtraction required one machine cycle, taking some 0.3 seconds. Multiplication required 20 cycles, or 6 seconds, and division could take as much as 51 cycles, or more than 15 seconds. Because of this, in later models division was handled by the multiplication of reciprocals.

Although Mark I was slow, it not only was programmed, rather than being hard-wired for each problem, but was also extremely versatile. Whereas ENIAC was restricted in its original design by the mission of computing ballistic tables, Mark I could accommodate a large variety of programs.

Aiken built three later machines at Harvard. Mark II, like Mark I, used relays as its operating components; Mark III pioneered in using magnetic drum memory and some solid state elements, along with vacuum tubes. Mark IV had magnetic core memory and was all electronic, using selenium solid-state devices and, later, ones made of germanium.

One of Mark III’s unusual features was its automatic coding machine. This unit had a tremendous array of keys corresponding to various subroutines that were stored inside it. If a programmer needed to find the sine of a number, for example, all he or she had to do was to hit the sine key and the whole sine routine would automatically enter into the program. As Grace Hopper recalled, “In other words, Mark III had what today would be called a compiling machine. With this magnificent keyboard you essentially could punch in the program you wanted to run in a form very similar to mathematical notation.” Apparently, this was the only such coding machine ever built.

Nevertheless, these machines did not set the pace for the development of computer architecture in the years after World War II. One reason was that Aiken steadfastly opposed the use of a single store for both instructions and data, which became a central feature of post-World War II computers.

What, finally, was Aiken’s importance and influence? It comes down to four principal achievements. First, he demonstrated that it was possible to produce a machine to be programmed to execute a series of commands in a predetermined sequence of operations—without error. The widespread publicity that surrounded the dedication of Mark I gave notice to the world of the dawn of the computer age.
Second, Aiken’s lectures all over the world on the importance of computers and their potential uses were extremely important in gaining support for the development of computers. Third, he initiated the application of computers to data processing—not just mathematical problems- including computer billing and accounting, for instance, for electric and gas companies.
Finally, he established at Harvard the world’s first full-fledged graduate program in what is known today as computer science, and it served as a model for programs at other universities. The roster of Aiken’s pupils is astonishing. It includes two of the chief designers of IBM’s System/360 and a number of present and former chairmen of computer science departments. Among others who received their training or apprenticeship under Aiken were Grace Hopper, pioneer of the compiler and certain computer languages; An Wang, founder of the computer company that bore his name; and numerous Europeans who came to spend time working in Aiken’s Harvard Computer Lab and learning the art and science of the computer.
Some historians of the computer believe that this last, the establishment of computer science as a legitimate and recognized part of university curricula and research programs, may have been more important than anything else Aiken did. He opened the curtain on the computer age, and then he filled the stage with some of its greatest players. In so doing, he built a monument more lasting than brass, of longer duration than any single machine. He was a true computer pioneer.

Biography of Howard Aiken

Howard Aiken as young
Howard Aiken around 1920

Howard Hathaway Aiken was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, on 8 March 1900, as the only child in the family of Daniel Hathaway Aiken (5 May 1864–14 Sep 1935), from a wealthy and well-established Indiana family, and Margaret Emily Mierisch-Aiken (1874-1961), a child of German immigrants. When Howard was just entering his teens, he moved, with his parents and his maternal grandparents, to Indianapolis.

Daniel Aiken was addicted to alcohol and, during fits of drunkenness, would physically abuse his wife. During one such episode, young Howard, already large and strong at the age of 12, grabbed a fireplace poker and drove his father out of the house. The family never saw Daniel Aiken again.

Once the father had disappeared, the paternal relatives would have nothing more to do with young Howard or his mother and did not help them financially. Aiken was in the ninth grade when it became his responsibility to support his mother and grandmother. This meant that he would have to leave school and go to work. He got a job installing telephones (12-hour shifts) and began to take correspondence courses. One of his teachers, however, having seen signs of Aiken’s intellectual brilliance, especially in mathematics, went to see Mrs. Aiken to plead that her son returns to school. Because of the family’s pressing financial needs, Mrs. Aiken could not acquiesce. The teacher then found Aiken a night job (Howard was very fond of this job because he had to work only 8 hours every night!) as an electrician’s helper for the Indianapolis Light and Heat Company, so he would be able to attend school during the day.

Aiken completed his studies at the Arsenal Technical High School in Indianapolis in 1919. Then he was offered a job with the Madison Gas and Electric Company and decided to go to the University of Wisconsin. Aiken and his mother moved to Madison, where he enrolled in a program in electrical engineering at the university. In college, as in high school, Aiken won the respect of his teachers. To support his mother and himself, he worked on the night shift as a switchboard operator for the Madison Gas and Electric Company, while attending college during the day. In 1923 he was awarded a B.S. degree in electrical engineering.

After his graduation from Wisconsin, Aiken was promoted to the position of chief engineer in the Madison Gas and Electric Company. In 1927 Aiken resigned from this company to enter the Central Station Division of the Westinghouse Electrical and Manufacturing Company as a general engineer, engaged in the application of the company’s products to designing electric generating stations. In 1931 he resigned from Westinghouse to become a district manager of the Line Material Company in Detroit, Michigan.

Despite his success, he found the managerial side of engineering unsatisfying and decided to go back to school. In 1932 he went first to the University of Chicago, where he matriculated as a graduate student in physics in the autumn of 1932 and where he remained for only two quarters of the regular academic year because he didn’t like the Chicago program. In the autumn of 1933, he began his graduate studies at Harvard, where received his A.M. in physics in June 1937 and completed his thesis (Theory of Space Charge Conduction) in the autumn of 1938. He was awarded his Ph.D. in physics at the winter commencement in February 1939. Namely, during the creation of his doctoral thesis, he got the idea of creating of an automatic computer (see the computers of Aiken). Aiken began teaching at Harvard as an Instructor in Physics and Communication Engineering in the academic year 1935/36, before he received his master’s degree. He was to become an associate professor of applied mathematics in 1941 and a full professor in 1946.

Aiken about 1960
Howard Aiken around 1960

In 1961 (see the nearby photo from this time), Aiken took advantage of Harvard’s policy of allowing faculty members to retire early-that is, to retire at age 60 with full benefits, without having to wait until he was 66. By then, in certain respects, Aiken had become a conservative figure in the world of computing. In the 1950s, at the age of fifty-plus, he was already “old” by the standards of this rapidly advancing science, art, and technology. Computer science and invention had become a young man’s game. Even in the years just after the war, many of the major advances had come from young men, trained in the new electronics of radar, rather than in classical electrical engineering, as was the case with Aiken.

Howard Aiken was a giant of a man in force of will, originality of mind, and achievements. Standing almost two meters, he had a huge dome of a head, piercing eyes, and huge, somewhat satanic eyebrows. He judged others rigorously and he related to others in extremes. Some colleagues and some former students remained devoted to him for the rest of their lives; others tend to remember only occasions when he was intransigent and difficult. When Aiken came in contact with an equally strong and assertive character, such as Thomas J. Watson Sr., president of IBM, then the conflict was inevitable.

Aiken contributed to the early computing years by demonstrating that a large, calculating computer could not only be built but could also provide the scientific world with high-powered, speedy mathematical solutions to a plethora of problems. Aiken is also well known for his 1947 comment, “Only six electronic digital computers would be required to satisfy the computing needs of the entire United States.” His biographers however cannot confirm this not-so-prophetic prediction.

Aiken with a piece of Difference Engine
Aiken with a piece of Difference Engine

Howard Aiken was married three times. The first marriage was in May 1937 to Louise Mary Mancill (1906-1989). The family had one daughter, Rachel, but the couple divorced in 1942. Aiken married a second time in January 1943, to a high school Latin and French teacher—Agnes Montgomery (Monty). They had one daughter also: Elizabeth, but this marriage also ended with a divorce in 1961. Aiken married a third time in 1963 to a teacher in the elementary schools of Boston—Mary McFarland (they had no children).

After retirement, Aiken moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he was given an appointment at the University of Miami as a Distinguished Professor of Information. This did not require any teaching responsibilities but gave him an office. He then became a business entrepreneur, (founded a New York-based consulting firm, Howard Aiken Industries Incorporated), taking over ailing businesses and nursing them back to financial good health, whereupon they were sold. He also kept up his computer activity, serving as a consultant to Lockheed Missiles and Monsanto (who were exploring the potentialities of magnetic bubbles for computer technology). His final contribution in the computer domain was a means of encryption of data to provide security of information.

This extraordinary man died on 14 March 1973, in St. Louis, while on a consulting trip to Monsanto Co.

Konrad Zuse

The best way to predict the future is to invent it.
Alan Kay

Konrad Zuse (1910-1995)
Konrad Zuse (1910-1995)

While studying civil engineering at the Technical College (Technischen Hochschule) of Berlin Charlottenburg Konrad Zuse stumbled upon a serious problem, during his work with the construction of buildings and roads. This type of construction require solving huge systems of linear equations, which was very hard to be done by means of a logarithmic rule or even a mechanical calculator at this time. Zuse recalled later:
I was a student in civil engineering in Berlin. Berlin is a nice town and there were many opportunities for a student to spend his time in an agreeable manner, for instance with the nice girls. But instead of that, we had to perform big and awful calculations.

Some time in 1934 the young Kuno (as his friends used to call him) started thinking about computers. After his graduation from the Technical College in 1935, he started as a design engineer at the Henschel Flugzeugwerke (Henschel aircraft factory) in Berlin-Schönefeld, but resigned a year later, deciding to devote himself entirely to the construction of a computer.

Konrad Zuse (on the right) and Helmut Schreyer working on the Z1 in the apartment of Zuse's parents
Konrad Zuse (on the right) and Helmut Schreyer working on the Z1 in the apartment of Zuse’s parents

In the middle 1936 Kuno arranged a workshop in the apartment of his parents. He was helped not only by his parents, who allowed him to use the largest room of their apartment as a workshop and gave him some money (although his father was a post office clerk and didn’t have much money), but also by his sister Lieselotte, and several of his fellow-students and friends. Thus he managed to collect several thousand marks for materials, moreover, some of them practically helped him in the workshop. The most innovative was his friend Helmut Schreyer (1912-1984), who will play important role in the construction of Zuse’s computers.

The first computer of Konrad Zuse—V1 (Z1)

Construction of the Z1 in the apartment of Zuse's parents
Construction of the Z1 in the apartment of Zuse’s parents

In 1936 Zuse finished the logical plan for his first computer, the V1 (V for Versuchsmodell—experimental model). In fact, all the first computers of Zuse were named with V (V1 to V4), but after WWII he changed their names to Z1 to Z4, in order to avoid the nasty association with the V1-V4 military rockets. The manufacturing began in the same year and the prototype was ready in 1938 (see the nearby photo), making the Z1 the first relay computer in the world.

Z1 was a machine of about 1000 kg weight, which consisted of some 20000 parts. It was a programmable computer, based on binary floating point numbers and a binary switching system. Z1 consisted completely of thin metal sheets, which Kuno and his friends produced using a jigsaw. The only electrical unit was an electrical engine with a power of 1kW, which was used to provide a clock frequency of one Hertz (one cycle per second), actually, it had also a crank for manually cycling the machine. Z1 consisted of six basic units: Control unit; Arithmetical unit; Input/Output; Memory; Memory selector; Tape reader (see the lower drawing).

The punch tape and punch tape reader are used for the programming Z1. The control unit supervised the whole machine and the execution of the instructions. The arithmetic unit (with two registers—R1 and R2) was an adder, and all the operations were internally reduced to additions or subtractions. The memory, which consisted of 64 words, each containing 22 bits, was formed from three blocks. The first block contained 64 words for the exponents and signs (8 bits for each word). The other two blocks each contained 32 words for the mantissa (14 bits for each word). The selection unit interpreted the address for the memory, managed by the control unit. The input device was a keyboard, numbers were presented to the machine in a decimal form with an exponent, then they were converted to binary normalized floating-point representation and transferred to the memory. Similarly, the output device converted the binary floating point number in Register R1 into a decimal number with an exponent and showed them on an annunciator.

The Z1’s programs (Zuse called them Rechenplans—Calculating Plans) were stored on punch tapes by means of an 8-bit code. The instruction set of the Z1 consisted of eight instructions as follows:

A block of Z1 (© Horst Zuse)
A block of Z1 (© Horst Zuse)

1. Two instructions for input/output:
Lu—to call the input device for decimal numbers
Ld—to call the output device for decimal numbers
2. Two instructions for reading/writing from/to memory:
Pr z—read the contents of the memory cell z into Registers R1 or R2
Ps z—write the contents of Register R1 to the memory cell z
3. Four arithmetical instructions:
Ls1—add the two floating-point numbers in the Registers R1 and R2
Ls2—subtract the two floating-point numbers in the Registers R1 and R2
Lm—multiply the two floating-point numbers in the Registers R1 and R2
Li—divide the two floating point numbers in the Registers R1 and R2

The first reliable model—Z2

When in 1936 Konrad invited his friend Helmut Schreyer to come and see his machine, Helmut came, saw his strange plates, and expressed spontaneously: “You have to do this with tubes.” The first reaction of Kuno was negative—”this is another one of the mad schnapsideas (drink ideas) of my friend!”. With tubes can be built radio equipment, but calculating machines? Almost at the same time, the same idea came to the mind of the American physicist John Atanasoff, and he will be the first man to build an electronic computer.

The young engineers Konrad Zuse (left) and Helmut Schreyer (right)
The young engineers Konrad Zuse (left) and Helmut Schreyer

Zuse and Schreyer continued to work together on the mechanical models, but Schreyer’s idea was not dead. Schreyer wrote his doctoral thesis on this topic at the Institute for Research of the Technical University Berlin Charlottenburg and created several logical circuits with tubes. In 1938 Zuse and Schreyer demonstrated the electronic circuits to some german scientists and even exposed their idea of building an electronic computer, but when they mentioned that such a device will require some 2000 tubes and several thousand glow lamps, this was categorized as a “fantasy”. The largest electronic devices of this time consisted of several hundred tubes. Later on, Schreyer will try again in vain to interest the authorities in their work, proposing to the army to build an electronic computer for the airforce from about 2000 tubes, but when he explained that 2 years will be enough to manufacture the machine, the reaction was “We will win the war long before your computer will be ready, why bother?”.

Zuse was unsatisfied with the reliability of the binary switching metal sheets used in the Z1, especially in the arithmetical unit. He was acquainted with relays, used in telecommunications, but indeed Schreyer was the one, who had a big experience with the relays and switching schemes as a telecommunications specialist. The friends made some approximate considerations, but they showed, that a relays computer will require several thousands of relays, so a room full of relay cabinets seemed unacceptable to them. Besides that, the relays were too expensive for the scarce funding of Zuse. That’s why he decided to construct his second computer, Z2, with arithmetic and control units made by relays, but to keep the mechanical memory of Z1 (this will also require less space). He managed to find 800 old relays from phone companies and with the help of his friends fixed them to be suitable for his purpose. These old relays will become a reason for a lot of problems with reliability later on.

Trying to find funding, in 1937 Zuse got into contact with the former manufacturer of mechanical calculators—Kurt Pannke. The first contact was a failure, Dr. Pannke said to him: “…at the field of computing machines virtually everything, until the last possible approaches and sophisticated devices, has already been invented. There is hardly anything left to invent.” Nevertheless, Dr. Pannke agreed to visit the workshop of Zuse and was so impressed by his work, that decided to grant him seven thousand Reichsmark, which made it possible for the work to continue.

The manufacturing of Z2 began in 1938 and the prototype was ready the next year. Z2 was quite similar to Z1, with the following differences:
1. The Z2’s arithmetic unit consisted of a 16-bit fixed-point engine.
2. Schreyer proposed to use a 36-mm film tape, instead of the paper tape of Z1.
3. The memory is smaller—16 cells with 16 bits each.
4. The Z2 is faster than the Z1—3 Hz clock rate.

The instruction set of the Z2 consisted of the same eight instructions as Z1. Z2 worked reliably enough for arithmetic calculations. So Zuse was convinced his next computer, Z3, to be built completely out of relays.

As early as 1937 Zuse has already devised the idea of a full “von Neumann” type machine, despite the fact, that his first relay computers are not “von Neumann” machines (they didn’t have the “stored-program” ability). Zuse was aware of this fault, as well as of another important one—the lack of conditional branch instructions, but can you try to imagine a computer with 64 words memory to be a “stored-program” machine? Can you try to imagine a computer, with a processor, built from metal plates, to have internal conditional branch instructions? I cannot! It was too early and Zuse didn’t have the needed resources, to make such a machine.

At the same time, Zuse developed the theoretical base of his computers. He was acquainted with the binary digital system of Leibniz (so-called Dyadik), but he didn’t know anything about George Boole and his algebra. He had to study not only Boole, but also the mathematical logic of Hilbert, Frege, Schröder, and other logicians. Unfortunately, he missed Babbage and his notation, which could make his research much easier. Finally, he developed his own system and called the notation “Conditional Combinatoric” (Bedingungskombinatorik).

The first workable programmable computer in the world—Z3

In 1940 Z2 was successfully demonstrated to the Deutschen Versuchsanstalt für Luftfahrt and Zuse obtained partially funding for the development of his third computer, Z3, which he began to build in 1939. Z3 (see the lower photo) was ready in the spring of 1941, and in May 1941, it was presented to scientists in Berlin. Z3 was built completely out of relays (600 for the arithmetic unit, 1400 for the memory, and 400 for the control unit). In all other aspects, it was similar to Z1 and Z2: it used a binary numeral system and floating-point numbers, a floating-point arithmetic unit with two 22-bit registers, the storage capacity of 64 words with 22-bit word length, control via 8-channel tape (i.e., a command consisted of 8 bits). The input was via a special keyboard. Output by displaying the results on the light stripe including the location of the decimal commas. It was a little bit faster—5,33 Hz. The principle of work of the machine, however, was improved, introducing some parallelism: a 22-bit word of data could be moved from the memory to the Register R1 and vice versa in one step (clock cycle). The same holds true for the arithmetic unit, where, amongst other things, parallel adders were used.

The reconstructed Z3 computer of Zuse in Deutschen Museum, München
The reconstructed Z3 computer of Zuse in Deutschen Museum, München

The arithmetic unit of the Z3 was Zuse’s masterpiece. The instruction set of the Z3 consisted of nine instructions, the same eight instructions of Z1 and Z2, and one additional—Lw (square root). Division and square root needed 20 cycles (about four seconds), multiplication—16 cycles (about 3 seconds), and addition and subtraction—less than a second. Actually internally all the arithmetic operations are reduced to addition or subtraction (subtraction is an addition of the complement of one number and the number). The multiplication algorithm is like the one used for decimal multiplication by hand. That is, it is based on repeated additions of the multiplicator according to the individual digits of the multiplicand. The division algorithm is similar to that for multiplication, except that repeated subtraction is used. The square root was calculated by a division. The Z3 included also the ability to perform arithmetic exception handling. Zuse even provided the possibility of micro-sequencing and pipelining of the instructions, and a carry-look ahead circuit for the addition operation, in order to minimize the execution time (later on Zuse will improve this mechanism, designing a program look-ahead mechanism, i.e. program can read two instructions in advance, and test them to see whether memory instructions can be performed ahead of time).

The S1 and S2 Computers

After the development of Z3, Zuse received an order from his first employer—Henschel aircraft company for the development of a specialized computer for measuring the surface of the wings of airplanes. The machine S1 was ready in 1942 and contained approximately 600 relays and had hardware-wired programs. The company ordered another machine, which was ready in 1944. S2 was the successor of the S1 and consisted of approximately 800 relays and about 100 dial gages in order to measure the surface of the wings. The S2 can be regarded as the first process computer in the world.

The Z4 Computer

In 1942 Zuse started the development of his next computer—the Z4. The goal of the Z4 was to build the prototype for a machine, that was intended to be produced in the thousands. The lack of materials, however, and a tragic situation in Germany (it was wartime and Berlin was attacked almost every day by bombers), made this task almost impossible. In March 1945 Zuse eventually fled from Berlin with his pregnant wife Gisela and the semi-finished Z4 computer. He arrived at Hinterstein, Bavaria, and hid the computer in a barn. He desperately wanted to resume work on the Z4, but his first problem was to survive the years after the war. In order to get some food, he made woodcuts and sold them to the farmers and the American troops. The Z4 was reassembled as late as 1948. The next year Zuse was contacted by prof. Eduard Stiefel from ETH-Zürich, who inspected the machine and found it suitable for scientific calculations. Despite of the little bit old-fashioned technology of Z4 (at the same time in the USA are developed electronic computers), Stiefel was impressed by the simplicity of programming and the powerful arithmetic unit with its exception handling capability, that’s why he decided to buy the Z4. Encouraged by this, Zuse founded his own company (Zuse KG) and started to build an improved version of Z4 for EHT, adding a conditional branch capability, instructions for printing the results on a Mercedes typewriter or a punch tape, storing numbers on the punched tape in order to transfer them into the Z4’s memory, writing results on a punch tape and others. Restoring the Z4 cost the Zuse KG about 60000 DM. The ETH paid an amount of around 100000 DM. With this money, it was possible to find the Zuse KG and restore the Z4. (It is worth mentioning that the average income at this time was about 180 DM per month.) The Z4 was a great success for both the ETH and the Zuse KG.

The Z4 computer of Zuse in ETH-Zürich
The Z4 computer of Zuse in ETH-Zürich

The Z4 in Zürich was put into action in September 1950 and proved to be reliable. To the surprise of all, the memory of Z4, consisting of thousands of metal sheets, screws, and pins, was the most reliable feature of the machine. The Z4 worked very reliably and also worked during the night without supervision, something unbelievable at this time. The improved Z4 consisted of about ten relay cupboards containing 2200 standard relays, plus 21 stepwise relays for the micro-sequencer. The Z4’s memory was a mechanical one with 64 words, each containing 32 bits. The structure of the mechanical memory was similar to the memory of the Z1 (and Z2 and Z3). However, while the Z1 had a word length of 22 bits, the word length of the Z4 was extended to 32 bits. Each word was directly addressable by the instructions on the punched tape.

The Z4 made use of a unit called a Planfertigungsteil (program construction unit), which was used to produce punch tapes, containing instructions for the Z4 in a very easy way. For this reason, it was possible to learn the programming of the Z4 in as little as three hours. The Z4 had a large instruction set in order to calculate complicated scientific programs. The arithmetic processor was a powerful binary floating processor. The set of instructions is as follows:
1. Instructions for Input: <-At1, etc.: These allow numbers to be read from the punched tape.
2. Instructions for Output: ->DL, etc.: These instructions cause binary numbers to be converted into their decimal equivalents and the results to be displayed with lamps, on the MERCEDES typewriter as floating or fixed point numbers, or on the punch tape.
3. Instruction for reading from memory: A n. For example A 17. This reads the contents of memory cell 17 into the Register R1. If Register R1 is occupied, then the contents are loaded into Register R2.
4. Instruction for writing to memory: S n. For example S 18. This writes the contents of Register R1 into memory cell 18.
5. Dyadic operations: +, -, x, /, MAX, and MIN.
6. Monadic operations: x2, SQR(x), 1/x, | x | , sign(x), x*1/2, x*2, x*(-1), x*10, x*3, x*1/3, x*1/5, x*1/7, x*Pi, x*1/Pi.
7. Instructions for comparison: x = 0, x >= 0, | x | = infinity test the value in Register R1 and set Register R1 to +1 if the condition is fulfilled, if not, then the contents of Register R1 are set to –1.
8. A conditional branch instruction: SPR. The instruction SPR skips the punched tape to the instruction ST, if Register R1 contains +1 (if Register R1 contains –1 then there is no impact).
9. Instructions for switching the punch tape readers (the Z4 had two punch tape readers).

Like the Z3, the Z4 supported powerful arithmetic exception handling. The computing times were: addition and memory access, half a second; multiplication, 3 seconds; division and square root, 6 seconds; overall performance, 2000 instructions, or 1000 arithmetic operations per hour.

Zuse KG continued to manufacture relays computers—Z5 (1952), Z7, and Z11 (1954) drawing computer Graphomat Z64 (1957). As late as 1957 Zuse decided to change the relay technology with electronics. The Z22 was ready in 1958 and was an electronic computer (based on vacuum tubes), it was also the first “stored-program” computer of Zuse. In 1961 the Zuse KG launched the Z23, which was a powerful transistor computer with almost the same logic as the Z22. The next computer of Zuse was the Z31, which contained a decimal arithmetic unit, and it was specially designed with banking and commercial applications in mind. In 1964 was launched the Z25 computer, which was a small and cheap machine that would be suitable for many different applications. The last computer of Zuse was Z43 (1964), a modern transistor computer with TTL logic. In 1958, Zuse designed a parallel computer, which was never built. He called it the Feldrechenmaschine (field calculation machine) consisting of 50 processors.

Konrad Zuse was a genius as an engineer, but not so good as an entrepreneur. Since the beginning of the 1960s Zuse KG got deeper and deeper into financial difficulties and in 1964 was bought by the steel company Rheinstahl, but continued to manufacture computers till 1969, when was bought by Siemens AG. The Zuse KG sold about 250 computers from 1949 to 1969 with a value of some 100 Million DM.

Plankalkül—the world’s first complete high-level language

From 1942-1946 (at the same time as he was developing the Z4 computer), Zuse was also developing ideas as to how his machines could be programmed in a very powerful way (that is, more powerful than arithmetic calculations only). In addition to pure statements for number calculations, Zuse also used rules of mathematical logic. On the one hand, he used the powerful predicate logic Boolean algebra as language constructs. On the other hand, he developed a mechanism to define powerful data structures, commencing with the simple bit (binary digit) and working up to complicated hierarchical structures. In order to demonstrate that the Plankalkül language could be used to solve scientific and engineering problems, Konrad Zuse wrote dozens of example programs. In his notes, one can find the sorting of lists, search strategies, relations between pairs of lists… He even used more than 60 pages to describe programs for chess-playing and predicted, that in some 50 years a computer can beat the human world chess champion. It proved to be an amazingly true foresight.

Zuse used an unusual technique for the statements in Plankalkül. Each data item was denoted with V (variable), C (constant), Z (intermediate result), or R (result), an integer number to mark them, and a powerful notation was used to denote the data structure of the variable. Zuse used the word plan for the program. The highlights of Plankalkül are:
1. Data types: floating point, fixed point, complex numbers; arrays; records; hierarchical data structures; list of pairs.
2. Assignment operation, for example: V1 + V2 => R1.
3. Conditional statement, for example: V1 = V2 => R1. This means: Compare the variables V1 and V2: If they are identical then assign the value true to R1, otherwise assign the value false. Such operations could also be applied to complicated data structures.
4. Possibility for defining sub-programs.
5. Possibility for defining repetition of statements (loops).
6. Logical operations (predicate logic and Boolean algebra).
7. Operations on lists and pairs of lists.
8. Arithmetic exception handling.

Biography of Konrad Zuse

Konrad Zuse (1910-1995)
Konrad Zuse (1910-1995)

Konrad Zuse was born on 22 June 1910, in Berlin (Wilmersdorf), the capital of Germany, in the family of a Prussian postal officer—Emil Wilhelm Albert Zuse (26.04.1873-14.05.1946) and Maria (Crohn) Zuse (10.01.1882-02.07.1957). Konrad had a sister, two years elder Lieselotte (1908-1953).

In 1912, the Zuse family left for Braunsberg, a sleepy small town in east Prussia (now Braniewo in Poland), where Emil Zuse was appointed a postal clerk. From his early childhood Konrad started to demonstrate a huge talent, not in mathematics, or engineering, but in painting (look below at the fabulous chalk drawing nearby, made by Zuse in his school time).

Konrad went too young to school and enrolled in the humanistic Gymnasium Hosianum in Braunsberg. After his family moved to Hoyerswerda (Hoyerswerda is a town in the German Bundesland of Saxony), he passed his Abitur (abitur is the word commonly used in Germany for the final exams young adults take at the end of their secondary education) at Reform-Real-Gymnasium in Hoyerswerda. After graduation, the young Konrad falls into a state of uncertainty, about what to study later—engineering or painting. The film Metropolis by Fritz Lang from 1927 impressed pretty much Konrad. He dreamed to design and build a giant and impressive futuristic city like Metropolis and even started to draw some projects. So finally he decided to study civil engineering at the Technical College (Technischen Hochschule) in Berlin-Charlottenburg.

Zuse's school-time drawing
Zuse’s school-time drawing

During his study, he worked also as a bricklayer and bridge builder. During this time the traffic lights were introduced into Berlin, causing total chaos in the traffic. Zuse was one of the first people, who tried to design something like a “green wave”, but was unsuccessful. He was also very interested in the field of photography, and designed an automated system for the development of band negatives, using punch cards as accompanying maps for control purposes. Later on, he devised a special system for film projections, the so-called Elliptisches Kino.

The next major project of the young dreamer was the conquest of space. He dreamed to build bases on the moons of the outer planets of the Solar System. In these bases will be built a fleet of rockets, each with a hundred or two hundred people passengers, capable to fly with a speed one-thousandth the speed of light, so as to reach the nearest fixed star for thousand years.

The future city Metropolis, the automatic photo lab, the elliptical cinema, the space project—all these are only a small part of the technical ideas, preparing the invention of the computer. After his graduation from Technischen Hochschule in 1935, he started as a design engineer at the Henschel Flugzeugwerke (Henschel aircraft factory) in Berlin-Schönefeld, but resigned a year later, deciding to devote himself entirely to the construction of a computer. From 1935 to 1964 Zuse was almost entirely devoted to the development of the first relay computer in the world, the first workable programmable computer in the world, the first high-level computer language in the world, etc.

In January 1945 Konrad Zuse married one of his employees—Gisela Ruth Brandes (1919-2013). On 17 November 1945 was born their first son—Horst, which will follow his eminent father and will get a diploma degree in electrical engineering and a Ph.D. degree in computer science. Later on were born Monika (1947-1988), Ernst Friedrich (1950-1979), Hannelore Birgit (1957) and Klaus-Peter (1961).

An oil painting from Konrad Zuse (1979) (Source:
An oil painting from Konrad Zuse (1979) (Source:

After 1964, the Zuse KG was no longer owned and controlled by Konrad Zuse. It was a heavy blow for Zuse to lose his company, but the active debts were too high. In 1967 he received another blow because the German patent court rejected his patent applications and Zuse lost his 26-year fight about the invention of the Z3 with all its new features (see the Zuse’s first patent application from 1941).

But in the 1960s the retired Zuse was still a man, full of energy and ideas. He started to write an autobiography (published in 1970), made a lot of beautiful oil paintings (see the nearby image), reconstructed his first computer (Z1), etc. In 1965, he was given the Werner von Siemens Award in Germany, which is the most prestigious technical award in Germany. In 1965 Konrad Zuse received the Harry Goode Memorial Award together with George Stibitz in Las Vegas.

Konrad Zuse with the project of his Helix-Tower (Source:
Konrad Zuse with the project of his Helix-Tower (Source:

In 1992 Zuse started his last project—the Helix-Tower (see the nearby image), a variable height tower, for catching the wind in order to produce energy in an easier way, build from uniformly shaped and repeatable elements. The propeller and wind generator had to be mounted on the top of the tower. Zuse used a very elegant mechanical construction and immediately received a patent for this in 1993. The height of the tower could be modified by adding or subtracting building blocks.

Konrad Zuse must be credited (alone or with other inventors) for the following pioneering achievements in the computer science:
1. The use of the binary number system for numbers and circuits.
2. The use of floating point numbers, along with the algorithms for the translation between binary and decimal and vice versa.
3. The carry look-ahead circuit for the addition operation and program look-ahead (the program is read two instructions in advance, and it is tested to see whether memory instructions can be performed ahead of time).
4. The world’s first complete high-level language (Plankalkül).

The remarkable man and inventor Konrad Zuse died from a heart attack on 18 December 1995, in Hünfeld, Germany.

Friedrich Reinitzer (LCD display)

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
Leonardo da Vinci

Friedrich Reinitzer and Otto Lehmann

Like many other technological gadgets, modern LCD technology is not an invention of a single man and has not happened in a year or two.

In 1888 the Austrian botanist and chemist Friedrich Richard Kornelius Reinitzer (1857-1927) (see the left image), experimenting with cholesteryl benzoate extracted from carrots, discovered a strange behavior of what would later be called liquid crystals. He published his findings at a meeting of the Vienna Chemical Society in May 1888. Later for the explanation of their behavior he collaborated with the german physicist Otto Lehmann (1855-1922) (see the right image), who actually devised the name “liquid crystals” in his 1904 work, named “Flüssige Kristalle” (Liquid Crystals), an in-depth study of the phenomena with many illustrations of the equipment used, drawings of the crystal structures and photographs taken through the microscope. Their discovery received plenty of attention at the time, but no practical uses were apparent and the interest dropped soon.

In 1911 the french professor of mineralogy Charles-Victor Mauguin (1878–1958) made the first experiments on liquids crystals, confined between plates in thin layers.

The first practical application of liquid crystals happened in 1936 when the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company patented its Liquid Crystal Light Valve.

Sharp's EL-805, the first portable calculator
Sharp’s EL-805, the first portable calculator, 1973

In the 1960s several other inventors and companies worked on the development of LCDs. In 1967 American inventor and business entrepreneur James Lee Fergason (1934-2008) discovered the “twisted nematic” LCD and produced the first practical displays. In 1968 the American RCA Corporation produced an LCD display, based on the dynamic scattering display (DSM) of liquid crystals. In 1971 the company ILIXCO (now LXD Incorporated) produced the first LCDs. In 1972, the first active-matrix liquid crystal display panel was produced in the USA by the physicist Tamás Peter Brody. In 1973 the Japanese company Sharp produced EL-805, the first portable calculator, using a DCM LCD screen. In 1979, Walter Eric Spear and Peter LeComber created the first color display using a lightweight thin film transfer (TFT) LCD. In 1985, Seiko-Epson produced the first commercial LCD color TV set (with a 2-inch view).

The modern liquid crystal display (LCD) is a flat and thin panel, used for displaying information on watches, phones, monitors for computers, televisions, and numerous other electronic devices. Among its major features are its lightweight construction, portability, and ability to be produced in much larger screen sizes than are practical for the construction of cathode ray tube (CRT) display technology.

Ajay Bhatt (USB interface)

Nature is pleased with simplicity. And nature is no dummy.
Isaac Newton

Ajay Bhatt (born 1957)
Ajay Bhatt (born 6 September 1957)

In 1990, while installing a new printer on his wife’s computer (she wanted to print school materials for their child), the 33 years old Indian-American techie Ajay Bhatt, who had just started as a senior staff architect on the chipset architecture team of Intel, was confronted with a huge frustration: connecting new peripheral devices (such as printers, modems, joysticks, and scanners), was a time-consuming headache. If this situation was frustrating for Bhatt, who worked at the forefront of computer development at the chip giant, we could only imagine how difficult it was for average users.

In those ancient times, the poor computer users had to negotiate a maze of competing plug designs on the back of their computers, install new drivers and often open up the machine to add a new computer card. This was followed by a tedious process of trial and error, which required repeated rebooting of the computer system and fine-tuning until everything worked properly.

Fortunately, Bhatt saw an opportunity to simplify the process greatly. He looked to the wall sockets for inspiration, seeking to imitate their simplicity.

Getting there was anything but easy. Simplifying the digital Babylon that preceded USB involved convincing nearly every computer and gadget maker in the world to get on board with a single type of cable, creating a sort of universal language that lets all computer hardware connect.

Intel produced the first integrated circuits supporting USB in 1995. The original USB 1.0 specification, which was introduced in January 1996 (USB standard evolved through several versions before its official release starting with USB 0.8, released in December 1994), defined data transfer rates of 1.5 Mbit/s (Low Speed) and 12 Mbit/s (Full Speed). Then in 2001 USB 2.0 defined 480 Mbit/s, in 2008 USB 3.0 defined 5 Gbit/s, and in 2019 USB 4.0 defined 40 Gbit/s. Concerning USB connectors, only Type C connector is recommended at the moment, all other types are in deprecated status.

Today, the least tech-savvy consumer can attach printers, scanners, cameras, and other peripheral devices to PCs easily, simply by plugging them into the ubiquitous Universal Serial Bus (USB) ports found on every platform.

Paul Eisler (Printed Circuit Board)

The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.
Eric Hoffer

Paul Eisler (1907-1992)
Paul Eisler (1907-1992)

After the remarkable genius and self-taught Viennese engineer and inventor Gustav Tauschek, another Viennese engineer and inventor, named Paul Eisler, made a significant contribution to the modern electronics industry and computers with the invention of the printed circuit board (PCB) while working in London in the second half of the 1930s.

The Austrian Jew Paul Eisler was born in Vienna on 3 August 1907. After graduating with an engineering degree from Technische Universität Wien (Vienna University of Technology) in 1930, already a budding inventor, he didn’t manage to find a proper job in Austria. In 1934, Eisler accepted a workplace in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, to design a radio-electronic system for a train, but that job ended when the customer offered payment in grain instead of currency 🙂

Back in Austria, Eisler wrote for newspapers and founded a radio journal, and began to learn about printing technology. Printing was a fairly robust technology by the 1930s, and Eisler started to imagine how the printing process could be used to lay down electronic circuits on an insulating base, and do so in volume. At the time, it was usual to interconnect all components in electronic devices with hand-soldered wires, an error-prone method of manufacture, which did not lend itself to any high degree of automation. Eisler wanted to eliminate these problems, printing the wires on a board, and mounting the elements over it.

In 1936 Eisler decided to leave Austria, in order to escape persecution from Nazists. He secured an invitation to work in England based on two patent applications he had already filed: One for a graphical sound recording and one for a stereoscopic television with vertical resolution lines.

In London, he managed to sell the TV patent for ₤250, enough money to live for a while in a Hampstead boarding house, which was a good thing, because he couldn’t find a job. He proceed to develop his printed circuit board idea, and one telephone company really liked it, at least initially, because it would have eliminated those bundles of wiring used for phone systems back then. But then the big boss told him that the manual wiring work was being done by “girls” and “girls are cheaper and more flexible.” That’s the holy truth, the girls are always much more flexible than a circuit board 😉

First printed circuit board of Paul Eisler, 1942
First printed circuit board of Eisler, 1942

Eisler didn’t find a piece of good fortune in England though. As WWII loomed, he worked at getting his family out of Austria. His sister committed suicide and when the war began, in 1940 the British interned him as an illegal alien. Even locked up, this brilliant engineer began to fabricate a radio using a printed circuit board (see the nearby photo).

After being released in 1941, Eisler was able to find a job in a music printing company—Henderson and Spalding. Originally, his objective was to perfect the company’s unworkable Technograph music typewriter, operating out of a laboratory in a bombed-out building. Later, Technograph invested in his printed circuit idea (the concept of using etched foil to lay down traces on a substrate). Unfortunately, Eisler forfeited rights to his invention when he neglected to read the contract before signing it, but it wasn’t the first or last time Eisler would be taken advantage of. It was a pretty standard employment contract in that he agreed to submit any patent right during his employment for a nominal fee (one pound sterling) but it also gave him 16.5 percent ownership of Technograph.

Eisler’s first boards look much like plates of spaghetti, with almost no straight traces. He (together with Harold Vezey Strong, a London printer) filed his first patent application in London on 2 February 1943, and later applied for and received patents in several countries, for example, see his US patent (No. 2441960).

Technograph drew no interest until the United States incorporated the technology into work on the proximity fuzes of shells, which was vital to counter the German V-1 flying bomb. After that, Eisler had a job and a small amount of fame. After the war, technology spread. The U.S. mandated in 1948 that all airborne instrument circuitry was to be printed.

Eisler’s 1943 patent application was eventually split into three separate patents: 639111 (Three-Dimensional Printed Circuits), 639178 (Foil Technique of Printed Circuits), and 639179 (Powder Printing). These three were published on 21 June 1950, but very few companies actually licensed the patents, and Technograph had financial difficulties. Eisler resigned from Technograph in 1957, to work as a freelancer.

Among his projects as a freelancer, were films to heat “floor and wall coverings” and food, the foil battery, concrete molds, the pizza warmer and rear window defroster, and more, but Eisler was not so successful in their commercialization. Later he found success in the medical field and died with dozens of patents to his name.

Herman Hollerith

From error to error, one discovers the entire truth.
Sigmund Freud

Herman Hollerith (1860-1929) in 1880
Herman Hollerith in 1880

In 1879 the bright and unmanageable teenager Herman Hollerith (1860-1929) graduated with distinction from the School of Mines at Columbia University in New York and went to work as a special agent for the US Census Office in Washington, D.C. One of his professors of engineering, William P. Trowbridge (1828-1892), engaged for the Census as an expert special agent, got the job for him. The 1880 census was about to begin, and the Census Bureau needed employees with mathematical and engineering backgrounds.

Although the 1880 census had taken only a few months, the work of tabulating and analyzing the data promised to drag on for years. By the time it was done, the census reports would be hopelessly out of date; the government would be lucky enough to finish in time for the next census in 1890. Since the country’s population, swelled by immigration, was growing by the millions, the 1890 census undoubtedly would take even more time and money. The situation was getting out of control and the Census Bureau was casting about for a solution.

In his spare time, Hollerith helped Dr. John Shaw Billings (1838-1913), a surgeon and head of the division of vital statistics of the Census, to compile his reports. Billings appreciated the young man’s help and invited him to dinner one Sunday night in August of 1881. That proved to be a cornerstone event in the life of Hollerith, as he recalled later:
One Sunday evening, at Dr. Billings’ tea table, he said to me there ought to be a machine for doing the purely mechanical work of tabulating population and similar statistics. We talked the matter over and I remember… he thought of using cards with the description of the individual shown by notches punched in the edge of the card…. After studying the problem I went back to Dr. Billings and said that I thought I could work out a solution for the problem and asked him would he go in with me. The Doctor said he was not interested any further than to see some solution of the problem worked out.

Tackling the problem on his own, Hollerith decided to study the Census’s procedures. In the first step of the count, enumerators called at every household unit and recorded the answers to their questions on large sheets of paper (known as schedules). The completed schedules were sent back to Washington, where an army of clerks transcribed the answers to tally sheets. For example, for every white male on a schedule, a slash mark was placed in a small box on a tally sheet, five slashes to a box. It was easy to add up the slashes on a tally sheet since the form was divided into large boxes that contained a specific number of small boxes. The clerks totaled up the completed large boxes and noted the number of slashes at the bottom of the sheet. In the next step, the tally totals were transferred to consolidation sheets, whose figures were combined to yield the population of the county, state, and finally, of the whole nation.

The 1880 enumeration required six tallies, one for every major statistical classification. In the first tally, the Census broke down the population by sex, race, and birthplace; in other tallies, it collated these statistics with literacy, occupation, and other characteristics. Every time a tally was called for, the clerks had to sift through the schedules all over again, and there were millions of schedules. The process was remarkably slow and expensive, not to mention prone to error. Moreover, it prevented the Census from performing sophisticated analyses of the data.

The first tabulator from 1890
The first tabulator of Hollerith from 1890

Almost everything post- and pre- census work were done by hand. The only mechanical aid was a simple contraption called the Seaton device, invented by Charles W. Seaton, the Census’s chief clerk. It consisted of a continuous roll of tally sheets wound on a set of spools in a wooden box. By zigzagging the roll around the spools, it brought several columns of a sheet close together, making it easier for the clerks to enter the slashes. Completed rolls were removed from the box, cut into separate sheets, and consolidated numerically. Even with the Seaton device, the 1880 census took nearly an entire decade to tabulate and publish.

In 1882, Hollerith became an instructor in mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he started building his first tabulating system (a year later he returned to Washington to become an examiner for the Patent Office). Initially, he made a mistake, deciding to use punched tape instead of cards. The tape was run over a metal drum, under an array of metal brushes; whenever the brushes passed over a hole, electrical contact was made with the drum, advancing a counter. A separate counter was set up for each statistical category, and the totals were displayed by a number on the counter. Anyway, the first system was a huge improvement over tally and consolidation sheets; once the data on the schedules had been converted into a punched tape, many items could be tabulated in a single, fast run of the tape, in contrast to the one, two, or three items that could be collated on a tally sheet at any time.

The card reader of Hollerith
The card reader of Hollerith

Although this system was a big step forward, Hollerith soon realized that he had made a serious mistake: paper tape was a flawed medium, severely limiting the tabulator’s speed and flexibility because of its serial access. For example, if you wanted to retrieve from a tape a particular piece of information, or related pieces of information, you’d have to sift through the (entire) reel. Moreover, once you found the data, there was no way to isolate it for future reference (other than cutting the tape into pieces). It seems Hollerith came to a dead end, forgetting Billings’ idea of punch cards. However, once he was traveling in the West and as he recalled later “…and I had a ticket with what I think was called a punch photograph…. The conductor… punched out a description of the individual, as light hair, dark eyes, a large nose, etc. So you see, I only made a punch photograph of each person.” (Punched photographs discouraged vagrants from stealing passengers’ tickets and passing them off as their own.) Thus Hollerith rediscovered the idea on his own.

The decision to use cards led Hollerith to redesign his initial system. He designed a special puncher (a pantograph punch consisting of a template and two connected punches); when the operator punched the template, the second puncher perforated the card. The card reader was a small press made up of an overhead array of pins and an underlying bed of tiny cups of mercury; when the operator slipped a card into the press and pulled down on the handle, the pins passed through the holes into the mercury, closing electrical circuits that advanced the counters (each completed circuit caused an electromagnet to advance a counting dial by one number), 40 simple clock-like dials set into a wooden table. When the bell signaled the card had been read, the operator recorded the data on the dials, opened the card reader, removed the punch cards, and reset the dials.

The sorter of Hollerith
The sorter of Hollerith

The sorter was simply a box with several compartments, positioned next to each tabulator. When a card with a desired set of characteristics passed through the reader, a box on the sorter opened up, and the operator slipped the card into it, then reset the dials, and positioned a new card to repeat the process. An experienced tabulator clerk could process 80 punch cards per minute.

Hollerith intended to power his tabulators with batteries and recharge them through the power outlet. In 1884 he applied and in 1889 received his first patent for a tabulator (US pat. No. 395783), for a tabulator with paper tape. On the same date, he received his first patent for a tabulator with punched cards (US pat. No. 395781).

The Census Office was impressed with Hollerith’s work, but it decided to conduct an official test of the system before making a commitment. The trial in 1888 pitted Hollerith’s machines against the “chip” system of Charles Pidgin (Pidgin invented the first electromagnetic calculating machine in the world) and the “slip” system of William C. Hunt, both Census officials. In the chip system, data from the schedules were transcribed to colored cards; in the slip system, the information was written onto slips of paper in colored inks. In both cases, the cards and slips were counted by hand. The competition called for the transcription and tabulation of a thick sheaf of schedules, compiled during the 1880 census, covering 10491 people in St. Louis. There were two parts to the trial: the time required to transcribe the schedules and the time required to tabulate the data. Surprisingly, Hollerith’s system smashed the rivals. It showed its greatest advantage in the tabulation portion of the test, completing the job eight to ten times faster than the hand-counted slip and chip methods.

Pleased with the results, the Census ordered 56 tabulators and sorters, and Hollerith was in big business. Hollerith’s machines went to work in July 1890, shortly after the completion of the head count of the census. The first task was a general tally of the population, and Hollerith devised a special counter for the job, a typewriter-like device equipped with twenty keys, numbered 1 to 20. The clerks read the schedules, which represented only one family per sheet, then pressed the key signifying the number of people on the schedule. Some operators handled 9200 schedules, listing 50000 people, in a single day. By 16 August, only six weeks after the count had begun, the Census had a tally: 62,622,250. With great pride and fanfare, the figure was officially announced in October, and everyone was suitably amazed.

Hollerith’s punch card system received a great deal of attention in the popular and scientific press in the USA and abroad and was featured on the front tape of the 30 August 1890 issue of Scientific American (see it nearby).

Compared to the 1880 census, which had taken nine years and cost $5.8 million, the 1890 count was completed in fewer than seven years, but it had cost $11.5 million, twice as much. Under the circumstances, there was some controversy about the benefits of automation. The Census, which had paid only $750,000 in rental fees for Hollerith’s equipment, ascribed the financial disparity to the expense of running a far more careful and thorough statistical analysis of the raw data. Indeed, the Census estimated that it had actually saved about $5 million in labor costs.

The 1890 tabulator was capable only of counting. Subsequent models, developed by Hollerith, were also able to add, thus broadening their scope to accounting, warehousing, and shipping applications. Between 1902 and 1905, Hollerith also developed an automatic card feed and a method for reading cards in motion and settled on a standard card format.

Hollerith’s system was promptly adopted all over the world. In late 1890, Austria, then Russia, Canada, and France ordered several tabulators and sorters for their census. After some initial resistance, the private industry began using them too. Swamped with paperwork, large companies like the Chicago department store, the New York Central Railroad Company, and the Pennsylvania Steel Company moved the equipment into their accounting and inventory departments.

In 1892 Hermann Hollerith moved his fledgling tabulating machine business from downtown Washington, D.C., to a former cooper’s shop in the Georgetown section of the city. The two-story building (later expanded) housed Hollerith’s card manufacturing plant, assembly plant, repair shop, and development laboratory. In 1896, Hollerith incorporated his business as the Tabulating Machine Company.

By the early 1900s, Hollerith’s firm, the Tabulating Machine Company, had more customers than it could handle. However, because the firm leased rather than sold its equipment, which provided a steady and quite profitable stream of income but produced a thinner cash flow, the company was always short of capital. Moreover, Hollerith was a brilliant engineer, but not a brilliant businessman and he gradually lost a large part of his business. In July 1911, Hollerith agreed to sell his company to financier Charles Flint for US$2,312,100, and the company became part of Flint’s Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, which eventually in 1924 became the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM).

Biography of Herman Hollerith

Herman Hollerith (1860-1929)
Herman Hollerith (1860-1929)

Herman Hollerith was born on 29 February 1860, in Buffalo, New York (sadly, the poor boy could only get birthday presents once every four years :-). He was the youngest of six children of German immigrants Johann Georg Franz Hollerith and his second wife Franziska (Brunn) Hollerith. Georg had one child from his first marriage (Anna, b. 1836), before marrying Franziska Brunn (b. 29 May 1818) on 14 June 1846, in Speyer, Germany, and they had five children (Regina Therese, b. 1847; Bertha (Betsy), b. 1849; Georg Karl (George Charles), b. 28 Oct. 1855; Fanny, b. 1857; Herman, b. 1860).

Georg Hollerith was born on 18 September 1808, in Großfischlingen, Rheinpfalz, a region in south-western Germany (the founder of the Hollerith family in Rhineland-Palatinate was one Johann Michael Hollerith, a native of South Tyrol, who moved to Großfischlingen in the 1680s, to marry the local girl Anna Katharina Engelhardt in 1687). Johann Georg was the son of Franz Hollerith (1780-1863), a burgomaster of Großfischlingen, and he had two younger brothers: Georg Anton (1813-1900), and Mathias (b. 1815, in 1856 also emigrated to the USA).

Johann Georg attended а school in the nearby town of Landau, then studied theology at the University of Heidelberg. After graduation, he worked for some time as a Lutheran priest, then became a professor of ancient languages (Latin and Greek) in the Gymnasium at Speyer (Pfalz). In 1832, Johann Georg, a loner, a freethinker, and an accomplished violinist, took part in the famous Hambacher Fest, the culmination of bourgeois opposition at the time of the Restoration. In 1848 he put down his schoolbooks to take part in the Revolution, and after the Battle of Kirchheimbolanden in June, he was imprisoned at the fortress of Rastatt. He was eventually released but lost his work, and without means of existence, he and his family (his wife Franziska and two daughters) had no choice but to emigrate to America.

In the USA Hollerith family settled in Buffalo, New York, where Franziska had relatives. Initially, the economic condition of the family was not very good, and Johann Georg worked as a teacher and a gardener. However, he was an energetic man of enterprise and soon succeeded to obtain large estates in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where he traveled a lot and earned many loyal friends among the Indians. In the 1860s he was already a big landowner, who rented his lands to farmers, and took part in the Civil War, serving in the local guard of Buffalo. Unfortunately, while visiting his lands in 1866, he was severely injured when the horses shied, overturning his carriage. He never fully recovered from this injury and died on 9 March 1869.

Herman Hollerith as a child in late 1860s
Herman Hollerith as a child in the late 1860s

Franziska Hollerith was left to raise their five children alone (Herman was only nine years old). Proud and independent, she declined to ask her financially comfortable relatives (they had been locksmiths in Germany, and after immigration to America, they established the carriage factory Brunn Carriage Manufacturing Co. in Buffalo) for assistance, choosing instead a life of tough, principled self-reliance and making custom hats for rich women.

Sometime after the death of Johann Georg, the family moved to New York City, where Herman attended a public school for a short time. He was a mischievous child and had difficulty with his spelling (he remained a bad speller till the end of his life), he would slip out of the schoolroom when spelling time came. In response to this, the teacher locked the door one day, whereupon Herman jumped out of the second-story window. After that heroic deed, he was taken out of school and taught by a Lutheran minister.

Herman Hollerith was probably promoted by his father’s friend from the Revolution of 1848—Karl (Carl) Schurz (1829-1906). Schurz, a man of tremendous influence, who left Germany after the Revolution just like Hollerith, moved to the US in 1852, and later became a Union general in the Civil War, US senator, and US Secretary of the Interior from 1877 until 1881 under the presidency of Rutherford Hayes.

Herman entered the City College of New York in 1875 (in the US in the late nineteenth century, colleges were often more akin to upper-level secondary schools, than to universities). After a year and a half, he was admitted into the School of Mines at Columbia College (now Columbia University), and graduated in September 1879, with the degree of Engineer of Mines, boasting perfect 10.0 grades (he had low marks only in bookkeeping and machines). While at Columbia, Herman took the standard course of study which required both classes and practical work. As an engineering student, he took chemistry, physics, and geometry, as well as courses in surveying and graphics, and surveying and assaying. He was also required to visit local industries, such as metallurgical and machine shops, in order to understand how they functioned. He also obtained some practical mining experience during summer vacations in the mines of northern Michigan.

After graduating Hollerith became an assistant to one of his teachers, Professor Trowbridge, who was so impressed with his mind that he asked him to become his assistant. William Petit Trowbridge (1828–1892) was a mechanical engineer, military officer, and naturalist, who in 1879 was appointed Chief Special Agent to the Census Bureau, and took with him Hollerith, as a statistician. This appointment was very significant for the young engineer because it was in solving the problems of analyzing the large amounts of data generated by the 1880 US census that Hollerith was led to look for ways of manipulating data mechanically.

In 1881 Hollerith joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he taught mechanical engineering. However, he didn’t enjoy teaching, so he soon sought another job (although he left the academic world, he clearly was still attracted to certain aspects of it, and he was awarded a doctorate in 1890 at the Columbia School of Mines, for his tabulating systems.) Thus, in 1883 Hollerith obtained a post (assistant patent examiner) in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C.

In 1884, Hollerith resigned from the Patent Office and embarked on his main career as an independent inventor and entrepreneur. In the same year, he filed a patent application on his first statistics processing device, which used a continuous roll of paper and consisted of a mechanically-operated punch and an electrically-operated reader, expected to work on censuses for several states, but the job offers he expected did not materialize, so he accepted a position as the manager of the Mallinckrodt Brake Co. in St. Louis, Missouri.

By 1887 Hollerith moved back to New York. At that time he was entirely engaged in the design and improvement of his electric counting machines, and they proved to be a great success, as he won a contract from the Census Office when it reopened for the 1890 census, then his machines were used for censuses of Canada, Norway, Austria, Russia, and other countries.

Herman took eagerly to domesticity, following his marriage to Lucia on 15 Sep. 1890. Shortly after, the couple posed in front of their first home on Dumbarton Str. in Georgetown, Washington, DC.
Herman took eagerly to domesticity, following his marriage to Lucia on 15 Sep. 1890. Shortly after, the couple posed in front of their first home on Dumbarton Str. in Georgetown, Washington, DC.

In 1889 Hollerith met Lucia Beverly Talcott (born on 3 Dec. 1865 in Vera Cruz, Mexico where her father Charles Gratiot Talcott (1834-1867), a civil engineer, worked on railroad construction). On 15 Sep. 1890, as his punched-card business was beginning to produce substantial revenue, he married Lucia. They had six children: Lucia Beverly (1891-1982), Herman (1892-1976), Charles (1893-1972), Nannie Talcott (1898-1995), Richard (1901-1967), and Virginia (1902-1994).

In 1896, Hollerith formed the Tabulating Machine Company, which name was later changed to the Computer Tabulating Recording Company after a merger, and in 1924, the enterprise changed its name to the International Business Machines Corporation or IBM. Although Hollerith worked with the company he founded as a consulting engineer until his retirement in 1921, he became less and less involved in day-to-day operations.

In 1921 Hollerith retired to his farm in rural Maryland, where he spent the rest of his life raising Guernsey cattle.

Hollerith was, according to the statements of the few people who lived or worked with him in a close community, “a strange fellow”, “a peculiar man”, “closed”, “little accessible”, and “only living for his family and work”. He liked good cigars, fine wine, Guernsey cows, and money. And he ended up with a lot of each.

Herman Hollerith died of a heart attack on 17 November 1929, in Washington D.C, and was buried in the Hollerith family plot in Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. His wife remained with their three daughters in the family home in Georgetown, and died at their estate in Mathews County, Virginia, on 4 August 1944.

Oberlin Smith and Valdemar Poulsen

Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple, or more direct than does nature because in her inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous.
Leonardo da Vinci

Oberlin Smith (1840-1926) in 1890
Oberlin Smith (1840-1926) in 1890

The magnetic tape is the oldest memory media for computers, still in use today. A tape was used for the first time to record data in 1951 in the Mauchly-Eckert UNIVAC I computer, and is still in use today as a cheap and reusable archive media. So, who invented magnetic recording, the basis of many computer recording devices like tapes and hard disks?

At the beginning of 1878 Oberlin Smith, the president and chief engineer of the company
Ferracute Machine Co. of Bridgestone, New Jersey, which specialized in the manufacturing of large metal working presses, visited Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory, to see his newly invented phonograph machine. As a lover of music, Smith purchased an Edison phonograph, but soon found the audio quality of it to be too scratchy and he questioned the expense and precision of its mechanical parts.

Smith was a tinkerer and a fiddler—he couldn’t look at a gadget without trying to improve it, and he patented more than 70 of his inventions. The majority involved machines sold or used by the Ferracute Machine Co., which stamped out parts, for Model-T’ Fords, Packards, Winchester rifles, and Kodak cameras. Thus in the spring of 1878, he decided to improve the Edison phonograph, and soon, within several months, he conceived an Electric Phonograph or Recording Telephone, and on 10 Oct. 1878 he draws up a “Caveat” (temporary patent) for the US Patent Office to a certain extent as a preliminary stage for a patent application.

Oberlin Smith's magnetic thread
Smith’s magnetic thread

Oberlin had fabricated a cotton or silk thread (see the nearby drawing from the 1878 “Caveat”), into which steel dust or short clippings of fine wire would be suspended. These particles were to be magnetized in accordance with the alternating current from a microphone source. Smith also discussed the possibility of using a hard steel wire but thought it scarcely possible. It seems however that a working unit was never built. He also proposed using the microphone from the recently invented telephone to convert sound into electrical signals. The current would run through a magnetic coil, creating a series of magnetic pulses as it passed through. That pattern would be recorded on the thread as it was drawn through the coil.

Strangely, Smith failed to recognize the importance of his invention, and never got a patent for it, but decided to place his idea in the public domain for someone else to develop. This happened some 10 years later, as late as 8 September 1888, in the article “Some Possible Forms of Phonograph” of the British magazine Electrical World (see the article of Smith, digitized by Google). In continental Europe, where a French translation of Electrical World was published and where the first working magnetic recorder was developed, it was believed that Smith was either a pen name for a physicist who didn’t want to admit he was dabbling in the mundane realm of electronic devices or his ideas were pipe-dream science fiction.

The Telegraphone of Valdemar Poulsen
The Telegraphone of Valdemar Poulsen

Smith’s ideas were further developed by the Danish engineer Valdemar Poulsen (1869–1942). In 1894 he discovered the magnetic recording principle while working as a mechanic in the Copenhagen Telegraph Company. In 1898 in his Telegraphone (see the nearby image) Poulsen implemented for the first time the magnetic wire, and it was the first practical apparatus for magnetic sound recording and reproduction. In the same 1898 Poulsen obtained a patent in Denmark for his device, and later did the same in other countries, see for example US patent 661619). Magnetic wire recording, and its successor, magnetic tape recording, involve the use of a magnetizable medium that moves past a recording head. An electrical signal, which is analogous to the sound that is to be recorded, is fed to the recording head, inducing a pattern of magnetization similar to the signal. A playback head (which may be the same as the recording head) can then pick up the changes in the magnetic field from the tape and convert them into an electrical signal.

Poulsen later developed other magnetic recorders that recorded on a steel wire, tape, or disks. None of these devices had electronic amplification, but the recorded signal was easily strong enough to be heard through a headset or even transmitted on telephone wires. At the 1900 World Exposition in Paris, Poulsen had the chance to record the voice of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, today preserved in the Danish Museum of Science and Technology as the oldest magnetic sound recording in existence.

When Poulsen’s patent expired in 1918, it was Germany to led efforts to improve magnetic recording. In the early 1920’s German inventor and entrepreneur, Dr. Curt Stille (1873-1957) from Berlin modified Poulsen’s Telegraphone to use electronic amplification and marketed the patent rights to the device, a wire recorder, to German and British companies. In 1928, Stille formed the Echophone Co. and contracted with Ferdinand Schuchard AG and its talented young engineer Semi Joseph Begun (1905-1995) to manufacture the Dailygraph, the first cassette (magnetic wire) recorder. Semi Joseph Begun also developed the Stahltone-Bandmaschine steel 6 mm wide tape recorder in 1935. Wire and steel tape however was not a good solution and would be replaced in the 1930s by thin plastic tape, conceived by Fritz Pfleumer.

Fritz Pfleumer with his magnetic tape machine (1931)
Fritz Pfleumer with his magnetic tape machine (1931)

Dr. Fritz Pfleumer (20 March 1881, Salzburg, Austria – 29 August 1945, Radebeul, Germany) was a German-Austrian engineer. He graduated in engineering from the University of Dresden in 1902. Pfleumer had developed a process for putting metal stripes on cigarette papers, and reasoned that he could similarly coat a magnetic stripe, to be used as an alternative to wire recording. In 1927, after experimenting with various materials, Pfleumer used very thin paper which he coated with iron oxide powder using lacquer as glue. In 1928 Pfleumer was granted a patent in Germany for the application of magnetic powders to strips of paper or film.

In 1930 the AEG (Allgemeine Elektrizitats Gesellschaft) company in Berlin, decided to start the development of the Magnetophone machine, based on the Pfleumer principle, and in 1932 Pfleumer granted the right of use to the AEG based on his invention. In the same 1932 AEG signed an agreement of collaboration with BASF, the company of Ludwigshafen: AEG developed the system, BASF an appropriate sound carrier. BASF had a rich experience and in 1934 was able to ship the first 50000 meters of magnetic tape. The tape consisted of a foil of cellulose acetate as carrier material, coated with a lacquer of iron oxide as a magnetic pigment, and cellulose acetate as a binder. During the 1935 Radio Fair in Berlin, the Magnetophone and the Magnetic Tape were presented to the public.


In 1936 the German National Court canceled Pfleumer’s patent because his idea of coating paper tape with iron dust was covered in Valdemar Poulsen’s original patents of 1898 and 1899, so Poulsen stands alone as the inventor of all magnetic recording. The magnetic tape was not used to record data until 1950, when the UNISERVO I (see the nearby image), the first digital tape recorder was developed in Eckert-Mauchly Co. and was implemented in the 1951 UNIVAC I computer. UNIVAC I had 2 types I/O devices: An operator’s console, and up to 10 UNISERVO tape drives. The recording medium was a 1/2 (13 mm) inch-wide thin band of nickel-plated phosphor bronze (so-called Vicalloy). The tape was 1200 feet long. Recording density was 128 bits per inch on eight tracks (six for the data value, one parity channel for error checking, and one timing channel) at a linear speed of 100 inches per second, yielding a data rate of 12800 characters per second. The UNISERVO drive supported both forward and backward modes on read or write operation. This offered significant advantages in data sorting and merging applications. The data transfers to/from the UNIVAC I processor were fully buffered in one block of dedicated memory, permitting instruction execution in parallel with tape movement and data transfer. The internal serial data path permitted inserting a tape data block into the main memory in one instruction.

Biography of Oberlin Smith

Oberlin Smith (1840-1926)
Oberlin Smith (1840-1926)

Oberlin Smith was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on 22 March 1840 to George R. Smith (1815-1857) and Salome Sarah (Kemp) Smith (1813-1884). Both his parents were natives of England (Dorset and Kent), and his father was a leader in the early anti-slavery works of Salmon Portland Chase and operated a link in the Pre-Civil War “underground railroad”. Oberlin was the eldest of four siblings, having a brother Frederick S. (1849-1928), and two sisters—Emily (1841-1927) and Mary E. (1853-1860). His first cousin was Robert Longsdon, proprietor of the Bessemer Patent & Steel Manufr., and co-inventor of the Bessemer process of steel manufacture.

Young Oberlin displayed an early mechanical aptitude and built a working steam engine at the age of fifteen, most likely while learning metalworking at one of the city’s riverboat engine yards while being educated in the public and technical schools of Cleveland.

At his father’s death in 1857, the family relocated to southern New Jersey to live with his mother’s sister and brother-in-law, George and Louisa Howell, on their large farm in Stow Creek. Smith’s family apparently possessed sufficient resources so that Oberlin could attend the West Jersey Academy in nearby Bridgeton. During his off-school vacations, he worked on local farms and also learned carpentry. Later, Oberlin took evening engineering classes at Philadelphia’s Polytechnic College, before entering the employ of the Cumberland Nail and Iron Works in his new hometown of Bridgeton, New Jersey.

During his tenure at the Cumberland Nail and Iron Works, Smith applied for and received a patent for a device that would cut and ream pipe at the same time. Smith was rewarded with a fifty-dollar bonus. Five years later, Smith started a tiny machine works and repair shop in Bridgeton. Soon, a talented Philadelphia cousin from his father’s side, John Burkett Webb (1841-1912), joined Oberlin as a partner in 1863.

The partnership of Smith & Webb initially did a general jobbing shop trade, making wrought-iron fence and railing, plumbing and gas fixtures, and refitting or reworking broken machines and parts. Some of their repair business came from the numerous food-canning outfits in the district, and Smith determined that he could design a better foot-operated press, and the new press slowly achieved market success.

Oberlin and Charlotte Smith in front of their mansion on East Lake
Oberlin and Charlotte Smith in front of their mansion on East Lake

By 1873, Webb amicably left the partnership to pursue his career in academia. Smith brought in his younger brother Frederick as a replacement partner, and committed his facilities to the manufacture of foot-driven presses for canning enterprises, and began advertising in industry periodicals. Within three years, he designed a version for belt-power hookup; seventy-two machines of both varieties and in four models sold during 1874-76, three of which went to international customers in Canada, Australia, and Sweden.

Oberlin Smith met Charlotte E. Hill (1839-1918) while she was teaching at the Ivy Hall School for Girls in Bridgeton. They were married on Christmas Day, 1876 in Bernardston Mass. Two children were born to the family: Winifred Hill in 1878 and Percival Hill in 1880.

In 1877, a small business was incorporated as the Ferracute Machine Co., engaged in the manufacture of various forms of machinery, including many of Smith’s own inventions. Ferracute Machine Co. specialized in manufacture presses for working metals. Over the sixty-three years of Oberlin Smith’s tenure as chief engineer and president of Ferracute, he designed over five hundred kinds and sizes and obtained over fifty patents on these designs alone. While most of Smith’s inventions related to presswork, there were several in entirely outside fields. Among them were such widely divergent lines as improved looms, dump carts, keyless locks, automatic garage door openers, and egg boiling.

Oberlin Smith was a prolific writer and lecturer, his works covering science, fiction, and even theology. He published two books, “Press Working of Metals” still considered to be an authoritative work on the subject, and a metaphysics work, “Tho Material, Why Not Immortal?” Other interests that Oberlin Smith enjoyed were rowing, motoring, dancing, and golf. He was a member of many societies and organizations like the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), New Jersey Commissioner to the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo New York, American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, American Society of Civil Engineers, American Iron and Steel Institute, Franklin Institute, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Engineer’s Clubs of both New York and Philadelphia, American Automobile Association, National Geographic Society, and many others. He also made several European tours for the purpose of engineering observations. His acquaintanceship was very wide; among his intimate friends, he numbered such well know individuals as Thomas A. Edison and Henry Ford.

Oberlin Smith passed away at the age of eighty-six, early in the morning of Monday 19 July 1926 at his Lochwold estate in Bridgeton New Jersey, following an attack of heart failure.

Lee De Forest

Value and wealth come from creating things, not making things.
David Potter

Lee De Forest (1873–1961)
Lee De Forest with a three-element “Audion” vacuum tube

Lee De Forest (1873–1961) was a remarkable American inventor with over 180 patents to his credit. He took credit for the Audion, the first vacuum triode, a vacuum tube that takes relatively weak electrical signals and amplifies them. De Forest is one of the fathers of the electronic age, as his Audion helped to usher in the widespread use of electronics. He is also credited with one of the principal inventions which brought sound to motion pictures.

Born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, (a son of a minister), Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Yale University (1899), Lee De Forest was a rather controversial person—he was involved in several patent lawsuits and spent a substantial part of his income from his inventions on the legal bills. De Forest had four marriages and several failed companies, he was defrauded by business partners (and defrauded business partners himself), and he was once indicted for mail fraud but was later discharged.

The Audion (also called the De Forest valve, and since 1919 known as the triode) was a result of De Forest’s interests in wireless telegraphy. It was invented in early 1906, and in August of the same year, De Forest filed a patent for Improvement in Wireless Telegraphy. The Audion actually was a bulb with the same contents as the Fleming diode, except for an added electrode, but De Forest always claimed, that he didn’t know about the Fleming diode.

The Audion from 1906
The Audion from 1906

De Forest was granted a patent for his early two-electrode version of the Audion on 15 Jan. 1907 (US Patent No. 841386), as the triode (three electrodes) version was patented in 1908 (US Patent 879532). It was the forerunner of the triode, in which the current from the filament to the plate was controlled by a third element, the grid. A small amount of power applied to the grid could control a larger current from the filament to the plate, allowing the Audion to both detect radio signals (that is, make them audible) and provide amplification. However, De Forest’s Audion is quite distinct from the true vacuum triode in that it is not capable of linear amplification, not to say for the semiconductor transistor, which is a base element of every electronic computer. In fact, Lee de Forest initially considered his triode simply as a more sensitive type of diode detector. Several years later, in 1911, the young undergraduate at Columbia University Edwin Armstrong was the first to recognize that the triode could operate as an amplifier.

In Forest’s original design, a small metal plate was sealed into the lamp housing, and this was connected to the positive terminal of a 22-volt battery via a pair of headphones, the negative terminal is connected to one side of the lamp filament. When wireless signals were applied to the wire wrapped around the outside of the glass, they caused disturbances in the current which produced sounds in the headphones.

This was a significant development as existing commercial wireless systems were heavily protected by patents and a new type of detector would allow De Forest to market his own system. He eventually discovered that connecting the antenna circuit to a third electrode placed directly in the current path greatly improved the sensitivity. In his earliest versions, this was simply a piece of wire bent into the shape of a grid-iron (hence “grid”).

Compared to all competing devices at the time, the Audion was unique in that it did not draw significant power from the antenna/tuned circuit, which allowed the tuning circuitry to operate with maximum selectivity. With virtually all other systems, all of the power to operate the headphones had to come from the antenna circuit itself, which tended to “damp” the tuned circuits, limiting their ability to separate stations.

Russell Kirsch

When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.
Ansel Adams

Kirsch scanned this image, taken in early 1957, of him and his son Walden
Kirsch scanned this image of him and his son Walden

In the world of computers, the scanner is a device that optically scans images, printed or written text, a three-dimensional object, etc. representing it in a digital format. The now ubiquitous device can be found in offices as a desktop (or flatbed) scanner, where the document is placed on a glass window for scanning; in engineering and creative labs as a 3D scanner, used for industrial design, reverse engineering, test and measurement, gaming and other applications; in printing shops as very-high-quality drum scanners, that are superior in resolution, color gradation, and value structure. So, who invented the scanner?

In early 1957, Russell Kirsch (1929-2020), a 27-year-old computer scientist and a new father, brought a 5×5 cm photograph of his few months old baby (see the nearby image) to his office at the National Bureau of Standards, where he was one of the few people authorized to work on the Standards Electronic Automatic Computer (SEAC), the first programmable computer in the United States.

Kirsch wanted to know “What would happen if computers could see the world the way we do?”. To test his question, he chose a recent photograph of himself smiling proudly at his firstborn child. The boy rests in the crook of his elbow, gazing wide-eyed into the camera that captured the moment in black-and-white. The full image contained more information than the computer could process, so Kirsch snipped out a small piece containing just the baby’s face. He ran the image through a scanner and program that he and his colleagues had fashioned.

It occurred to Russel Kirsch that a general-purpose computer could be used to simulate the many character recognition logics that were being proposed for construction in hardware. This would require an input device that could transform an image into a form suitable for storage in the memory of a computer. Voilà, the scanner was born.

First scanned image in the world
First scanned image in the world

The SEAC scanner used a rotating drum and a photomultiplier to sense reflections from a small image mounted on the drum. A mask interposed between the picture and the photomultiplier tessellated the image into discrete pixels. The first image ever scanned (see the nearby image) had a resolution of 176 pixels on a side.

A further important advantage of building such a device was that it would enable programs to be written to simulate the various ways in which humans view the visible world. A tradition had been built in which simple models of human structure and function had been studied, for example, in neuroanatomy and neurophysiology. The emphasis on binary representations of neural functions led us to believe that binary representations of images would be suitable for computer input. This serious mistake was implemented in the first image scanner built.

A serial-parallel converter (staticizer) was connected to the SEAC memory, enabling a stored image to be displayed on a cathode ray oscilloscope, thus making it possible for the researchers to see what the computer saw. And when they could see binary images, they realized the limitations of binary representation. So they experimented with superimposing multiple scans at different scanning thresholds and the use of time-varying thresholds for pulse density modulation to represent multiple gray levels in an image.

Alexander Bain (1810-1877)
Alexander Bain (1810-1877)

The modern scanner may be considered the successor of early fax and telephotography input devices from the 19th century. The first “fax” device was developed in the early 1840s by the Scottish inventor Alexander Bain (1811–1877), who is primarily known as the inventor of the first electric clock in 1841. On 27 May 1843, Bain received a British patent (№9745) for improvements in producing and regulating electric currents and improvements in timepieces and in electric printing and signal telegraphs, and later made some improvements in his next patent (№10838), granted on 25 September 1845.

Alexander Bain (see the nearby image) was born on 12 October 1811 in the little town of Thurso, in the extreme north of Scotland, in the poor crowded family (he had six sisters and six brothers) of a crofter. Bain had a tough childhood and did not excel in school, but at the age of twelve, he went to hear a penny lecture on science which, according to his own account, set him thinking and influenced his whole future. He was apprenticed to a clockmaker in Wick. Learning the art of clockmaking, Bain went to Edinburgh, and subsequently in 1837 to London, where he obtained work in Clerkenwell, then famed for its clocks and watches. In London Bain frequented the lectures at the Polytechnic Institution and the Adelaide Gallery and later constructed his own workshop on Hanover Street.

Bain began inventing in the 1830s, developing inkstands, ink holders, a ship’s log, and later many electrical devices, including various types of automatic telegraphs, an electric clock, an earth battery, insulation for electric cables, and an electric fire alarm for the army.

Bain's fax of 1843
Bain’s fax of 1843

In his experimental facsimile apparatus from 1843 (see the nearby drawing), using his experience as a clockmaker, Bain used a clock to synchronize the movement of two pendulums for line-by-line scanning of a message. As a reading/writing device, he used a stylus that was an electrically conductive swinging pendulum. As the pendulum swung back and forth across a raised image on a copper plate, electrical pulses are generated. Besides that, each swing of the pendulum moved the copper plate to a small step so that the pendulum was able to scan the entire plate surface.

The electrical pulses were then sent across five wires to a receiving device, that also featured a pendulum. Its pendulum was synchronized with the sending device pendulum, which allowed the receiving side to generate an exact replica of the original image, using electrochemically sensitive paper impregnated with a chemical solution of ammonium nitrate and potassium ferrocyanide.

In his patent description, Bain claimed that a copy of any other surface composed of conducting and non-conducting materials can be taken by these means, but actually, his mechanism reproduced poor quality images and was not a viable device mainly because the transmitter and receiver were never truly synchronized.

Bain’s concept of the fax was somewhat improved in 1848 (British patent 12352) by the English physicist Frederick Bakewell (1800–1869), but Bakewell’s device (see the lower patent drawing) also reproduced poor-quality images.

Bakewell's Fax Apparatus from 1848
Bakewell’s Fax Apparatus from 1848

In 1846 Alexander Bain greatly improved the speed of telegraph transmission by using punched paper tape (nicknamed ticker tape because of the ticking sound the telegraph made) to send messages. This procedure will speed up the transmission of information very much.

The punched paper tape was introduced by Bain on 12 December 1846, when he patented the so-called chemical telegraph. He had seen that the Morse and other telegraphs then in use were comparatively slow, due to the mechanical inertia of their moving parts, and realized that the signal current could be used to make a readable mark on a moving paper tape soaked in a mixture of ammonium nitrate and potassium ferrocyanide, which gave a blue mark when a current was passed through it.

Bain’s chemical telegraph was tried in France between Paris and Lille, and attained a speed of 282 words in 52 seconds, a great advance on Morse’s telegraph which could only give about 40 words per minute. Later it was used in England and USA, but never really entered general usage.

Giovanni Caselli's Pantelegraph from 1861
Giovanni Caselli’s Pantelegraph from 1861

The first practical operating electromechanical commercially exploited fax machine, the Pantelegraph, was invented in 1861 by the Italian physicist Giovanni Caselli (1815-1891).

Made of cast iron and standing more than two meters high, this primitive to our mind, but effective machine worked as follows: The sender wrote a message on a sheet of tin using a non-conducting ink. The sheet was then fixed to a curved metal plate. The stylus of the transmitter scans an original document by moving across its parallel lines (three lines per millimeter). The signals were carried by telegraph to the marked out the message in Prussian blue ink, the color produced by a chemical reaction, as the paper was soaked in potassium ferrocyanide. To ensure that both needles scanned at exactly the same rate, two extremely accurate clocks were used to trigger a pendulum which, in turn, was linked to gears and pulleys that controlled the needles.

Heinrich Proskauer

German patent №65597 of Proskauer
The drawing from German patent №65597 of Heinrich Proskauer

One of the first adding machines with full keyboard construction in Germany and Europe was created around 1890 by the engineer Heinrich Proskauer in Berlin. Later the construction of Proskauer was implemented in Sumlock Duolectric 912/C adding machine, which had a supporting electric drive.

Heinrich Proskauer received two German patents for his Additionsmaschine: №65597 from 25 Dec. 1891 and №69251 from 10 May 1892.

The adding machine of Proskauer, was similar to Comptometer, the first commercially successful key-driven mechanical calculator, patented in the United States by Dorr Felt. Its numeric keys worked without locking, and the repetition function was not possible.

Biography of Heinrich Proskauer

Unortunately, little is known about the inventor of this interesting machine—Heinrich Proskauer. He was a German Jew, born on 14 March 1853 in Kreuzburg (Oberschlesien), Kingdom of Prussia (now Kluczbork, a small town in southern Poland). He was the last child (of eight) of Adolph Abraham Proskauer (1803-1875), and Johanna Goldberg-Proskauer (1814-1884). In April 1889 Heinrich Proskauer married in Berlin to his cousin Jenny Unger (1863-1915), and they had three sons (sadly, all of them died in infancy): Siegfried (1892-1892), Martin (1894-1895), and Hans (1897-1898). Heinrich Proskauer died in 1925 in Berlin.