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  • Early History of Computing in Switzerland: Discovery of Rare Devices, Unknown Documents, and Scarcely Known Facts
  • Herbert Bruderer (bio)

Some aspects of computing history in Switzerland are well known to computing historians, such as Heinz Rutishauser’s early work with automatic programming1 and Algol, Niklaus Wirth’s creation of Pascal,2 both at ETH Zurich, and developments at IBM’s Zurich research laboratory.3 However, other Swiss contributions to early history of computing are less well known. A good place to research the history of other early achievements is in the archives of the main library of ETH Zurich and its “Sammlung Sternwarte” (collection of astronomical instruments). Another good source is the archive of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the leading Swiss daily newspaper, founded in 1780.

In this note, I relate some of what I have learned about the early history of computing in Switzerland, about rare devices, forgotten documents, and scarcely known facts; and I suggest some of my journey as a computer scientist turned historian.

The ETH Archive, Institute for Applied Mathematics, and a Zuse Z4

In 2010 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Konrad Zuse, I began systematically examining the archives of the main library of ETH (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule) Zurich. It was my intention to write a book related to the centenary.4 Because of the right to privacy, the access to archival material was delayed for 50 years. Thus, in 2010, I was allowed to look at the computing records in the archive for the 1940s and 1950s. I believe it was the first time that the archive was thoroughly studied with respect to applied mathematics, and I was astonished by what I learned about the facts and fascinating historic calculating devices in Switzerland, and to some extent in Germany and France.

Computer science in Switzerland had started in 1948 with the foundation of the Institute for Applied Mathematics; there was a computational need for the solution of mathematical, physical, chemical, and engineering problems (e.g., differential equations for the construction of machines, bridges, barrages [dams], and even a jet fighter). Of course, the terms “computer science” and “informatics” did not yet exist. The first director of the institute was the mathematician Eduard Stiefel. He wanted to promote applied mathematics and “avoid backwardness.” In the early 1950s the first programming courses were introduced at ETH.

Also in 1948, ETH Zurich wanted to build a digital computer. At this time such devices were not yet commercially available either in America or in Europe (an exception was the unknown Zuse Z4 noted below). However, nobody in Switzerland had the knowhow required to build a computer. Therefore Stiefel and his two assistants, Heinz Rutishauser and Ambros Speiser, spent several months in the United States; Rutishauser was a mathematician, and Speiser was an electrical engineer. They visited Howard Aiken at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and John von Neumann5 at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

In 1949, by chance, Eduard Stiefel became aware of a Zuse machine (a Z4) at Hopferau near Füssen.6 In 1945, Konrad Zuse had fled from Berlin to Bavaria. His Z1, Z2, and Z3 devices and his S1 and S2 special machines had disappeared or been destroyed in the war, and the Z4 was his only surviving calculator. Stiefel visited Zuse in 1949 in Allgäu and tested the Z4 relay computer. As it was rather inexpensive and the institute desired to have more powerful calculating devices as soon as possible, ETH decided to rent the Z4. (We do not know how Stiefel learned about the existence of the machine.)

The Z4 became commercially available in 1945; but in the difficult postwar period, nobody was willing to buy it. The German institutions did not understand the importance of the Zuse machine or they had no money. IBM was only interested in the patents as the Z4 was not a fast electronic but a relay calculator. Nevertheless, Zuse began developing his programming language, Plankalkül, which even included non-numerical applications such as playing chess. He was thinking of a machine capable of logic not just crunching numbers. The rental...


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