Oldest Preserved Computer's User Manual Discovered

Handwritten notes accompanied the old guide.
Deniz Yildiran

It must be a drag not knowing how an old, perhaps ancient form of a commonly-used device works even though it's right there in front of you. This was the case with the world's oldest preserved computer until its user manual was found recently.

Called Zuse Z4, it was a precious machine manufactured in 1945 and used in ETH Zurich between 1950 and 1955. Currently, it is located in the Deutsches Museum in Munich. Now that the manual has been found, some perspectives on the machine might change.


A long story

A retired lecturer from ETH Zurich, Herbert Bruderer has just revealed his story which led him to the manual. Apparently, it all started with a phone call when Evelyn Boesch from the ETH Zurich University archives informed in March 2020, that her father managed to preserve rare old documents.

Her father, René Boesch had been working as a researcher under Manfred Rauscher at the Institute for Aircraft Statics and Aircraft Construction at ETH Zurich. It's another long detailed story on how it all turned out to be in his hands but it is not "entirely coincidental that the manual was preserved by the aircraft manufacturers," Bruderer wrote.

Fortunately, a user manual of the Z4 and some notes on flutter calculations were found among the well-preserved ones. 

It is not as quite ancient when compared to this 2,000-year-old remain, but what it could do in its day definitely aroused curiosity. 

Thanks to the notes, we are now aware that this old machine had conducted around 100 tasks between 1950 and 1955. It's quite a number indeed. "These included calculations on the trajectory of rockets, on aircraft wings, on flutter vibrations, and on nosedive," Bruderer wrote.

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Oldest Preserved Computer's User Manual Discovered
Page 1 of the user manual for the Z4 relay computer, Source: emanuscripta

The notes, as you may expect, were handwritten. They dated back to very specific times such as October 27, 1953, and tackled some arithmetical problems solved with the Z4. "The headings 'Table of Air Force Coefficients' and 'Wings with Ailerons' indicate that these are flutter calculations," Bruderer explained.  

What do you think, math lovers? Now that there appeared some clues on how this old machine works, is it worth seeing it live in Munich? 

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