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The Matrix Preloaded

I thought that after most of a lifetime reading science fiction and alternate history I knew all the ways Hitler could have won World War II if just one little thing had turned out differently, but I had never heard of this one:

Onthisday.com for May 12th included this entry:

1941 Konrad Zuse presents the Z3, the world’s first working programmable, fully automatic computer, in Berlin

W-w-what? Straight to Wikipedia I went. Here is the entry for the Z3:

The Z3 was completed in Berlin in 1941. It was not considered vital, so it was never put into everyday operation. Based on the work of the German aerodynamics engineer Hans Georg Küssner (known for the Küssner effect), a “Program to Compute a Complex Matrix”[b] was written and used to solve wing flutter problems. Zuse asked the German government for funding to replace the relays with fully electronic switches, but funding was denied during World War II since such development was deemed “not war-important”.

The original Z3 was destroyed on 21 December 1943 during an Allied bombardment of Berlin.

Well, good. While it is interesting to speculate on how the development of the computer might have been different, it sounds like the Lord guided the bomb-aimer’s hand on that occasion.

Anyone know, how close did they come?

14 comments to The Matrix Preloaded

  • Lee Moore

    Can’t help on Z3, but on lucky bombs I recall that the Allies managed to land one on the HQ of B Dienst, the Kriegsmarine’s cryptanalysis unit which had had considerable success in breaking Royal Navy and other ciphers. The vulnerability of Allied ciphers derived from over use so B Dienst had built up a big library of cribs etc and their methods relied on this archive. The archive was destroyed in the bombing and so they were pretty much finished thereafter. I suppose if you drop enough bombs you’re gonna have a few lucky hits.

  • Justin

    Never heard of it. Supposedly completed in 1936, I do like how it’s referred to as Turing Complete.

  • Mark

    Back in 1980, when I was at university, I read a book, “the mighty micro”, by one Dr Christopher Evans (not that one!), which I might still have somewhere. It dealt the development of computing (at a time when there was a certain feeling in the air that some technological revolution was in progress)

    Konrad Zuse and his Z3 was mentioned, although my memory of the details is, after 40 years, a bit vague. I’m not sure if Z3 had been put to work in cryptography but that would have been an obvious application.

    Once the Soviets and above all the US, were fully engaged, the disparity was just too great and the fatherland really had little practical chance of success (particularly as it never really got near the caucasus oil)

    Intriguing possibility certainly, but given the nature of the reich, such technology could just as easily have been used to monitor undesirable elements). When it came to the raw logistics of large scale industrialized warfare, the reich was always limited by the resources available to it, most crucially oil.

  • Sean

    This is a perfect example of why a free society is better than an authoritarian or totalitarian one. In a free society someone would have run with it regardless. Pity we (the West) are being strangled by our all-knowing elite or the challenges we face (China) would not be so daunting.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    The Germans were also working on nuclear bombs. Delivery of bombs would have been difficult….
    I saw a weird British series called ‘Misfits’, about people acquiring strange powers after a weird storm passes over their city. In one show, an old man goes back in time to try to assassinate Hitler, but fails, and leaves his phone behind, with its’ advanced technology. Hitler orders an investigation, and the Nazis end up winning the war!

  • Lee Moore

    Sean : This is a perfect example of why a free society is better than an authoritarian or totalitarian one. In a free society someone would have run with it regardless.

    Continuing to veer a very long way from Natalie’s point, although I agree in general, I’m not sure I do agree in the context of WW2. The UK government directed British industry during the war just as much as the German government directed German industry. Meanwhile control of research, and clever stuff generally, was more centralised in Britain than in Germany.

    Bletchley Park is an obvious example – the German efforts at signals interception and cryptanalysis were sprinkled across nearly a dozen agencies, of varying competence, but without the critical mass to make the same sort of impact as {Bletchley Park plus the Y Service}, which was a cross-service monopoly, and well resourced.

    Military research in Germany was divided into all sorts of different pots, controlled by different people. Essentially, leaving aside the mass murder and warmaking, Nazi Germany was a kind of feudal system, with the senior barons vying for the King’s favour (and a shot at the succession) and accumulating cross-functional satrapies that were all about power rather than coherent management. You couldn’t take away Goering’s research agency and give it to the Ministry of Armaments, because it belonged to Goering and that was that. You couldn’t consolidate the SD’s signals intelligence agency with the Army’s because the SD was more interested in its own Army’s signals than the enemy’s !

    This division was one of the reasons why the German nuclear programme never got any serious resources, unlike the Mahattan Project. Compared to Britain it was all penny packet stuff controlled by competing squabbling barons.

  • William H. Stoddard

    Lee Moore: In the words of James T. Kirk (in “A Piece of the Action”): “You guys have been running this place like a piecework factory. We’re going to run it like a business. We’re going to put it under one roof.”

  • Snorri Godhi

    FWIW I heard that claim for Konrad Zuse once before, but did not investigate up to what point it is true, and i did not think of a possible impact on the war.

    The history of computing looks very complex to me. It seems that Zuse was a pioneer, but if without influence and without any idea which has not yet been re-discovered, then, as harsh as that sounds, he is only of historical interest. Possibly because he was born in the wrong country at the wrong time.

  • Tim the Coder

    I suspect it would have made no difference. Quantity has a quality all its own: the Russians supplied the men, and the un=bombable factories of the US provided an unstoppable tidal wave of materiel, with Airstrip-1 as a staging post.
    In many respects, the 3rd Reich had excellent, even superior designs to the allies, at any specific time, but they lacked the raw materials and industrial scale to turn them into weapons and results.
    Jet engine.
    Rockets, including Anti-Aircraft, and radio-controlled anti-ship missiles. Fw190. Schnorkels.
    Some allied and russian stuff was good: Mosquito, Merlin-Mustang, Sturmovik IL-2, proximity fuze, but what made the difference was having lots of them.

    An example: at a crucial period of the Western air war, which was pummeling German industry, the superior Fw190 was having to been flown with limited throttle, and hence a combat-winning fighter became a loser, in all but the best pilots hands (or those who knew how to exceed the de-rating).
    Why? No nickel available for the exhaust valves. Push full combat-power throttle, and the engine self-destructs as the exhaust valves combust/melt/shatter.
    All nickel went to making AA & tank gun barrels: a single PAK34 barrel might be equivalent to 10,000 exhaust valves, and the valves can (mostly) be recycled when they are changed.
    But the boss says….which is the other downside of a command economy, also mentioned above.

    So an early general purpose digital computer….not so much. Better to use the valves/vacuum tubes for gunnery-control analogue computers; combined with a compact radar and a powered artillery platform, the result was devastating to the V1 offensive. Had the 3rd Reich done the same with what electronics they had, against Lancasters and B-17s…
    Then it’d have ended anyway, in August, with a nuke. Only thing that beats 4 aces.

  • Bruce

    Nazi Nukes?

    Start here:


    Fascinating series! Several thereof!

  • Zuse also developed what we would now call a process control computer. The problem was to adjust the fins of glide bombs to compensate for wide manufacturing tolerances. Apparently an analog-to-digital conversion was done and the calculations were done digitally, by relays. This system was actually put to work. There doesn’t seem to have been a lot published about it, at least in English.

  • Evan

    Last night, I was dreaming about these computer issues and what might have been. Then I logged onto my laptop, watched some German bondage porn set to the music of Rammstein, masturbated till I jizzed all over the place & realized that Germans are weirdos and that it’s a really good thing we won the war. If the Krauts won we’d all be jerking to chicks with nipple-clips and riding crops. I prefer we jerk to ‘normal’ stuff, like hookers beating a homeless guy to death after banging him 👍

  • Eric S. Raymond

    “How close did they come?”

    In the broader context, not very. The Z3 was only technically Turing complete; The lack of the conditional branch made it unsuitable for what we would think of as general-purpose programming.

    While the Z4 remedied that lack, it came too late to affect the war. But the broader issue is that Zuse was not operating in a technical culture that could have understood or deployed the Z4 effectively even if it had existed several years earlier.

    There simply were not enough people around Zuse who could understand the significance of his breakthrough. The allies had John von Neumann and Alan Turing and had already built special-purpose computers during the war for code breaking; there was a nascent engineering tradition developing around machines like the Harvard Mark 1. The Germans had none of this context – there was no soil for Zuse’s fragile new plant to grow in.

    This kind of isolation did in John Atanasoff too, an American who built a special purpose computer with some features that were well ahead of its time (such as the use of actual binary arithmetic) in 1942.

    Neither the Z4 nor the Atanasoff-Berry machine had successors.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    Here’s a genre of SF that is horribly underdeveloped- being kidnapped by time-travelling Nazis in UFOs! What if some Nazis found a time machine lost from a future era, and could use enough of the wreck to start a base far in the past? They might need to kidnap people to stock their base to survive, and because they like having slaves. They might hope to build a timeline where Nazism is the government of an alternate Earth.