Bad Hersfeld was only called “Hersfeld” until 1949, when they finally got state permission to use the coveted word Bad in their name. It is a town of 30,000 people in the eastern part of Hessen, conveniently located on the regional bicycle route R1 and also on the main railway line between Frankfurt am Main and Dresden.
On the lawn behind the Stiftsruine, the ruined church that is Bad Hersfeld’s best-known landmark, are statues of the two most famous people to have come out of Bad Hersfeld so far. Both of these men were called Konrad, and the other one is much more famous in Germany, but the one who interests me particularly is Konrad Zuse (1910-1995), the inventor of the computer. (Well, one of them, since no one person can claim to have invented the computer.)
Zuse was not a Nazi, as far as I know, but he did his major work in Nazi-controlled Germany in the 1930s and 40s, which meant that he was totally isolated from parallel developments in Great Britain and the United States.
Neither the Nazis nor the German military were much interested in Zuse’s crackpot invention, which was perhaps fortunate for the rest of the world, but for Zuse it meant that he had little support for his work, and was left to putter around on his own. He was inducted twice into the German army, but was deferred both times because of his job as a statistician at an aircraft factory in Berlin.
He did manage to build four prototype computers in those years, the Z-1 in 1936-38, the Z-2 in 1940, the Z-3 in 1941 and the Z-4 from 1942-44.
These prototypes were destroyed by bombing attacks in the Second World War, except for the Z-4, which survived because Zuse managed to smuggle it out to Switzerland in 1944. There it was installed at the Technical University in Zürich, where it performed useful calculations for a dozen years before being phased out in 1956.
After the war Zuse founded a computer company, the Zuse KG, which he moved to Bad Hersfeld in 1957. By 1967 the company had built 251 computers.
A full-scale working replica of the Z-1 can now be seen at the German Technical Museum in Berlin, along with a complete Z-23 from the late 1950s.
The ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe has a Z-22 (serial number 13), which they claim is the world’s oldest still-functioning vacuum tube computer. The Zuse company built 55 of these Z-22 computers starting in 1957.
In Munich there is a full-scale working replica of the Z-3 on display at the German Museum.
Hardly anybody in Germany has ever heard of Zuse (ask a few people on the street if you don’t believe me), but Duden’s name is a household word because of the standard German spelling dictionary which is commonly referred to as “The Duden” — he wrote the first edition of it himself, and completed it in 1880. The one on the shelf next to my desk is the 21st edition, published in 1996 and incorporating a controversial spelling reform which was promulgated in that year.
Konrad Duden was the Director of this school from 1876 to 1905. At that time it was called Das Königliche Gymnasium (The Royal High School), meaning it was a quite elitist school for those hoping to qualify for university admission. It is now a Kooperative Gesamtschule (“cooperative comprehensive school”), meaning it is no longer so restricted.
The Konrad Duden Museum is next door to the school. This small museum is only open on Sunday afternoons, so if you wanted to go inside you would have to plan your trip accordingly.
Bad Hersfeld has a number of fine half-timbered houses to look at, such as this one on the street called Neumarkt, near the Konrad Duden School. This particular house is the home of a folk music pub called “Sandy’s Leierkasten”.
Duden would turn over in his grave, by the way, if he could see the apostrophe in “Sandy’s” — that’s a recent import from the English, and is frowned upon by German language purists. Speaking of Duden’s grave, it can still be seen at the cemetery here in Bad Hersfeld, even though he spent his retirement years in Wiesbaden.
My photos in this post are from 2005. I revised the text in 2018.
See also: Look ma, no transistors! for Zuse’s Z-22 computer in Karlsruhe.