An Austrian star of European computing

Google started as a graduate school project. So it’s apt that the next film in our computing heritage series pays homage to the work of another student team, nearly 60 years ago in Austria.

Mailüfterl: an Austrian star of European computing

Mailüfterl: an Austrian star of European computing

In the mid 1950’s, computer design was in the midst of a major transition, going from vacuum tubes to transistors. Transistors performed a similar function electronically, but generated less heat and were a fraction of the size, allowing machines to be made that were both smaller and more powerful.

Heinz Zemanek, then an assistant professor at the Vienna University of Technology, had long been interested in computers. In 1956, he enlisted a team of students to build one based on this new transistor technology.

Zemanek’s project didn’t have university backing, so the team relied on donations. One student’s work was sponsored by Konrad Zuse, the German computer pioneer, on the understanding he would join Zuse’s company after completing his doctorate. Additional money came from an Austrian bankers association, thanks to connections Zemanek had made through his role leading Austria’s Boy Scouts. Overall more than 35 companies contributed materials, in particular Philips, who donated all the transistors and diodes. The only drawback was the transistors were relatively slow, originally designed for hearing aids.

At the time, leading U.S. machines were named after types of wind, such as MIT’s Whirlwind and RCA Laboratory’s Typhoon. In a gentle nod to this, Zemanek nicknamed his computer Mailüfterl, meaning “May Breeze.” As he joked (PDF): "We are not going to produce… any of those big American storms, but we will have a very nice little Viennese spring breeze!”

On May 27, 1958 the Mailüfterl ran its first calculation and became mainland Europe’s first fully transistorized computer—and one of the earliest in the world. It remained at the university for its first few years, financed in part by the European Research Office of the American Army. In 1960 Zemanek signed a contract with IBM, and in September 1961 the Mailüfterl was moved to a new research laboratory in Vienna that IBM created for Zemanek and his team.

Today the Mailüfterl is on display at the Technical Museum in Vienna—a fitting reminder of Austria’s time at the vanguard of European computing.