July 17, 2014 / 3:05 PM / 5 years ago

Austrian computing pioneer Heinz Zemanek dead at 94

VIENNA (Reuters) - Heinz Zemanek, who briefly put Austria in the vanguard of European computing in the 1950s with his “May Breeze” computer, has died in Vienna at the age of 94, his old university said.

Zemanek designed and built the “May Breeze”, the first computer on mainland Europe to run purely on transistors instead of vacuum tubes, with the help of a group of students he enlisted at the Vienna University of Technology (TUV).

Transistor computers generated less heat than vacuum-tube computers and were a fraction of the size - although the “May Breeze” - or “Mailuefterl” in German - was still around 4 meters (13 feet) wide, 2.5 meters tall and half a meter deep.

Zemanek got the 3,000 transistors needed as a donation from Philips, but they were slow transistors intended for hearing aids. The “May Breeze” name was a nod to the much faster U.S. computers named after types of storm that were being built.

“We are not going to produce a Whirlwind or a Typhoon or any of those big American storms, but we will have a very nice little Viennese Mailuefterl, which is a spring time breeze,” Zemanek said in a 1972 interview.

The computer performed its first calculation in 1958 and remained at the university for a few years before being bought by IBM, which built its Vienna Lab for Zemanek. It is now on display at the Technical Museum in Vienna.

Zemanek said the project quickly turned him from an electrical engineer into a programmer.

But in a short film made for Google’s computing heritage series, he said: “I am at my core an engineer, and that means: What’s true is what functions.”

Reporting by Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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