Conservator Nora Eibisch

“I have learnt to ask the right questions“

Standing in front of Mark I, Nora Eibisch had goosebumps. The TUM Alumna is dreaming about restoring this computer from the 1940s. She did her PhD thesis in restoration on Konrad Zuse’s Montagestraße SRS 72 at Deutsches Museum.

For conservator Nora Eibisch each historic artefact presents a new challenge: time and again they require “extensive knowledge, experience and frequently also cooperation in interdisciplinary teams.” This is what intrigues the 38-year-old, who now lives in Berlin, about restoration. Restoring technical artefacts furthermore requires a precise understanding of its purpose and functionality – which sometimes calls for special research.

“Technical artefacts have or had a role for a distinct purpose“, she explains. Conservators have to unlock this purpose. “Here, for example the signs of wear are important. They indicate which wheels have been turned more than others, and which levers have been pulled very frequently.”

In front of computer pioneer Konrad Zuse’s originals

That way – after studying Restoration, Art Technology and Conservation Science at TUM – she reassembled a complete system from the fragments of one of computer pioneer Konrad Zuse’s machines: Nora Eibisch did research at the Deutsches Museum for her dissertation and restored Montagestraße SRS 72 on the basis of Zuse’s sketches.

Konrad Zuse's Montagestraße SRS 72 at Deutschen Museum.

Nora Eibisch has written her doctorale thesis on the restoration on Konrad Zuse’s Montagestraße SRS 72; the assembly robot is part of the collection at Deutsches Museum (photo: Deutsches Museum).

“Zuse’s main idea was to develop microscopic technical systems, which act in the same way as biological cells”, she explains. As early as in the 1940s he successfully implemented his first designs of automated calculation machines, and based on that imagined a future in which artificial intelligence defines our lives, says Eibisch: today, many of Zuse’s visionary ideas are grouped under the heading of ‘digitalisation’.

So in 2010 the doctorate student stood in front of a multitude of individual parts of the complex trailblazer machine and figured out which parts go together in which way and how they could be fitted together to form a functioning ensemble. An incredible feat.

Her studies taught her to “ask the right questions – which still contributes positively to my life”, Eibisch says. And she enjoyed the “organised space for development”: “The foundations were put down during my undergraduate studies and building on that I was able to develop freely as a postgraduate”, she explains. Her work brought her to Deutsches Museum first and later to Silicon Valley, to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, where she was involved in various projects.

My dream is to restore this machine from its 765.000 individual parts.

Is there an artefact that you dream of restoring? Nora Eibisch does not have to think long to answer: “The Mark I, she replies and tells us: “That is an electro-mechanical computer from the 40s. I only knew it from books. When I strolled over the Harvard Campus in Boston rather serendipitously in the summer of 2014, I went to the Science Centre and suddenly stood in front of parts of that machine. I had goosebumps.

Nora Eibisch is dreaming of restoring this calculating machine: “This machine with its more that 800km of cables connecting more than 765.000 individual parts, 3500 relays amongst them, is incredibly complex,” she explains. “For 15 years Mark I was running non-stop and must have made quite a lot of noise.” Yet, it could do less than a modern-day calculator. “Imagine you stand in front of this machine and give it a task, such as the calculation of a parable, and watch this machine cracking and humming and take a few hours to produce a result on a punch tape, which your smartphone can give you in a matter of seconds plotted in a chart. This gives you an idea how rapidly and unpredictably technology is going to develop.” Understanding the technological development’s beginnings and comprehending them in their historical dimensions is the challenge conservators for technology like Nora Eibisch are facing.

The entire interview with Nora Eibisch is available in the TUM Community Blog. As an Alumni of TUM you can login here.