Konrad Zuse, 85, the German engineer who built one of the world's first computers and lost it in the wartime Allied bombing of Berlin, died recently at his home near Fulda, Germany, after a heart attack. The date of his death was not reported.

Experts argue over who invented the electronic brain that revolutionized life in the late 20th century, but Zuse's "Z3" model built in 1941 is considered the first automatic and programmable computing machine.

Fleeing Berlin to protect his "Z4" model from the bombing, he refused Nazi orders to hide the computer at the mountain caves of Mittelbau Dora when he learned that slave laborers were building the V1 and V2 rockets there.

The machine, eventually hidden in southern Germany, was later set up in Zurich. Mr. Zuse founded his computer-building firm after the war; it was bought by Siemens AG in 1966.

Despite his pioneering work, he always had to struggle for recognition. After a 26-year legal battle, a German court ruled in 1967 that a later version of the "Z3" was "not an invention worthy of a patent."

"He was a brilliant inventor and tinkerer," said Raul Rojas, a computer scientist and historian. "In contrast to the others, he was all alone."

Among other pioneer computers were the Mark 1 built by Harvard University professor Howard Aiken in 1944 and the ENIAC machine built at the University of Pennsylvania in 1945.

Aiken had major funding and staff help from International Business Machines Corp. and ENIAC was developed by the U.S. military, said Rojas, a professor of computer science at Halle University in Germany. But, Rojas said, only a mixture of all these limited models led to the first real computers as we know them now.

Mr. Zuse was 28 when he built his first model, the "Z1," covering 43 square feet in his parents' living room. He built it "out of laziness" because he hated adding up the long columns of figures he calculated as an aircraft designer.

The machine was programmed by punched tape, stored only 64 characters and took up to two seconds to do simple addition.

His first three computers were demolished in bombing raids, but he rebuilt the "Z1" from memory more than 40 years later.

During the war, Mr. Zuse tried to get support from the Nazi government for a two-year project to develop a large new computer to help improve anti-aircraft defenses.

"And just how long do you think it will take us to win the war?" he was asked when the project was rejected.

Only weeks before the Third Reich fell, he moved his only remaining computer, the "Z4," to Goettingen in central Germany to protect it from advancing Soviet troops.

Hermann Goering's Aviation Ministry ordered him to hide it in nearby Mittelbau Dora, an underground concentration camp.

"It was there we first learned of the terrible conditions under which the V1 and V2 were being built," he wrote in his memoirs. "We refused to leave the machine there and, with the help of Werhner von Braun's staff, we managed to get hold of a truck to transport it elsewhere."

After selling his company to Siemens, Mr. Zuse, who called himself a "failed capitalist," turned to theoretical computer research and was active until his death.

"He still had a lot in his head that he hadn't yet written down," Rojas said.