Follow Slashdot blog updates by subscribing to our blog RSS feed


Forgot your password?

Mechanical Computing 149

FTL writes "Tim Robinson has built a computer capable of solving polynomial equations -- using Meccano. His difference engine (mirror) uses a similar approach to Babbage's design. He's also created a differential analyzer (mirror) complete with a GUI. Both could be scaled up indefinitely to handle larger problems. 'Computing by steam' is possible."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Mechanical Computing

Comments Filter:
  • Strange (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 29, 2004 @02:13PM (#9285590)
    Strange. I thought Mechanical Computing was in the past []
    • Re:Strange (Score:5, Informative)

      by cjellibebi ( 645568 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @03:02PM (#9285876)
      It is in the past for state of the art computers, but in the present for geeks playing around with computers that can easily be built. It's always fun to find an alternative method of building a computing device, and building it just for fun. I've seen logic-gates built out of all kinds of things.

      Digital computers are more suited being built electronically (small and fast), but in the early days of computers, many were analog. The transition to digital happened around the same time as the transition from mechanical to electronic. Nowardays, analog computing is virtually unheard of, but I think that sometime during the late 80's/early 90's, they had found an application for analog computing in Neural Networks. I can't remember what it was, but the revival in analog computing has failed to materialise, so it must not have been very important.

      • Analog computing was useful for well-defined problems such as fire control and process control. Even with the advent of solid-state digital computers, it would be many years before they were small and cheap enough to replace analog computers.

        I've written process control software, and it's a little bit weird to be using millions of transistors to run a software emulation of a fairly simple analog circuit. The advantage is that my emulation doesn't drift with ambient temperature or component aging, and it c

  • Beautiful! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by tyroneking ( 258793 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @02:15PM (#9285602)
    No really - this is art...
    • Re:Beautiful! (Score:2, Interesting)

      by linzeal ( 197905 )
      I have an abacus that hangs on my wall and it is always fun to see people use it, or at least try to. I learned how to use an abacus in 2nd or 3rd grade I think and the tactile sensation I think helped establish the immediciacy of mathematics in my own physical space for me.
  • by ranger714 ( 580794 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @02:15PM (#9285604)
    Sounds like what happened to a friend of mine recently who devised his own "Homebrew" watercooling rig for his Athlon64...

    The steaming vents on the case gave mute testimony to the utter destruction the water made as it transisioned rapidly from liquid form to gaseous form. Poor devil...

    Of course, I could also see something like that from the original "Wild, Wild West" tv show (and not the horrific movie of the same name), or maybe "Brisco County, Jr.".

  • 1835 Called (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 29, 2004 @02:15PM (#9285606)
    1835 called; they want their revolutionary technological ideas back.
  • Tinkertoys (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Tablizer ( 95088 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @02:17PM (#9285617) Journal
    Don't forget about the Tinkertoy computer []
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 29, 2004 @02:18PM (#9285626)
    Mechanical computers were built and used over 60 years ago to solve differential equations and other analytical type problems. I know MIT and UCLA had pretty good mechanical computers in the WWII era. Check out MIT's famous mechanical differential analyzer [] for and idea of what was and is and awesome piece of hardware.
    • I got a kick out of this page [] where it states:

      "Operator's console of the Differential Analyzer, a literally "graphical" user interface. The operator (at left, Samuel Caldwell) manipulates a pointer by hand to follow the curves on the paper, which are then integrated or otherwise processed by the machine, which drives a plotter to make another graph as output..." [emph. added]
    • Not to mention the mechanical computers on WWII battleships used to aim the big 17 inch guns. Actually were still in use (claimed they worked just as well as any modern electronic computer), in the 90's until the ships were decommissioned once again (or are they still in action?)
  • Sweet (Score:4, Funny)

    by Revolution 9 ( 743242 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @02:20PM (#9285645) Homepage
    I always wanted a PC I could shovel coal into.
  • Rod Logic (Score:3, Interesting)

    by 3Suns ( 250606 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @02:22PM (#9285655) Homepage
    Reminds me of the nano-scale "rod logic" used for computation in Neal Stephenson's "The Diamond Age". Those were rods with bumps on them arranged in a 3d grid, and as the were moved back and forth the bumps somehow performed computation.
    • Re:Rod Logic (Score:4, Interesting)

      by MarcQuadra ( 129430 ) * on Saturday May 29, 2004 @02:56PM (#9285845)
      That's actually probably how nanoprocessors will operate, getting electricity to stay where you want it on the scale is a lot harder than using nanotubes with rods suspended in them. Of course, there will be actuators at the 'leads' that are electrical or light-actuated.
    • Konrad Zuse, anyone?
    • Rod logic is (to the best of my recollection) basically a mechanical implementation of numerical AND, OR etc. Once you have that working you're not too far from an assembly language (for assemblers, ha ha). See chapter 12 of Drexler's Nanosystems [], which Stephenson presumably got the idea from.
  • Next project? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by cjellibebi ( 645568 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @02:23PM (#9285662)
    I recon this guy should try to build a machine that uses computational logic gates (NAND, NOR, etc). From that, he can build up things like binary adders and simple flip-flops. Then, add an instruction-decoder, and an arithmetic-logic unit - and viola - a Meccano CPU.
    • Re:Next project? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by temojen ( 678985 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @03:01PM (#9285867) Journal
      I think perhaps a (finite) turing machine would be much easier. It would be simpler due to not needing random access memory.
    • . . . . Linux gets ported to steampunk arcitecture?
    • Re:Next project? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by mark-t ( 151149 ) <> on Saturday May 29, 2004 @03:56PM (#9286163) Journal
      Approximately one year ago, there was a lot of discussion on the pneumatics newsgroup for lugnet, and some interesting ideas on how to make assorted digital computing elements using LEGO were worked out. AND, OR, XOR, Adders, and even a mechanism for binary-based memory storage were designed.

      The costs of purchasing enough LEGO elements to actually make a simple and an even remotely usable computer, however, was well into the thousands of dollars.... kind of hard to justify for something that ultimately, is... well... rather useless.

      • Do you have a link?

        I think that although a usable Lego-computer would cost thousands, building a Lego CPU would be much cheaper. Not much use, but it would be a fun geek-project.

        I once knew someone who designed components for a lego-CPU. This included a 'Lego-transistor' to prevent the load that a single gear-wheel would have to drive from becoming too much.

    • by WegianWarrior ( 649800 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @05:28PM (#9286623) Journal

      Charles Babbage gave up on the differiensial engine because he thought he could build a general purpose mechanical computer - the Analytical Engine []! To recreate that device would really rock... if I had the time, money and (last but not least) the knowhow, I might try it myself...

      Off course, an Analytical Engine [] would be way larger than a Difference Engine [], since it would have to include a CPU (the 'mill'), a input device (Babbage himself suggested punch cards [] - an idea which the early electromechanical computers picked up), an output device (Babbage wanted to built a complete, automated printingpress, curveplotter and a bell to alert the operator of errors),and last but not least a 'store' (memory - the one envisoned by Babbage would store 1000 numbers, each 50 digits long). The Analytical Enginge was to be programable - which was it great strenght compared to the Differensial Engine - in a language resembling todays assembler languages. Such a machine would be slow and lowpowered by our standards, but would have been a gigantic leap forward back in the 1830's... shame he never got around to build it.

  • My first computer (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Registered Coward v2 ( 447531 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @02:23PM (#9285665)
    was a mechanical rig that used 1 inch soda straws for 1's and blank holes fro zeros. You pulled a crank and it added two numbers. I wish I could remember its name - it was some sort of "science kit." from the 60's.
    • >that used 1 inch soda straws for 1's and blank holes fro zeros

      How did you prevent the holes in the soda straws from being confused with the blank holes? And besides, if you hold a straw so it's end is facing your face, it looks more like a 0 than a 1.

      • Re:My first computer (Score:2, Interesting)

        by kfg ( 145172 )
        It was card programed, but not punchcard programed. You had a plastic card with "teeth" on one side. Sticking a bit of straw on one of the teeth was a one. A tooth without a straw on it (a "hole" between the straws) was a zero. You ended up with a gap toothed "comb." The straws were just a way to make cheap pegs.

        The answer came out in binary formed from stickers of little white and black squares stuck to tab ends of cards.

    • Re:My first computer (Score:3, Interesting)

      by kfg ( 145172 )
      I've been trying to remember the name of that puppy too. I had one and it was fascinating (if you're the sort of kid who also takes apart those old, plastic, push button, gear driven adding machines they used to sell in the grocery stores to see how they worked. Mechanical computers were actually nearly ubiquitous in the 60s).

      Anyone with 60s comic books should be able to find an ad for one in the back, right next to the 6 foot long fiberboard submarine.

      I never had one of those. I still blame my mommy.

      • my first digital computer was a digicomp 1. it got thrown away. there is a yahoo group dedicated to it and there is a pic and some info here: there used to be a simulation of it on a web page but i can't seem to find that (URL i had is dead).
        • Bingo! That's the puppy. Thanks.

          Six bucks was a lot of money for a kid back then. Something like three months allowence for me, or a full day of mowing lawns/shoveling snow. I don't remember what happened to mine and I assume it got thrown away. I'll blame my mommy for that too, what the hell. ( I don't get to blame my mommy for not having any 60s comic books anymore though. I get to blame my best friend's mommy).

          I'd completely forgotten about Dr. Nim. I had one of those too.

          Memories. . . like the corner
        • I have one of those! My grandpa gave it to me when he was cleaning out his basement a few years ago. I haven't put it together, though, since I'm afraid of losing/breaking the parts... I did scan the manual though. Hm.
  • Is get a C compiler working. I want to see it running Linux within the year!
    • by GridPoint ( 588140 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @02:39PM (#9285761)
      Linux probably would a bit too large to fit, but a port of Contiki [] might be worth waiting for, given their track record... Now if only someone would care to make a mechanical Ethernet NIC and we could build a fully mechanical webserver. You wouldn't be able to stand the noise a slashdotting of that would make!
      • I'm not really sure if Contiki really is smaller than a Linux kernel can ever become. Contiki has been built mainly for 6502-based systems. What I've heard is that the reason there is no back-end for GCC that produces 6502 code is because the 6502 only has a 256-byte stack, and for reasons unknown to myself, GCC has a problem with this (I'm not sure if Linux also has this problem). Contiki has been built with the CC65 C compiler for 6502's [] compiler instead. So if the Meccano computer does not have this limi
        • by bhtooefr ( 649901 )
          but I am not sure if Contiki can run as a server OS

 ht ml

          Contiki can even run a version of uVNC, which is Adam Dunkels' VNC server for 8-bit systems.
    • I think a more realistic next step would be to build a CPU out of logic-gates. See my other post [] for how this could be accomplished. After that, build masses and masses of flip-flops, and multiplexers so you can access (2^A)*D of them using A address-lines and D data-lines. Now you have storage, so you can run stored programs. Using an existing computer which has GCC ported to it, write a GCC back-end for your new CPU, and then compile Linux on it.

      Of course, you would have to modify this port of Linux to

  • Obviously it is. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Valar ( 167606 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @02:32PM (#9285709)
    Of course mechanical computation is possible. The easiest example I can think of is division/multiplication. Two gears, the ratio of which is the multiplier. Turn the first gear a number of turns equal to the multiplicand and count the rotations of the second gear.
  • Into the old saying that physicists love to say: "crank the handle on the mathematics".
    • by Anonymous Coward
      Er, that phrase comes from mechanical hand-cranked calculators [].
      • Yeah. But that's an old example.

        Older still is pascal's gear system. So I suppose you'd crank the ol' gears of the mathematics in that case. I think they found an ancient mechanical computer, dating more than 1000 years, but they have no friggin' idea what it does.

        This one however is definetly new, and truely obfuscated in construction. I wish I have one nearby next time one of my lecturers say "crank the handle on the mathematics". :)
    • Isn't there a "+1, Funny Ignorance" mod around here somewhere?
      • Isn't there a "+1 Funny Illiterate" mod around here somewhere? There's a really good reason why there's a -->NEW-- in the title. Otherwise it would have been "puts meaning". :)
  • ...and William Gibson, called The Difference Engine []. I recommend it, it's a fascinating idea, which is basically: what if computer became available much earlier, in the form of mechanical computers--they would take up entire factory buildings, and people would essentially become experts at creating these ornate ivory punchcards (if I remember correctly...). Actually, I should really pick it up and read it again.
    • "Great novel"? Um.. it's a beatiful, incredibly well-realized world. But it has a sad excuse for a plot (a communist plot to steal a deck of punched cards that can win you the lottery) and mostly two-dimensional characters. The contents of the last page (I won't spoil it, but it's kinda lame) have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the plot, anywhere. It's a totally gimmicky post-ending element with no function in the story.

      Great novels require more than amazing world building. Both Sterling an
  • by the_twisted_pair ( 741815 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @02:43PM (#9285779)
    640 nuts and bolts should be enough for anybody

    Serious kudos due here - it's a labour of love.

    • A more accurate translation of that into the world of computational logic would be:

      5242880 flip-flops should be enough for anybody

      Now work out howmany nuts and bolts you jneed to build a flip-flop, and now, you can translate Bill Gate's quotes into Meccano. Hey - it's a hell of a lot easier porting an actual Bill Gates Monstrossity-OS to a Meccano computer.

    •'s 640k = "655360 nuts and bolts should be enough for everybody". And if it isn't, I think they have a few screws loose or missing instead.

  • I'ill buy one!

    When the WorldWar 3/glacial age is over and everything is destroyed i will have an extremely powerful machine, the most powerful computer in the world.

    No, really, no one knows when this kind of inventions will be really useful. And im not a pessimist.
  • This is a true hack, in the purest sense.

    I'm equally impressed over building it using only off the shelf parts as I am over building it at all.

    Who will be the first to port this to Lego?
  • 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 . .That's as high as I can go, a dinosaur ate my pinky toe
  • Imagine a Beowulf cluster of these . . .

    Seriously, I am totally amazed at that guy's genius. Full on Wayne's World "Not Worthy!" moment.
  • by Flyboy Connor ( 741764 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @03:11PM (#9285937)
    A.K. Dewdney [] describes in "The Tinkertoy Computer and Other Machinations" not only the famous Tinkertoy computer, but also how a computer can be constructed entitely from ropes and pulleys. Furthermore, in "The Planiverse" he describes how a computer can be built in a two-dimensional world (quite a feat, I can tell you).
    • Just out of interest, is there a web-page that has a list of alternaive means of building computational-logic based computers, or other types of computers? I once saw a digital adding machine built up out of water flowing through pipes that formed logic-gates. I also heard of a story about someone building logic-gates that work by heating bi-metalic strips and causing them to bend.
  • I had some of this Meccano stuff as a kid in Canada. I didn't think it was still being produced. Great stuff, although there are, after all, parts small enough that a toddler can swallow them.

    So, is it available in the USA? If not, are lawyers at fault? (presumably) Has it ever been available in the States?

    My web search so far led to an interesting dead end. Click on the USA link from, and you end up at a toy distributor that doesn't appear to carry the stuff!

    • When I was a younger, I had a few meccano sets. This was maybe 14-15 years ago though. I wasn't too impressed with them as the parts tended to come loose and were quite wobbly.

    • Meccano was invented in England in 1906 or so, and then when the Liverpool plant closed in the 70s, the subsidiary plant in France became the sole producer. In the 80's and 90's Meccano/France licensed the old American Erector trademark from whoever owned it, and Meccano sets were sold in the US under the Erector trademark. These were nothing like the old Gilbert Erector sets of the 1950s.

      I don't think lawyers had anything to do with Meccano's eclipse, in America or anywhere else. Lego was always better at
    • Meccano is available in Australia still. Not in the traditional sets 1-10 form, but it remains compatible. One improvement they have made is to change those slotted screw heads for hex key ones.

      They have added little plastic people a-la Lego to appeal better to younger children.

      You should be able to find an on-line store that will export if you can't get it in Canada direct.
  • Mechanical PDAs (Score:5, Interesting)

    by scattol ( 577179 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @03:17PM (#9285975)
    That's OK, but for the man of the 50's on the go what do you do? You get a CURTA [] calculator. They were said to be popular with rally drivers for instance.

    They are relatively valuable [] and pretty nifty [] calculator. You can try to get a feel for it with the simulator []. Enjoy!
    • Also, the Curta's play a not insignificant role - as objects of desire for some old-school hacker/collector fetishists - in William Gibson's novel "All Tomorrow's Parties" (IIRC). The book had me look into them while reading it..pretty cool machines.
    • The Curta is definitely a very cool gadget, but since they're collector's items, the prices can be outrageously high.

      Although the VCALC Curta Page [] mentions that most of the old Curta technicians who worked on the devices have made replicas at some point or other, nobody seems to be doing it today.

      With the huge interest in them (since the Scientific American article), and the high prices, I'm very surprised that nobody's making low cost replicas. I'm sure lots of geeks who are more enamoured with the tech
  • When can we expect a Duke Nukem Forever port on one of these things???

  • by Alien Being ( 18488 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @03:26PM (#9286021)
    My dad was selling those newfangled electronic Friden calculators back in the mid sixties when I was a little kid. Once in a while, he'd bring home one of the old mechanical machines that had been traded in, like this one []. I'd love to have one of those babies now.
  • Thats a lot of work to re-create something like that.

    He deserves some credit for it.
  • And the know-how to use it, primarily so I could build my own Babbage engine. Never ocurred to me to do it with legos. ;P
  • by bsDaemon ( 87307 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @03:40PM (#9286089)
    big deal. This Thing [] is over 2,000 years old! It's an astronaumical computer and clock thingie. With gears and everything. "boo ya," as the kids say.
  • A Turing Machine [] can, theoretically, do all calculations a computer can, and it's entirely mechanical.
    One can build such a machine with nuts and bolts or whatever, and solve every solvable problem.

    Still, nobody actually built such a thing, AFAIK.
  • But... (Score:1, Redundant)

    by gUmbi ( 95629 )
    Yes, yes, it's all fine and good - but does it run Linux??
  • What an amazing feat. Congratulations.

    For those fortunate enough to live near Silicon Valley, the original SGI building over on Shoreline has been converted to the Computer History Museum

    I saw part of this collection when it was housed at the nearby Moffit Field (NASA Ames). When you look at this stuff and see how fast things have developed, you KNOW it had to be due to extraterrestrial intervention because humans are far too bone-headed to have accomplished such feats. :
  • .... de-evolution of the computing goal of making things easier to do....

    But as MS has proven and Linux follows thru in its own way...... "make people need you is the path to success"...

    Well at least now we can hire coal shovelers into the IT business....

    all your coal belong to us....
  • To see "DA" in action rent the movie "When Worlds Collide". It's not bad as 50's sci-fi goes.
  • granted a steam engine would be cool, but to accually compute by steam many steam pistons and levers would be needed to make the accual mechanisms, not just the drive. it's like saying desktops compute with electriciy, they realle just run off of it.
  • blimey! (Score:2, Insightful)

    by snellgrove2 ( 724957 )
    um... yah, he's cleverer than me i'd say :)
  • "...but Professor, you told me I can bring any graphical calculator."

    Advertisement: HP Customers are migrating to SUN. As well might as be burnt than being put on hold by HP's new Indian customer service rep.
  • I've read the book "The Tinker Toy computer" and it occured to me if you have enough rope, pullies, springs and the means to assemble them you could make a machine with sufficient prossesing power to have AI. The only real obsticle would be finding all the materials and the man-power to create this machine. A warehouse full of rope could be smarter then any human, unless that human had scisors.
  • by RayBender ( 525745 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @06:10PM (#9286807) Homepage
    ...were actually very common in the first half of the last Century. Vannevar Bush was big in that area, and many such computers were used as artillery computers in battleships. Google "Ford computer". There were also machines that could be programmed to solve differential equations outside of the artillery problem.

  • For the interested:

    Meccano History []

  • by pedantic bore ( 740196 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @07:39PM (#9287141)
    In order to succeed in the market today, it has to run viruses. Is someone working on version of rugrat for this beast?
  • Imagine a beowulf cluster of these things!
  • Konrad Zuse (Score:3, Informative)

    by chris_sawtell ( 10326 ) on Saturday May 29, 2004 @10:38PM (#9287813) Journal
    They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so here is a picture of
    the first mechanical digital computer ever made. []

    The whole book, The Life and Work of Konrad Zuse [] is well worth a read.

  • in a comedy sketch they did back in the late 1990s- they discussed the invention of the "Steam Powered Internet". However, IIRC, it was invented, Thursday, 1923.

    "It's a power so great is can ONLY be used for GOOD...

    ...or EVIL!!!!"


Mathemeticians stand on each other's shoulders while computer scientists stand on each other's toes. -- Richard Hamming