Bil Herd: Computing with Analog

When I was young the first “computer” I ever owned was an analog computer built from a kit. It had a sloped plastic case which had three knobs with large numerical scales around them and a small center-null meter. To operate it I would dial in two numbers as indicated by the scales and then adjust the “answer” by rotating the third dial until the little meter centered. Underneath there was a small handful of components wired on a terminal strip including two or three transistors.

Science Fair Analog Computer
Science Fair Analog Computer

In thinking back about that relic from the early 1970’s there was a moment when I assumed they may have been using the transistors as logarithmic amplifiers meaning that it was able to multiply electronically. After a few minutes of thought I came to the conclusion that it was probably much simpler and was most likely a Wheatstone Bridge. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t multiply, it was probably the printed scales that were logarithmic, much like a slide rule.

Analog slide rule on digital calculator
Old meets new: Analog and digital computation

Did someone just ask what a slide rule was? Let me explain further for anyone under 50. If you watch the video footage or movies about the Apollo Space Program you won’t see any anyone carrying a hand calculator, they didn’t exist yet. Yet the navigation guys in the first row of Mission Control known aptly as “the trench”, could quickly calculate a position or vector to within a couple of decimal places, and they did it using sliding piece of bamboo or aluminum with numbers printed on them.

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Gigantic ball-manipulating binary computer

The folks at Evil Mad Scientist Labs just put up a post on the giant mechanical binary computer they brought to last month’s Maker Faire.

As a faithful reproduction of the Digi-Comp II from the 1960s, every operation is powered by balls falling onto levers. Unlike the original, the larger version is powered by billiard balls instead of half-inch marbles. The Digi-Comp II is able to count, add, subtract, multiply, divide, get the 1s or 2s complement and zero all of it’s bits. With a 7-bit accumulator, the Digi-Comp II is able to calculate anything where the result is less than 127, so we wouldn’t recommend doing your taxes on it. In the demo video, it took the Digi-Comp II about two minutes and twenty seconds to multiply 3 by 13. We’re not going to venture a guess on the equivalent seconds per cycle for an electronic calculator, but it’s an impressive build

The Digi-Comp II is a great way to show the process of binary arithmetic in a computer and we were wondering why there aren’t any educational toys like the Digi-Comp II out today. A site linked from the build page tells us there will be kits available this summer, we’re hoping the kit doesn’t fill the bed of a pickup truck.

Check out the video after the break for the multiplication demo.

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Analog computer does math

This analog computer can multiply, divide, square numbers, and find square roots. It has a maximum result of ten billion with an average precision of 2-3%. [Miroslav’s] build recreates something he saw in a Popular Electronics magazine. It uses a resistor network made up of three potentiometers with a digital multimeter is an integral part of the machine. To multiply a number you set the needles on the first two knobs to the numbers on which you are operating. To find the result turn the third knob until the multimeter has been zeroed out and read the value that knob is pointing to. It seems much more simple than some of the discrete logic computers we’ve seen, yet it’s just as interesting.

Bouncing ball analog computer

bounce

[Eric Archer] constructed an analog computer to model the physics of a bouncing ball. The core is a TL074 opamp that does all the integral math. He had no trouble finding descriptions of analog computers, but how to set the initial conditions was rarely covered. The controls include potentiometers to set the initial velocity, force of gravity, and coefficient of restitution (how much energy is lost in the bounce). The output is displayed on an oscilloscope. He mentions that this output could be used in electronic music, citing Aphex Twin’s Bucephalus Bouncing Ball. Watch the video below for a demo of all the features.

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