Belgrade Experience: MikroElektronika, Museums, and FPGA Computing

I recently had the chance to visit Belgrade and take part in the Hackaday | Belgrade conference. Whenever I travel, I like to make some extra field trips to explore the area. This Serbian trip included a tour of electronics manufacturing, some excellent museums, and a startup that is weaving FPGAs into servers and PCIe cards.

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Retrotechtacular: MONIAC

There is an argument to be made that whichever hue of political buffoons ends up in Number 10 Downing Street, the White House, the Élysée Palace, or wherever the President, Prime Minister or despot lives in your country, eventually they will send the economy down the drain.

Fortunately, there is a machine for that. MONIAC is an analogue computer with water as its medium, designed to simulate a national economy for students. Invented in 1949 by the New Zealand economist [WIlliam Phillips], it is a large wooden board with a series of tanks interconnected by pipes and valves. Different sections of the economy are represented by the water tanks, and the pipes and valves model the flow of money between them. Spending is downhill gravitational water flow, while taxation is represented by a pump which returns money to the treasury at the top. It was designed to represent the British economy in the late 1940s as [Philips] was a student at the London School of Economics when he created it. Using the machine allowed students and economists for the first time to simulate the effects of real economic decisions in government, in real time.

So if you have a MONIAC, you can learn all about spectacularly mismanaging the economy, and then in a real sense flush the economy down the drain afterwards. The video below shows Cambridge University’s restored MONIAC in operation, and should explain the device’s workings in detail.
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Fourier Machine Mimics Michelson Original in Plywood

It’s funny how creation and understanding interact. Sometimes the urge to create something comes from a new-found deep understanding of a concept, and sometimes the act of creation leads to that understanding. And sometimes creation and understanding are linked together in such a way as to lead in an entirely new direction, which is the story behind this plywood recreation of the Michelson Fourier analysis machine.

For those not familiar with this piece of computing history, it’s worth watching the videos in our article covering [Bill “The Engineer Guy” Hammack]’s discussion of this amazing early 20th-century analog computer. Those videos were shown to [nopvelthuizen] in a math class he took at the outset of degree work in physics education. The beauty of the sinusoids being created by the cam-operated rocker arms and summed to display the output waveforms captured his imagination and lead to an eight-channel copy of the 20-channel original.

Working with plywood and a CNC router, [nopvelthuizen]’s creation is faithful to the original if a bit limited by the smaller number of sinusoids that can be summed. A laser cutter or 3D printer would have allowed for a longer gear train, but we think the replica is great the way it is. What’s more, the real winners are [nopvelthuizen]’s eventual physics students, who will probably look with some awe at their teacher’s skills and enthusiasm.

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Bone Up on Your Multiplication Skills

John Napier was a Scottish physicist, mathematician, and astronomer who usually gets the credit for inventing logarithms. But his contributions to simplifying mathematics and building shorthand solutions didn’t end there. In the course of performing the many calculations he needed to practice these subjects in the 1500s, Napier invented a kind of computing mechanism for multiplication. It’s a physical manifestation of an old system known as lattice multiplication or gelosia.

Lattice multiplication makes use of the multiplication table in order to multiply huge numbers together quickly and easily. It is thought to have originated in India and moved west into Europe. When the lattice method reached Italy, the Italians named it gelosia after the trellised window covering it resembled, which was commonly used to keep prying eyes away from one’s possessions and wife.

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Misleading Tech: Kickstarter, Bomb Sights, and Medical Rejuvinators

Every generation thinks it has unique problems and, I suppose, sometimes it is true. My great-grandfather didn’t have to pick a cell phone plan. However, a lot of things you think are modern problems go back much further than you might think. Consider Kickstarter. Sure, there have been plenty of successful products on Kickstarter. There have also been some misleading duds. I don’t mean the stupid ones like the guy who wants to make a cake or potato salad. I mean the ones that are almost certainly vaporware like the induced dream headgear or the Bluetooth tag with no batteries.

Overpromising and underdelivering is hardly a new problem. In the 30’s The McGregor Rejuvenator promised to reverse aging with magnetism, radio waves, infrared and ultraviolet light. Presumably, this didn’t work. Sometimes products do work, but they don’t live up to their marketing hype. The Segway comes to mind. Despite the hype that it would revolutionize transportation, the scooter is now a vehicle for tourists and mall cops.

One of my favorite examples of an overhyped product comes from World War II: The Norden Bomb Sight. What makes the Norden especially interesting is that even today it has a reputation for being highly accurate. However, if you look into it, the Norden–although a marvel for its day–didn’t always live up to its press.

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Tote Boards: the Impressive Engineering of Horse Gambling

Horse racing has been around since the time of the ancient Greeks. Often called the sport of kings, it was an early platform for making friendly wagers. Over time, private bets among friends gave way to bookmaking, and the odds of winning skewed in favor of a new concept called the “house”.

During the late 1860s, an entrepreneur in Paris named Joseph Oller invented a new form of betting he called pari-mutuel. In this method, bettors wager among themselves instead of against the house. Bets are pooled together and the winnings divided among the bettors. Pari-mutuel betting creates more organic odds than ones given by a profit-driven bookmaker.

Oller’s method caught on quite well. It brought fairness and transparency to betting, which made it even more attractive. It takes a lot of quick calculations to show real-time bet totals and changing odds, and human adding machines presented a bottleneck. In the early 1900s, a man named George Julius would change pari-mutuel technology forever by making an automatic vote-counting machine in his garage.

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Nomograms: Complex Analog Calculators Simple for Everyone

In the late 1800s, a railway engineer named Philbert Maurice d’Ocagne was part of a group of men faced with the task of expanding the French rail system. Before a single rail could be laid, the intended path had to be laid out and the terrain made level. This type of engineering involves a lot of cut and fill calculations, which determine where dirt must be added or removed. The goal of earthwork is to create a gentle grade and to minimize the work needed to create embankments.

In the course of the project, d’Ocagne came up with an elegant, reusable solution to quickly  solve these critical calculations. Most impressively, he did it with little more than a pen, some paper, and a straightedge. By developing and using a method which he called nomography, d’Ocagne was able to perform all the necessary calculations that made the gentle curves and slopes of the French railway possible.

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