Here is a two-part Navy training film from 1953 that describes the inner workings of mechanical fire control computers. It covers seven mechanisms: shafts, gears, cams, differentials, component solvers, integrators, and multipliers, and does so in the well-executed fashion typical of the era.
Fire control systems depend on many factors that occur simultaneously, not the least of which are own ship’s speed and course, distance to a target, bearing, the target’s speed and course if not stationary, initial shell velocity, and wind speed and direction.
The mechanisms are introduced with a rack and pinion demonstration in two dimensions. Principally speaking, a shaft carries a value based on revolutions. From this, a system can be geared at different ratios.
Cams take this idea further, transferring a regular motion such as rotation to an irregular motion. They do so using a working surface as input and a follower as output. We are shown how cams change rotary motion to linear motion. While the simplest example is limited to a single revolution, additional revolutions can be obtained by extending the working surface. This is usually done with a ball in a groove.
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Back in the 70’s when computers were fairly expensive and out of reach for most people, [David Hagelbarger] of Bell Laboratories designed CARDIAC: CARDboard Illustrative Aid to Computation. CARDIAC was designed as an educational tool to give people without access to computers the ability to learn how computers work.
The CARDIAC computer is a single-accumulator single-address machine, which means that instructions operate on the accumulator alone, or on the accumulator and a memory location. The machine implements 10 instructions, each of which is assigned a 3-digit decimal opcode. The instruction set architecture includes instructions common to simple Von Neumann processors, such as load, store, add/subtract, and conditional branch.
Operating the computer is fairly simple–the cardboard slides guide you through the operation of the ALU and instruction decoder, and the flow chart shows you which stage to go to next. The program counter is represented by a cardboard ladybug which is manually moved through the program memory after each instruction completes.
Even though the CARDIAC is dated and very simplistic, it is still a useful tool to teach how microprocessors work. Although modern processors include multi-stage pipelines, finely-tuned branch predictors, and numerous other improvements, the basic principles of operation remain the same.
Feeling adventurous? Print out your own CARDIAC clone and try writing your first cardboard computer program.
The device that these seamen are standing around is a US Navy targeting computer. It doesn’t use electricity, but relies on mechanical computing to adjust trajectories of the ship’s guns. Setting up to twenty-five different attributes by turning cranks and other input mechanisms lets the computer automatically calculate the gun settings necessary to hit a target. These parameters include speed and heading of both the ship and it’s target, wind speed and bearing, and the location of the target in relation to this ship. It boggles the mind to think of the complexity that went into this computer.
The first of this seven part series can be seen after the break. The collection covers shafts, gears, cams, and differentials. Sounds like it would be quite boring to sit through, huh? But as we’ve come to expect from this style and vintage of training film it packs a remarkable number of simple demonstrations into the footage.
Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Mechanical targeting computers”