VCF East: Before There Was Arduino, We Had Balls

Today, if you want to teach kids the art of counting to one, you’re going to drag out a computer or an iPad. Install Scratch. Break out an Arduino, or something. This is high technology to solve the simple problem of teaching ANDs and ORs, counting to 0x0F, and very basic algorithms.

At the Vintage Computer Festival East this year, System Source, proprietors of a fantastic museum of not-quite-computing equipment brought out a few of their best exhibits. These include mechanical calculators, toys from the 60s, and analog computers that are today more at home in a CS departments’ storage closet than a classroom. It’s fantastic stuff, and shows exactly how much you can learn with some very cleverly designed mechanical hardware.

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Differential Analyzer Cranks out Math like a Champ at VCF 2016

Here at VCF, we stumbled across a gigantic contraption that spanned several tables. Rube Goldberg machine this was not. Instead, this device actually does something useful! [Tim Robinson’s] differential analyzer can solve differential equations through several stages of mechanical integrators. The result is a pen-plot graph of the solution to the input equation, input by displacing a rod as a function of time.

Differential analyzers have been around for over a century. [Tim’s] claim to fame is that this particular DA is constructed entirely from Meccano-branded parts. We’re thrilled to see Meccano, over 100 years old at this point, continue to find new uses outside the toy box.

The Torque Amplifier

The differential analyzer is riddled with mechanisms that are bound to swing some heads for a double-take. Since the input shaft that transmits the input function f(x), has very little friction, the result can only be carried through the remainder of the machine with some means of torque amplification. To do so, [Tim], and most other DA designers implement a torque analyzer. For [Tim], though, this feat proved to be more difficult (and more triumphant) than other solutions, since he’s using a set of parts that are entirely from Meccano. In fact, this feature took [Tim] through about 20 iterations before he was finally satisfied.

VCF West continues to run through the end of the weekend at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. If you haven’t already packed your bags for DEF CON, stop by for a few more bewildering brain teasers.

1980s Toy Robot Arm Converted To Steam And Other Explorations

We were doing our daily harvest of YouTube for fresh hacks when we stumbled on a video that eventually led us to this conversion of a 1980s Armatron robot to steam power.

The video in question was of [The 8-bit Guy] doing a small restoration of a 1984 Radio Shack Armatron toy. Expecting a mess of wiring we were absolutely surprised to discover that the internals of the arm were all mechanical with only a single electric motor. Perhaps the motors were more expensive back then?

The resemblance is uncanny.
The resemblance is uncanny.

The arm is driven by a Sarlacc Pit of planetary gears. These in turn are driven by a clever synchronized transmission. It’s very, very cool. We, admittedly, fell down the google rabbit hole. There are some great pictures of the internals here. Whoever designed this was very clever.

The robot arm can do full 360 rotations at every joint that supports it without slip rings. The copper shafts were also interesting. It’s a sort of history lesson on the prices of metal and components at the time.

Regardless, the single motor drive was what attracted [crabfu], ten entire years ago, to attach a steam engine to the device. A quick cut through the side of the case, a tiny chain drive, and a Jensen steam engine was all it took to get the toy converted over. Potato quality video after the break.

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Laser Cut Mechanical Logic Gates

When you create logic circuits using ICs or FPGAs, you can’t easily visualize their operation without special tools. But if you’ve ever seen a mechanical computer (like the Computer History Museum’s Babbage engine) operate, you know you don’t have that problem. Just like it is fascinating to watch a 3D printer or CNC machine, watching mechanical logic gates work can be addictive.

[Anthony] wanted to build some mechanical logic gates and set out designing them using Inkscape. Unlike some common mechanical gate schemes, [Anthony’s] gates use gears to implement the logic operations. He sent the designs off to a laser cutter service and got back parts cut from 3mm acrylic.

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Rod Logic and Graphene: Elusive Molecule-Scale Computers

I collect slide rules. You probably know a slide rule is a mechanical calculator of sorts. They usually look like a ruler (hence the name) and have a sliding part (hence the name) and by using logarithms you can multiply and divide easily by doing number line addition and subtraction (among other things).

It is easy to dismiss old technology like that out of hand as being antiquated, but mechanical computing may be making a comeback. It may seem ancient, but mechanical adding machines, cash registers, and even weapon control computers were all mechanical devices a few decades ago and there were some pretty sophisticated techniques developed to make them work. Perhaps the most sophisticated of all was Babbage’s difference engine, even though he didn’t have the technology to make one that actually functioned (the Computer History Museum did though; you should see it operating in person, but this is good too).

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Jacquard Loom Becomes A Display

The world’s leading expert on mechanical computers wasn’t [Charles Babbage]; sure, he could design stuff, but eventually you need to actually build something. We are now graced with the expertise of [Chris Fenton]. He’s built mechanical calculators, a mechanical digital computer, and now a mechanical display inspired by the Jacquard loom.

[Chris] calls his creation the PixelWeaver, and the name isn’t far from the truth; it’s a 32-hook Jacquard style punch card reader that could be mounted over a small loom. Instead of weaving rugs and fabric, the PixelWeaver controls a 6×5 black and white display.

The PixelWeaver is built out of t-slot aluminum, 3D printed parts, and a web of thread to transfer motion from rotating cams to ratchets and pixels. The display itself is heavily inspired by a Lego mechanical display, and the cards that store the data for the display are laser-cut plywood. Interestingly, there’s nothing in this machine that couldn’t have been made 150 years ago; it’s the same technology used to weave rugs, although the necessity of a bitmap display in the Victorian era is a bit questionable.

You can see a few videos of the PixelWeaver below. If you’re wondering what else has come out of [Chris]’ mechanical computing lab, check out his digital computer and Fibonacci calculating set of gears. For a real treat, here’s a machine that will calculate all primes under 1000 in 30 years.

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Retrotechtacular: Fire Control Computers in Navy Ships

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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