Make Math Real with this Analog Multiplier Primer

Remember learning all about functions in algebra? Neither do we. Oh sure, most of us remember linear plots and the magic of understanding y=mx+b for the first time. But a lot of us managed to slide by with only a tenuous grasp of more complex functions like exponentials and conic sections. Luckily the functionally challenged among us can bolster their understanding with this demonstration using analog multipliers and op amps.

[devttys0]’s video tutorial is a great primer on analog multipliers and their many uses. Starting with a simple example that multiplies two input voltages together, he goes on to show circuits that output both the square and the cube of an input voltage. Seeing the output waveform of the cube of a ramped input voltage was what nailed the concept for us and transported us back to those seemingly wasted hours in algebra class many years ago. Further refinements by the addition of an op amp yield a circuit that outputs the square root of an input voltage, and eventually lead to a voltage controlled resistor that can attenuate an input signal depending on its voltage. Pretty powerful stuff for just a few chips.

The chip behind [devttys0]’s primer is the Analog Devices AD633, a pretty handy chip to have around. For more on this chip, check out [Bil Herd]’s post on analog computing.

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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.

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.

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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