Computing Via (Virtual) Dominos

Back in 2012, [Matt Parker] and a team built a computer out of dominos for the Manchester Science Festival. [Andrew Taylor], part of the team that built the original,  has built a series of virtual domino puzzles to help explain how the computer worked. He also links to a video from the event, but be warned: the video contains some spoilers for the puzzles. If you are ready for spoilers, you can watch the video below.

The original computer could add two three-bit numbers and provide a four-bit result. We don’t want to give away the answers, but the inverter is quite strange. If you don’t want to puzzle it out, you can press the “reveal answer” to see [Andrew’s] solutions. Press “play” and watch the dominos fall.

Of course, building an adder is a far cry from building a computer, but at 10,000 dominos, a real computer would be difficult, though clearly possible. This is especially true when you consider that these logic gates can only run once, so testing is a bear. The fact that knocking over a domino takes it out of play is exactly how many of the gates work, too, but that’s the only hint we’ll give.

We couldn’t help but think of the Three Body Problem’s human computer. If you prefer your domino logic to be non-interactive, we’ve covered another presentation on the topic.

6 thoughts on “Computing Via (Virtual) Dominos”

1. Will Stevens says:

This is a really great way of inspiring people to want to know how it works. I had fun years ago working out that using dual-rail logic it’s possible in principle to make any Boolean circuit with dominoes without needing any bridges, and without needing to worry about relative timing of signals. (Search for “Computing with planar toppling domino arrangements” – the PDF result that comes up is free). Also did some work on predicting the behaviour of any arrangement of dominoes (search for “Using transition systems to describe and predict the behaviour of structured excitable media” – Arxiv has a free version).

Fascinating idea and well explained. Last week I binged watched the 3 Body Problem series on Netflix and now I am reading the book. There is an amazing idea in it about a “human computer” which is created to try and solve the problem. If this domino project excites you then I recommend watching it.

3. Matthew Chubb says:

I did my undergraduate project on this! “Implementation of a two bit multiplier using toppling dominoes”, Chubb, University of York 2010. A classmate of mine picked up where I left off for his Masters and expanded my designs to much larger systems, he also found a practical use in processor design.

4. Matt Chubb says:

I did my undergraduate project on this! “Implementation of a two bit multiplier using toppling dominoes”, Chubb, University of York 2010. A classmate of mine picked up where I left off for his Masters and expanded my designs to much larger systems, he also found a practical use in processor design.

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