Mechanical Wooden Turing Machine

Alan Turing theorized a machine that could do infinite calculations from an infinite amount of data that computes based on a set of rules. It starts with an input, transforms the data and outputs an answer. Computation at its simplest. The Turing machine is considered a blueprint for modern computers and has also become a blueprint for builders to challenge themselves for decades.

Inspired by watching The Imitation Game, a historical drama loosely based on Alan Turing, [Richard J. Ridel] researched Alan Turing and decided to build a Turing machine of his own. During his research, he found most machines were created using electrical parts so he decided to challenge himself by building a purely mechanical Turing machine.

Unlike the machine Alan Turing hypothesized, [Richard J. Ridel] decided on building a machine that accommodated three data elements (0, 1, and “b” for blank) and three states. This was informed by research he did on the minimum amount of data elements and states a machine could have in order to perform any calculation along with his own experimentation and material constraints.

Read more about Richard’s trial and error build development, how his machine works, and possible improvements in the document he wrote linked to above. It’s a great document of process and begs you to learn from it and take on your own challenge of building a Turing machine.

For more inspiration on how to build a Turing machine check out how to build one using readily available electronic components.

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A Two Tapes Turing Machine

Though as with so many independent inventors the origins of computing can be said to have been arrived at through the work of many people, Alan Turing is certainly one of the foundational figures in computer science. His Turing machine was a thought-experiment computing device in which a program performs operations upon symbols printed on an infinite strip of tape, and can in theory calculate anything that any computer can.

In practice, we do not use Turing machines as our everyday computing platforms. A machine designed as an academic abstract exercise is not designed for efficiency. But that won’t stop Hackaday, and to prove that point [Olivier Bailleux] has done just that using readily available electronic components. His twin-tape Turing machine is presented on a large PCB, and is shown in the video below the break computing the first few numbers of the Fibonacci sequence.

The schematic is available as a PDF, and mostly comprises of 74-series logic chips with the tape contents being displayed as two rows of LEDs. The program is expressed as a pluggable diode matrix, but in a particularly neat manner he has used LEDs instead of traditional diodes, allowing us to see each instruction as it is accessed. The whole is a fascinating item for anyone wishing to learn about Turing machines, though we wish [Olivier] had given  us a little more information in his write-up.

That fascination with Turing machines has manifested itself in numerous builds here over the years. Just a small selection are one using 3D printing, another using Lego, and a third using ball bearings. And of course, if you’d like instant gratification, take a look at the one Google put in one of their doodles for Turing’s 100th anniversary.

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Help Keep The Bombe At Bletchley

Fans of vintage codebreaking machinery might be interested to hear that the only working reconstruction of a Turing-Welchman Bombe is likely to soon be on the move. The electromechanical device, a replica of those used on the Second World War Enigma codes, is housed at Bletchley Park, the former codebreaking center established before the outbreak of war to house British and Polish codebreakers.

Bletchley Park itself is now a tourist attraction. The news is that a display reorganization has caused the Turing Welchman Bombe Rebuild Trust that owns the Bombe to approach the neighboring National Museum Of Computing with a view to housing it alongside their reconstruction of the Colossus electronic computer. The Colossus was famously used on the Lorenz cipher. This is an exciting development for the museum, but as an organization reliant on donations they face the task of finding the resources to create a new gallery for the arrival. To that end, they have launched a crowdfunding campaign with a target of £50000 ($69358.50), and they need your donations to it for the project to succeed. They have raised over £4500 in the few days it has already been open and there is most of a month still to go, so we hope they achieve their goal.

The Bletchley Park site is now surrounded by the post-war new town of Milton Keynes, and is easy enough to get to should you find yourself in the UK. We visited The National Museum Of Computing a couple of years ago and spent a very happy day touring its extensive and fascinating collection. If you want to read more about the Bombe you might like to read our review, and also our impression of Colossus.

As part of their campaign, the museum has produced a promotional video, which we have placed after the break.

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The Enigma Enigma: How The Enigma Machine Worked

To many, the Enigma machine is an enigma. But it’s really quite simple. The following is a step-by-step explanation of how it works, from the basics to the full machine.

Possibly the greatest dedicated cipher machine in human history the Enigma machine is a typewriter-sized machine, with keyboard included, that the Germans used to encrypt and decrypt messages during World War II. It’s also one of the machines that the Polish Cipher Bureau and those at Britain’s Bletchley Park figured out how to decipher, or break. Most recently the story of how it was broken was the topic of the movie The Imitation Game.

Let’s start with the basics.

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The Turing Tapes

The recent movie “The Imitation Game” gave [Alan Turing] some well-deserved fame among non-computer types (although the historical accuracy of that movie is poor, at best; there have been several comparisons between the movie and reality). However, for people in the computer industry, Turing was famous for more than just helping to crack Enigma. His theoretical work on computing led to the Turing machine, which is still an important concept for reasoning about computers in a mathematical way. He also laid the foundation for the stored program computer that we take for granted today.

What’s a Turing Machine?

A Turing machine is deceptively simple and, like many mathematical models, highly impractical. Leading off the inpracticalities, the machine includes an infinite paper tape. There is a head that can read and write any symbol to the tape at some position, and the tape can move to the left or the right. Keep in mind that the head can write a symbol over another symbol, so that’s another practical difficulty, although not an insurmountable one. The other issue is that the symbol can be anything: a letter, a number, a jolly wrencher, or a bunch of dots. Again, not impossible, but difficult to do with practical hardware implementations.

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