Inside Mechanical Calculators

For as busy as things can get at the grocery store on a typical afternoon just before the dinner hour, at least the modern experience has one thing going for it: it’s relatively quiet. Aside from the mumbled greetings and “Paper or plastic?” questions from the cashier, and the occasional screaming baby in the next aisle, the only sound you tend to hear is the beeping of the barcode scanner as your purchase is tallied up.

Jump back just 40 years and the same scene was raucous, with cashiers reading price tags and pounding numbers into behemoth electromechanical cash registers. Back then, if you wanted help with any arithmetic with more than just a few operations, some kind of mechanical calculator was your only choice. From simple “one-banger” adding machines to complex analog computers, mechanical devices were surprisingly capable data processing tools. Here’s a brief look at how some of the simpler ones worked.

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Let’s Bring Back the Age of Automatons

Long before the concept of A.I., as we know it today existed, humans started building machines that seemed to move and even think by a will of their own. For decades we have been building automatons, self-operating machines, designed to resemble humans and animals. Causing the designer to break down human and animal movements, behaviors, and even speech (by way of bellows and air tubes) into predetermined sequential actions.

[Greg Zumwalt] created what he calls a hummingbird themed automaton inspired by his wife’s love of watching hummingbirds gather near their home. His 3D printed and assembled hummingbird automaton moves almost as fluid as its organic counterpart. The design is simple yet created from an impressive number of 97 printed parts printed from 38 unique designs which he includes in his Instructable. Other than meticulous assembly design, the fluid motion lends itself to a process of test fitting, trimming, and sanding all printed parts. Plus adding petroleum jelly as lubrication to the build’s moving parts. Along with the print files, [Greg Zumwalt] also gives you the print settings needed to recreate this precision build and a parts list accounting for all the multiple prints needed for each design. Continue reading “Let’s Bring Back the Age of Automatons”

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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The Internet of Non-Electronic Things

The bill of materials for even the simplest IoT project is likely to include some kind of microcontroller with some kind of wireless module. But could the BOM for a useful IoT thing someday list only a single item? Quite possibly, if these electronics-less 3D-printed IoT devices are any indication.

While you may think that the silicon-free devices described in a paper (PDF link) by University of Washington students [Vikram Iyer] and [Justin Chan] stand no chance of getting online, they’ve actually built an array of useful IoT things, including an Amazon Dash-like button. The key to their system is backscatter, which modulates incident RF waves to encode data for a receiver. Some of the backscatter systems we’ve featured include a soil sensor network using commercial FM broadcasts and hybrid printable sensors using LoRa as the carrier. But both of these require at least some electronics, and consequently some kind of power. [Chan] and [Iyer] used conductive filament to print antennas that can be mechanically switched by rotating gears. Data can be encoded by the speed of the alternating reflection and absorption of the incident WiFi signals, or cams can encode data for buttons and similar widgets.

It’s a surprisingly simple system, and although the devices shown might need some mechanical tune-ups, the proof of concept has a lot of potential. Flowmeters, level sensors, alarm systems — what kind of sensors would you print? Sound off below.

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An Awesome Open Mechanical Keyboard

Who doesn’t want a little added functionality to their  lives? Feeling a few shortcut keys would make working in Eagle a bit smoother, [dekuNukem] built his own programmable mechanical keypad: kbord.

It sports vibrant RGB LED backlight effects with different animations, 15 keys that execute scripts — anything from ctrl+c to backdoors — or simple keystrokes, up to 32 profiles, and a small OLED screen to keep track of which key does what!

kbord is using a STM32F072C8T6 microcontroller for its cost, speed, pins, and peripherals, Gateron RGB mechanical keys — but any clear key and keycaps with an opening for the kbord’s LEDs will do — on a light-diffusing switch plate, and SK6812 LEDs for a slick aesthetic.

Check out the timelapse video tour of his build process after the break! (Slightly NSFW, adolescent humor for a few seconds of the otherwise very cool video. Such is life.)

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Camera Slide Pans and Tilts Camera Mechanically

A camera slider is a popular and simple project — just a linear slide, a stepper, and some sort of controller. Adding tilt and pan axes ups the complexity until you’ve got three motors, a controller, and probably a pretty beefy battery pack to run everything. Why not simplify with an entirely mechanical pan-tilt camera slider and leave all that heavy stuff at home?

There’s more than one way to program motion control, and [Enza3D]’s design uses adjustable rails to move the gimballed pan-tilt head through two axes of motion. One rail adjusts vertically to control tilt, while the other adjusts in and out relative to the slider to control pan. Arms ride on each rail and connect to the gimbals to swivel the camera in both dimensions while it travels down the manually cranked slide. It’s pretty clever and results in some clean, dynamic shots as in the video below.

Our quibble is that the “program” is only linear since the control rails are straight lengths of aluminum extrusion; seems to us that some sort of flexible control rails might make for more interesting shots. [Enza3D] has amply documented the build and is looking for feedback, so comment away. And if you don’t have a 3D printer to make the parts, wood works for a slider too.

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A Mechanical Laser Show with 3D-Printed Cams and Gears

Everyone knows how to make a POV laser display — low-mass, first-surface mirrors for the X- and Y-axes mounted on galvanometers driven rapidly to trace out the pattern. [Evan Stanford] found a simpler way, though: a completely mechanical laser show from 3D-printed parts.

The first 10 seconds of the video below completely explains how [Evan] accomplished this build. A pair of custom cams wiggles the laser pointer through the correct sequences of coordinates to trace the desired pattern out when cranked by hand through a 1:5 ratio gear train. But what’s simple in concept is a bit more complicated to reduce to practice, as [Evan] amply demonstrates by walking us through the math he used to transfer display shapes to cam profiles. If you can’t follow the math, no worries — [Evan] has included all the profiles in his Thingiverse collection, and being a hand model software guy by nature, he’s thoughtfully developed a program to automate the creation of cam profiles for new shapes. It’s all pretty slick.

Looking for more laser POV goodness? Perhaps a nice game of laser Asteroids would suit you.

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