Analog Mechanical Computing

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.

–Alfred North Whitehead

It’s fascinating to see how far we’ve come in just a few decades. Check out this old US Navy film from 1953 on how a mechanical firing computer works. They’re using custom-cut gears and cams to physically calculate algebraic and trigonometric functions. People (okay, this is 1953 — “men”) enter data by turning wheels and moving levers, and mechanical linkages in a purpose-built computer the size of a refrigerator┬áturn this into firing solutions.

These days, a microcontroller priced lower than a cheap cup of coffee could do all of this easily. A smartphone wouldn’t even notice the extra computational load, and could effortlessly handle a fleet’s worth of such computations while showing you the HD video of how it used to be done.

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