Most visually impressive mechanical computer?
April 12, 2010 8:52 AM   Subscribe

What's the most visually impressive (human scale) mechanical computer (that actually works)?

I'm thinking of something along the lines of a calculator, so answers like "the cells in your body" are not what I'm looking for.

posted by mpls2 to Computers & Internet (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The Computer History Museum has a Tinker Toy Computer. I can't find any video of it in action. Apparently it plays Tic Tac Toe. More from Scientific American and Retro Thing.
posted by mkb at 9:00 AM on April 12, 2010

I've always loved this binary marble adding machine, visually impressive in its simplicity.
posted by jquinby at 9:02 AM on April 12, 2010

There are several working examples of Babbage's difference engine out there.

The Clock of the Long Now is quite visually impressive. While it's essentially just a clock, it inherently does some calculation in keeping the time.
posted by zsazsa at 9:03 AM on April 12, 2010

The granddaddy would be Babbage's Difference Engine, though it's more of a calculator than a computer-- designed in the 1820s-40s, built in 1991 (this is a video of a more recent build). Some bits of his later, more computer-like Analytical Engine have also been built.

You'd probably get a kick out of the Meccano Computing site.
posted by Erasmouse at 9:07 AM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not general-purpose computers, and there probably aren't any around any more, but race-track totalisators were pretty amazing.
posted by Opposite George at 9:26 AM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, old telephone central office switches. Some of them were pretty big.
posted by Opposite George at 9:33 AM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Babbage difference engine is, to me, the clear winner. You can see it in action at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:53 AM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mid-twentieth-century naval fire control computers might be contenders.
posted by XMLicious at 11:08 AM on April 12, 2010

The WWII cryptographic "bombes" were supposedly very impressive when in operation; lots of high-speed moving parts and sparking electrical connections. They're significantly larger than man-sized and probably weigh a ton or two.

Unfortunately I don't know if there are any still in working condition; there's one in the National Cryptologic Museum at the NSA, but it's in a display case.

Also they're electromechanical, not strictly mechanical; I don't know if that qualifies for what you're looking for.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:41 AM on April 12, 2010

"The Colossus machines were electronic computing devices used by British codebreakers to read encrypted German messages during World War II. These were the world's first programmable, digital, electronic, computing devices. They used vacuum tubes (thermionic valves) to perform the calculations." Wikipedia.
A machine can be seen at Bletchley Park working. Details here. It is visually impressive.
posted by lungtaworld at 12:39 PM on April 12, 2010

Jacquard looms are visually impressive and programmed with punch cards (at least originally).

Wikipedia has some decent pictures.
posted by janell at 1:22 PM on April 12, 2010

Dang, how could I forget the totalizators?

But chiming in to say there is lots of gorgeous video of Jacquard looms on YouTube, though it's a stretch to call them calculating machines. If you're looking for whizbang machinery though those are awfully cool. Ditto the amazing wooden mechanical calendar.

On the not so much visually impressive as visually nutty end, there's the water-based Phillips economic model.

posted by Erasmouse at 2:26 PM on April 12, 2010

It depends on how you define impressive. The Antikythera mechanism was an astrological computer from 100 BC that was so ahead of its time that nothing matching its complexity was discovered for another 1400 years.
posted by Rhomboid at 5:23 PM on April 12, 2010

This isn't exactly what you're looking for, but this project realizes with modern technology a Turing Machine exactly as Turing himself described it (mostly as a though experiment).
posted by fatllama at 7:30 PM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not quite relevant, but somebody built a computer simulation within Dwarf Fortress.
posted by mkb at 12:56 PM on April 15, 2010

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