Apple Engineering and 2,000 years of computing

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Leeland's picture

A computer use to be a professional mathematician who performed complex math for business needs. The earliest documented use of the term was in ancient Greece where computers would run out navigational tables for merchant vessels to navigate by. Of course technology came along and automated them out their jobs (well kind of). When mechanical computational engines were devised to rapidly perform the calculations they got the name of the profession. What is even more interesting is that it is very likely analog computers are more ancient than most can believe (http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101124/full/468496a.html). With the discovery of the Greek ship wreck containing a possibly Babylonian (http://www.nature.com/news/2010/101124/full/468496a/box/1.html) inspired analog computer to show the precise location of the planets and sun in 3d the knowledge and technical levels of ancient civilizations have taken a very large leap up the scales.

Now over 2,000 years later a pretty fun project was undertaken by the Apple Engineer Andrew Carol who decided (for not well defined reasons) creates analog computers out of Legos. Yes, you read that right, analog computers made from Legos. To be honest I think this is a great use of engineering time. It helps to understand the basic nature of what our systems do. For example I decided one summer to see if I could boot-load a base computer from another simpler computer. So I took my Atari 500 and figured out how to get it to write to the floppy disks for an IBM 386. I then went about trying to figure out how to get the bits on the floppy to get me to a rudimentary OS.

Sure it took a lot of time and produced nothing new or interesting to anyone else but myself. None-the-less I learned a lot about disk operating systems, boot-strapping computers, raw IO operations, and in the end had a running base Linux kernel from which I could build more complex versions of Linux.

So my hat is off to Andrew Carol! I have studied older analog computers, but beyond knowing they existed, their names, and some of the uses to which they were put I never actually built one to see how it all falls together. Now I have yet more trivial but fun things to do with my kids when they get old enough to really be interested in such things!

To watch Andrew Carol re-create a 2,000-year-old analog computer using Legos check out the http://www.fastcodesign.com/1662831/watch-an-apple-engineer-recreate-a-2... article! Or go look at the difference engine he also built http://acarol.woz.org/difference_engine.html .

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