Cunning Computational Contraptions

Issue 28 of the cs4fn magazine

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From the dawn of humanity people have created cunning computational contraptions.

Some have been bodged together, Wallace and Gromit style with little hope of working long term, others have been marvellous miracles of engineering. Some just demonstrated an idea, some entertained, the best have been immensely useful and completely changed the way we live. This issue is about contraptions with links to computation, if not always computers themselves. Charles Babbage gets a special place as, along with other computational inventions, he was the one who first worked out how a general-purpose computer might work and even designed one that would have worked if built despite it being the age of cogs and steam. We also explore how to do computation with marbles and custard, though not together…

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A special issue on the long history of computing through cunning computational contraptions…(go to download site)

An ode to technology

A female statue staring with head turned

Cunning contraptions date back to ancient civilisations. People have always been fascinated by automata: robot-style contraptions allowing inanimate animal and human figures to move, long before computers could take the place of a brain … (read on)

Core rope memory

The Earth seen from the moon

Weaving, in the form of the Jacquard loom, inspired Charles Babbage. He intended to use the same kind of punch card to store programs in his Analytical Engine, which had it been built would have been the first computer. However, weaving had a much more direct use in computing history. Weaving helped get us to the moon … (read on)

Cover of CS in Space - an astronaut

More on the computer science and space in issue 8 of the cs4fn magazine: astronomy and computing, computer scientists in space and more … (read on)

Woven core rope memory in and out of beads for 1s and 0s

Make your own core rope memory storing your name or some secret message, as a bracelet or just to hang as a decoration … (read on)

Babbage’s adders

smoke curling on black background

Babbage’s Victorian computer was made of Victorian tech – metal, wheels and levers. It had a cunning contraption at its core that allowed it to store and add numbers … (read on)

Babbage’s triumph over brutal reality

Red rose on  a grave stone

Charles Babbage is famous for his amazing technical skills in designing a computer, but also infamous for his apparent spiky and obsessive personality, but his life was full of sorrow … (read on)

Quicksilver memory

Silver stream of swirling liquid

Some 1950s computers used tubes filled with mercury as a memory to store numbers. Mercury is a metal that is liquid at room temperature. It’s also known as quicksilver as it flows very easily, but in computing it was actually used to trap information…. (read on)

The taming of the screw

A pile of screws

Babbage was obsessed with precision because if his machines were to work, they needed it. His demands for precision helped change the humble screw, becoming a standard that powered British industry. … (read on)

Mary Coombs, teashops and Leo the computer

Tea shops played a big role in the history of computing. J. Lyons & Co. bought one of the first computers to use for payroll. Except they had a problem. Their computer needed programs and the job of programmer didn’t exist. One person they found, Mary Coombs, became the first female commercial programmer. … (read on)

Predicting the future: marble runs, binary and the I Ching

Binary underpins everything computers do. The maths behind binary numbers was worked out by German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz in the 17th century. He even imagined a computing machine a century before Babbage. He was driven in part by an ancient Chinese text used for predicting the future … (read on)

I Ching binary

I Ching the ancient Chinese divination text, several thousand years old, is based on a binary pattern. It uses hexagrams, patterns formed of 6 sets of lines … (read on)

Ada and the music machine

Charles Babbage found barrel organs so incredibly irritating that he waged a campaign to clear them from the streets, even trying to organise an act of parliament to have them banned. He hated the irritating noise preventing him from concentrating. His hatred, however, may have led to Ada Lovelace’s greatest idea … (read on)

Babbage’s barrels

Despite his hatred of Barrel organs, Babbage used barrels with relocatable pins in his machines. They gave a way to program the instructions available to control the machine, something we would now call microcode… (read on)

A custard computer

Imagine a room-sized vat of custard suspended from the ceiling. Below are pipes, valves and reservoirs of custard. At the bottom is a vast lake where custard collects as it splurges from the pipes. A pump sucks custard back to the vat on the ceiling. Custard flows, sits, splurges…doing computation… (read on)

The Wood Computer

Punch cards inspired Babbage as he invented the first Victorian computer, and were a way the first computers stored data a century later. Variations, called edge-notched cards, were used before the first working computers, providing an efficient way to find information. Oxford’s human-operated ‘wood computer’ was used in forests world-wide…. (read on)

Edge-notched cards and relational databases

Edge-notched cards implement a physical, but still powerful, version of a database: an organised way of storing data from cards with holes and notches in them … (read on)

The beach, the missionary and my origin myth

Superheroes have an origin myth describing how they emerged as a hero. Batman has his fall into a cave of bats; Captain Marvel was exposed to alien energy… Write your own origin myth. Mine involves a beach, a book of programs, and a missionary. It is the backstory of how I became a computer scientist…. (read on)

Back (page) to the drawing board

More cunning contraptions, with and without a purpose: the intelligent dart board; the ultimate (do nothing machine); Quipu are knot information systems; the leech-based weather app and the proud parent machine … (read on)

cs4fn is edited by Paul Curzon and Jo Brodie of Queen Mary University of London. Spring 2022. Thanks to Sue White and Jane Waite for proof reading. Ursula Martin and Adrian Johnstone have provided advice and explanations. This magazine was funded by UKRI, through grant EP/K040251/2 held by Professor Ursula Martin and forms part of a broader project on the development and impact of computing, as well as grant EP/W033615/1. Paul Curzon provided additional funding. Paul Curzon writes and edits cs4fn in his own time. Magazine design by Kelly Burrows, kellyburrows @