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5 Computers From the Days Before Computers

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Wikimedia Commons

Everyone knows what a computer is, right? It's electronic, high-tech and digital. It's only existed for the last 50 or 60 years. It has defined the word "modern" in “modern world.” And it’s given hackers a useful role to play in big-budget action movies.

But computers actually date back thousands of years. Here are a handful of the most interesting predecessors to the modern PC, and what folks in olden times used them for.

1. The Antikythera mechanism

A mysterious object recovered from a shipwreck, this first-century device has stunned researchers. Its fine workmanship and impeccable mechanism wouldn't be matched for more than 1000 years.

When recovered in 1901, its discoverers had no idea of its origin or purpose. Over the decades, scientists have theorized that it was a portable device that allowed its user to input the date and learn the position of the Sun, Moon, and other astronomical phenomena.

In recent years, computed tomography scans have revealed even more intricacies. The mechanism is considered by some to be the earliest surviving computer.

2. The Stepped Reckoner

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Gottfried Leibniz, a German mathematician and all-around genius (he created differential calculus), invented the first four-function calculator in 1673. It used a metal cylinder to represent the digits from 0 to 9, and its basic design was used in mechanical calculators into the 1970s and 1980s. The hand-cranked Curta calculator is a direct descendent.

There was a fairly significant problem with Leibniz’s device, though. His design outstripped the ability of workmen at the time. His calculator didn’t actually work that well when built. And even when fully restored to his original specifications in the late 1800s, the reckoner didn’t carry tens correctly.

3. Difference Engine

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The most famous analogue computers were created—although not fully built—by the English pioneer Charles Babbage.

He first proposed the Difference Engine—a giant, automatic calculator—in 1822. The British government ended its funding for the project some two decades later, after Babbage had spent 17,000 pounds without creating a usable machine. He had created a lot of high-quality industrial tools to make the gears a Difference Engine might use, though.

4. Analytical Engine

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Babbage didn't stop to mourn. He had already moved on the Analytical Engine, the very first general-purpose computer. His design (which spanned thousands of pages) included the main elements found in modern computers—including programs installed via punch cards. Babbage worked until his death in 1871 to realize his creation, but neither her nor his heirs managed to construct one.

5. MONIAC (Monetary National Income Analogue Computer)

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This analog computer, created in 1949, modeled the economic workings of the United Kingdom through a series of water tanks. Water flowed through MONIAC from a reservoir, representing the treasury, perched at the top of the system. Taxation was represented by water pumped from the lower tanks back to the top one.

While this type of computer was displaced by digital devices, MONIAC has lived on in fiction. It appeared in thinly disguised form in fantasy author Terry Pratchett’s 2007 novel, Making Money.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]