Mechanical Computers solve Mechanical Problems

June 7th, 2011

I’ve long forgotten how I stumbled upon this series of videos on YouTube, but I find them absolutely fascinating.  They appear to be from a 1953 US Navy training film about the fire control computer on a naval ship.   There isn’t a single electrical anything, purely gears and such. 

I am impressed by the ingenuity that it took to create such simple mechanisms to easily mimic complex mathematical problems.  It’s important to keep in mind, that these mechanisms don’t seem to be solving things like tangents or reciprocals so much as being able to output them instantaneously.  A sharp person with the correct tables in front of them could probably have been able to get results fairly quickly, but the real advantage of these machines seems to be their ability to have that output continuously and smoothly change.   For example, as two ships pass each other the distance and angle between them is constantly changing, and as such the gun angles need to be constantly changing.  These machines were able to calculate that continuously.

I think my favorite line is the first: “Fire control computers solve fire control problems.” It seems almost redundant today, but explaining explicitly what a computer did in the 1950’s doesn’t seem that ridiculous.

Have you seen anything similar online?  I’d love to see more films like these.


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