Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Gearing Up

Okay, I saw this the other day and meant to post it, but...well, homework. So it's coming now. It's not spaceflight, but does appeal to my core demographic of "me, coming back to find links to stuff I thought was cool". It's a demonstration of the operation of what look like impossibly-shaped gear mechanisms.
Watch Video Here

The gears in this video are myriad in design and wonderful to watch in motion: Square gears! Spiral gears! Fish-shaped gears! There's a lot of clever design work here, and the result is amazing to behold. Each new mechanism brought me a fresh sense of "Nah, it couldn't really work like that, could it?" and then a "Wow! Guess it can!" I'm particularly interested in what the odd shapes due to rotation rates--two circular gears have a constant rate of rotation when spinning one another, but it looks like there may be some interesting effects going on here with some of the arrangements.

Looking at it reminded me of a pair of videos I found a while back about mechanical computers. As I said in the "Out There Ideas of Yesteryear" post, I like ideas that are novel or unusual, because even if their own merits are no longer greater than their drawbacks, they can provide an interesting outside perspective on the ideas that are more mainstream. Thus, I find mechanical or analogue computers fascinating, because in addition to the fascinating engineering and design elements of them they also offer an outside view back at the amazing modern computers we (or at least I know I) often take for granted. As an engineer in an era when computer cycles are so cheap and plentiful that the average household has access to many times the computing power used to send men to the moon and mostly uses it for watching cute web videos, it's amazing to look at the kinds of tools my predecessors--perhaps even people I may work alongside once I graduate--had to make due with and admire the kinds of ingenuity they used to work around these limitations.
A Boy and His Slipstick
Me messing around with the ThinkGeek slide rule
I received for my birthday last month
Tools like the slide rule, which for decades was as symbolic of the technical fields as the stethoscope is of medicine but has now vanished almost completely, or mechanical computers of the sort used to aim bombs, torpedoes, and guns in WWII used elegant applications of problem analysis and mathematical tricks to
do with simple mechanisms what we today do with digital calculators and computers. Admittedly, a slide rule  is less powerful a portable, general-use tool than, say, the TI-83 I keep in my backpack or on my desk, and the mechanical computers I mentioned were limited by their construction to a limited set of uses while a digital computer doing the same tasks can also be reprogrammed to do others, but their obsolescence now does little to reduce my admiration of their incredible history of design and use.

Further information on mechanical computing mechanisms can be found in this 1950s-era training video about naval gunnery control computers, or in OP 1140, a 1944 Navy publication that serves as a fairly definitive reference on the topic of mechanical analogue computers. If you have the time, at least check out the video; it offers some of the same kinds of mind-expanding feelings as the gearing video at the top of this post, but with the added benefit of learning a few things about the history of computing.

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