Mechanical nanocomputers

Babbage-style mechanical 'difference engine'Via Bruce Sterling, we discover that a group of US physicists have produced a blueprint for a robust nanoscale microprocessor. Not such groundbreaking news, you might think – until you discover that they are entirely based on mechanical principles derived from the famous Babbage Engine, a Victorian-era mechanical computer. [Image by lorentey]

Electronic computers proliferated once semiconductors became a reliable mass-production substrate, but there are some places where electronics are too delicate to operate reliably. Which reminds me of a science fiction novel in which the military spacecraft are fitted with mechanical computers so as not to be susceptible to damage from the EMP of nuclear weapons … a big Futurismic ‘thank you’ to anyone who can remind me of the author and title.

In related news, the ubiquitous Google have added another lump sum to the annual Turing Award, the “highest award in the field of computing science” for innovative ideas.

6 thoughts on “Mechanical nanocomputers”

  1. “Which reminds me of a science fiction novel in which the military spacecraft are fitted with mechanical computers so as not to be susceptible to damage from the EMP of nuclear weapons …”

    Not SF, but from real life I remember the story how, during the cold war, the West caught a Russian MiG flighter plane, and thoroughly dissected it.

    IIRC, they were very smug when they found that the electronics in the Russian plane were rather crude and unsophisticated. Until someone realised that these ‘crude’ electronics were able to withstand an EMP, which — at that time — most US aircraft (with their more sophisticated electronics) couldn’t…

    Not sure if this is apocryphal or true, as I can’t find any links to it quickly.

  2. Link found!

    It was the MiG-25 Foxbat:


    “The Foxbat’s electronics were also frequently viewed as inferior to Western aircraft. The book ‘MiG Pilot’, which documents Viktor Belenko’s defection to the West with a MiG-25, notes derision of extensive use of vacuum tubes in the aircraft circuitry instead of semiconductors. However it is worth noting that vacuum tubes are arguably more resistant, perhaps by a factor of thousands, to electromagnetic interference than transistors. Whether this design was a result of technology decades behind the West or was a deliberate attempt to harden the aircraft against a nuclear blast is open to debate, as it is speculated that the Soviet Union knew about EMP effects of nuclear blasts long before Western governments did.”

    Link: .

    (Scroll down to “History”, to the third last paragraph before “Records”).

    Those Russinas weren’t so stupid!

  3. Cheers, Jetse – didn’t know that. History is full of fascinating nuggets.

    I’m still pretty sure the idea cropped up in an sf series, though; perhaps it was Brin’s “Sundiver” sequence?

  4. I am of course reminded of _Battlestar Galactica_, in which the obsolete Battlestar (i.e. battleship) survives the attack because it’s non-networked systems prove resistant to the virus-like attack that destroys the entire rest of the military fleet.

  5. The anarcho socialist civilization created by Ken MacLeod in “The Cassini Devision” uses Babbage difference engine style computers.

    The schtick is that there are weakly godlike nerdlings inhabiting Jupiter that keep flooding the solar system with malicious computer viruses.

    In order to avoid having their infrastructure hiijacked the anarcho socialists use mechanical and biomechanical computers, I can’t remember exactly why these are meant to be more durable than electronic ones.

    Also look at the last chapter of “The Stone Canal” for details on that society.

    The “Fall Revolution” Sequence is great anyway, but I guess that’s well known already in these parts.

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