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Before there were electronic computers, there were mechanical computers, and one of the most important uses of these was in directing gunfire on surface warships. Mechanical fire control computers took inputs from manned instruments that visually tracked enemy ships, and also considered variables such as wind speed and direction, the firing ship’s heading and velocity, etc. That information—completely in the form of physical displacements of mechanical movements—was cranked through a complex train of shafts, gears, cams, and differentials that computed the optimal firing solution, and automatically aimed the guns accordingly.

This film series, produced by the US Navy in black-and-white sprocket-clatter 1950s glory, explains the general principles of mechanical computation, as applied to fire control systems, in clear and engaging language with nice animated diagrams. It’s been ported to YouTube in seven parts by user navyreviewer. Totally engrossing. [via Boing Boing]

Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I write for MAKE, serve as Technical Editor for MAKE magazine, and develop original DIY content for Make: Projects.


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  1. I saw an amazing analogue flight computer from the F-111 fighter jet (circa 1967) in a museum here in Australia – the thing was so complex that it apparently took a year to disassemble, service and then reassemble and test. It was eventually replaced with a digital version (our last F-111 squadron was flying up until last year, so they were overhauled and upgraded many times) which could be serviced in a number of hours! But it was really incredible – such a complex arrangement of so many delicate springs and motors and gears…