The Lego Computer

By Tim Moran  |  Posted 2011-01-28 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Tim Moran’s round up of offbeat stories includes the most boring day of the 20th century and Hedy Lamarr’s role in cell phone history.

Building an Ancient Computer From Legos

His name is Andrew Carol. By day, he’s an Apple software engineer working on OS X; by night, he’s the digital engineer who created an ancient analog computer—out of Legos! A recent story on Fastcodesign.com explains how he crafted a working replica of the ancient Greek Antikythera Mechanism, circa 100 B.C., which was designed to predict astronomical events such as eclipses.

According to the story, the computing device was lost until 1901, when divers discovered it under the sea off Greece. Fast forward 100 years, at which time high-resolution X-ray tomography showed that the ancient Greek engineers had devised a unique “computer,” using gears of great precision, to predict celestial events with uncanny accuracy. In 2010,

Carol made a fully functioning replica out of children’s building blocks—1,500 Lego Technic parts and 110 gears. It took him 30 days to design, prototype and build the machine.

As someone who spent many hours playing with Legos with my boys (my biggest accomplishment was making a cool tower), I’m awed by Carol’s feat.

Beauty and the Cell Phone

Depending on one’s demographic, the name Hedy Lamarr might not be familiar. The beautiful actress appeared in numerous “B+” movies (Samson and Delilah, Her Highness and the Bellboy, White Cargo, etc.), and died in 2000 at the age of 87. What’s little known about this star is that she was also a mathematician and inventor, and her work in communi-cations paved the way for the cell phone, according to a recent article on the site iO9.com.

With avant-garde composer George Antheil, Lamarr patented a “secret communication system” in 1942 based on frequency-hopping, spread-spectrum technology. During World War II, this technology was used to “keep torpedoes from being detected or manipulated by enemy forces.”

This spread-spectrum work formed the basis for the wireless communications boom—cell phones, Wi-Fi, etc. Says the article: “It all flowed from the original patent that Hedy came up with to fight Nazis.” We hear you now, Hedy.

A Boring Day in the Life

Did you ever wonder what the most boring day of the 20th century was? Nor have I. But computer programmer William Tunstall-Pedoe did, and, like a good software hound, he did something about it. He actually calculated the most objectively dull day since 1900: April 11, 1954.

A recent story on Telegraph.com.uk explains that Tunstall-Pedoe created a program called True Knowledge to function as a more intelligent way to search the Internet. But as a sideline—for fun!—he decided to determine what the most unremarkable day in the last 100 years had been. To that end, True Knowledge was fed some 300 million facts about people, places and events in the news, and it eventually determined that April 11, 1954 was the day on which less of import happened than on any other day since the turn of the 20th century.

Apparently, no problem is too small or obscure to warrant wasting complex algorithms and huge amounts of computing power.



 
 
 
 
Tim Moran is a freelance writer for Baseline magazine.
 
 
 
 
 
 

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