Is it possible to physically build a the basic logic gates with nuts ans bolts? I'm wondering if it's possible to build a mechanical adder unit.

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    $\begingroup$ You may want to have a look at the wiki on functional completeness - it would be sufficient to construct any functionally complete set, which could be as simple as AND and NOT or even just NAND. $\endgroup$ – user10851 Jul 23 '13 at 3:17
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    $\begingroup$ A cursory search on my favorite search engine for "mechanical logic gate" seems to indicate that yes, it is possible. But I don't have the time to dig through the results for a reliable answer... $\endgroup$ – tpg2114 Jul 23 '13 at 3:21
  • $\begingroup$ Please migrate this to electrical stack exchange which specializes in these types of questions. $\endgroup$ – Larry Harson Jul 23 '13 at 12:07
  • $\begingroup$ @LarryHarson I think there is a definite physics aspect to this question as the mechanical computer - especially the reversible kind - is a powerful thought experimental device for thinking about the fundamental physics of computation (thermodynamics, signal propagation). It also has a great deal in common with the quantum computer, as reversible mechanical setups are readily shifted to needfully unitary quantum computing. $\endgroup$ – WetSavannaAnimal Jul 23 '13 at 13:34
  • $\begingroup$ Relevant: youtu.be/SudixyugiX4 $\endgroup$ – MikeTheLiar Jul 23 '13 at 13:44

Note: in computing, mechanical device will generally mean any kind of physical device. No so for physicists. Then a problem is said to be mechanized as long as it can be handled by any kind of physical device (generally an electronic computer).

You can rely on the turing completeness of computers to presume that anything you can compute can be computed by a mechanical device, including logic operations.

I am saying "presume", because turing completeness is a slightly misleading concept for the unwary. The situation is that many models of what computing means have been developed by top mathematicians and logicians. They have all been shown equivalent to the model developed by Alan Turing, the Turing machine (some were actually a bit weaker, possibly intentionally to capture other properties). So we presume that is as much as can be done, but that cannot be proved. This is called Church's Thesis (meaning "hypothesis") from Alonzo Church who created the lambda calculus, another major model of computation.

That being said, that are lots of physical devices that mimic directly the behavior of logical gates, and can be assembled to create more complex logical devices. Precisely those devices that are used to make computers.

The best known ones are based on simple electronics with transistors. But the first computers were built from gates contructed with electromechanical relays, and later with tubes, mostly triods I guess. They were heavy on energy.

Some (rudimentary ones) were built from fluid mechanics, using gas in special circuits intended to resist very hostile environments. The gas flow would be oriented this way or that way with pressure mechanisms (this is very old memory).

A lot of research is now into light based devices, for greater speed and lower consumption

In all these devices, 0 and 1 are represented by some physical quantity that ccan take 2 values: voltage, current, pressure ...

This is complemented by memory systems, where other, usually more stable phenomena are used, such as magnetic orientation. Variety is probably even greater historically in memory systems. Mechanical devices were also used to buid memories. For example, around the sixties, there were memories build from delay lines: mechanical torsion was imparted to one end of the line and would propagate to the other end, while other torsion were imparted behind it; when reaching the other end, the torsion would be read and reinjected at the beginning. It worked like a kind of drum memory.

And yes, these devices can be used to build adders, or many other types of devices.

About solid logical gates

If you want mechanical gates made with solid components, here is an example of a one bit adder : http://halfbakedmaker.org/?p=116 I did not check it.

You can simply search the web with: mechanical logic gates and you will find many, mostly toys. Have fun.

As I said in a comment, I do not believe the Babbage engine fits your request, except in an abstract sense, as it is a decimal and not a binary device. Now it is possible that some parts of it may be considered logical gates, but I would not know that without studying the details.

If you consider solid mechanical devices (Babbage's engine, Curta calculator, Pascal's machine, Leibniz' Step Reckoner) they were all based on decimal computation. Solid logical gates seem to all be toys or thought experiments, or at best experimental devices. There are probably good reasons for that. One that I can see is that mechanical devices are probably more fragile and more power hungry when they have more parts. Hence they are probably more effective when each component can represent a larger number of values, or when you can realize a complex operations withone or two gears or other mechanical contraptions, rather than decomposing into very elementary primitives.

Another reason is that putting together a large number of gates, and solid devices may impose a lot of geometric constraints on the way they communicate, and also on the mechanisms to bring in energy to activate the gates. Again, reducing the number of parts may make the problem simpler.

Things are much easier if you have flexible parts, as with devices composed of gates based on fluid mechanics, connected by fleible pipes, or electromechanical gates connected by wires.


The answer is an emphatic yes. Essentially this is what Charles Babbage did (look him up on Wikipedia). Also look up his Analytical Engine. This is accepted as the first computer that is Turing Complete. Therefore, by the Church-Turing thesis any computation done by any kind of physical computer can also be done on a mechanical computer. Parts of Babbage's ideas have actually been built but I'm not sure how far the builders have gotten (see plan28.org). However, it is widely accepted that Babbage's concepts are altogether sound - any problems arise from the exacting strictness of the accuracy requirements for the mechanical parts (the mechanical tolerances are tight, as the mechanical engineers would say).

A related topic is that there is also quite a bit of "thought experiment" interest in reversible mechanical computatation engines. In particular, Charles Bennett invented perfectly reversible mechanical gates whose state could be queried without the expenditure of energy. See "The Thermodynamics of Computation - A Review" by Charles Bennett. Bennett used such mechanical gates to thought-experimentally study the Szilard Engine and to show that Landauer's Limit (the minimum amount of work needed for computation) arises not from the cost of finding out a system's state (as Szilard had assumed) but from the need to continually "forget" former states of the engine.

See also Chris's comment on functional completeness - one or two well-chosen Boolean operators can be combined to get you all the rest.

  • $\begingroup$ On a related note: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billiard-ball_computer $\endgroup$ – mehfoos Jul 23 '13 at 8:31
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    $\begingroup$ This is not exactly what Babbage did. As a general purpose computer, Babbage's engine could indeed simulate the computation of logical gates and devices built from logical gates. However it was not itself built that way. It was a decimal machine, not a binary one. Modern computers from mid-20th century were binary machines, built with binary logical gates, though some attenpted to build a decimal structure on top of the binary foundation. This is is no longer done, afaik. I think there was some work on ternary systems, but that did not last long. $\endgroup$ – babou Jul 23 '13 at 9:54
  • $\begingroup$ @babou Very good points. The question, though, addressed an adder and this is independent of radix. However, I shall edit my answer to merge in your and other good comments if the question stays here and doesn't get migrated. $\endgroup$ – WetSavannaAnimal Jul 24 '13 at 4:12
  • $\begingroup$ My understanding of the question is that it addresses the possibility of building an adder unit from mechanical logical gates, apparently with the implicit assumption that the parts should be solid (else the best answer would be the fluid mechanics gates, as I know these were used industrially). I doubt any such adder was ever built for actual use (though toy examples are found on the net), as using decimal is so much simpler and more effective. The most remarkable solid state mechanical adder I know of is the differential. It is an analog device, but it can probably be used digitally. $\endgroup$ – babou Jul 24 '13 at 7:21

Yes. A toy in the 1960s provided geeky kids with flip-flops and programmable logic implemented in plastic, rubber bands and short sections of plastic straws. It was called the Digi-Comp. It could be "programmed" to be a 3-bit shift register or counter. Though it was limited to three flip-flops and three logic sections, in principle it could have had more.

See, for example, http://alvelda.wordpress.com/2006/08/16/the-toy-that-got-me-started-in-computing/

Of course, there is the whole Babbage engine project eons ago.


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