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The water computer, a little-known invention that defied mathematics

In the early 20th century, before the transistor had been invented, computers were analog and made up of large mechanical gears. They were nothing like the electronic equipment that was developed later, and even less like what we have today.

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They were huge, complex and heavy equipment with limited functions, especially related to performing mathematical calculations. There is an important name in relation to those first steps of computing: Vladimir Lukyanov.

In 1936, the engineer created a hydraulic integrator, later popularly described as “the water computer”. In short, he sought to replace mechanical gears with water.

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The technology behind this invention

His was one of the first analog computers built in the Soviet Union. It worked by carefully manipulating water through a room full of interconnected pipes and pumps. The water level in various chambers represented stored numbers, and the rate of flow between them represented mathematical operations. In this way the system solved differential equations.

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The water reservoirs were linked to variable hydraulic resistance tubes. When these rose or fell, the flow of the liquid varied and the result was shown on a graph that was printed on paper.

Keep in mind that to use this device it was necessary to make previous calculations that served to configure the tubes that performed the calculations.

As you can see, it wasn’t all that automatic, although it was still very helpful and much faster than doing all the calculations manually.

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“What Vladimir Lukyanov created were hydraulic integrators whose purpose was to calculate the hardness of concrete, and other calculations related to construction,” he explains in dialogue with TechMarkupCarlos Chiodini, co-founder of the Computer Science Museum in Argentina.

Also, remember that Lukyanov worked in railway construction and one of his jobs was to generate reliable and strong concrete structures. To avoid the formation of cracks in these materials, different variables had to be taken into account, such as the type and amount of product used, temperatures, etc. He created the machine with the aim of automating this type of calculation.

“A water integrator was used in the design of canals and other engineering works until the 1970s. In the Soviet Union it was extended even until the 1980s, for large-scale constructions, whether in metallurgy, construction of dams, etc. , mines, etc But later this equipment was replaced by electronic devices”, emphasizes Chiodini.

Today this technology remains as a historical and curious fact. Currently, two hydraulic integrators are preserved in the Moscow Polytechnic Museum in Russia.

The kick for the development of another type of computing, electronics, came from the hand of the transistor with surprising advances to date.

It should be remembered that In 2015, Stanford University engineers led by Manu Prakash surprised with the announcement of a computer that used drops of water instead of bits of information.

The droplets move through a circuit that is made up of iron bars, with layers of oil in between into which water droplets containing small magnetic nanoparticles are injected.

The nanoparticles work with the magnetic fields of a clock that moves in sync with the water droplets. The presence and absence of each drop represent the ones and zeros of the code that conventional electronic computers have.

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