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SampleGuy
06-28-2014, 07:01 AM
In an alternate Victoria Age world, how can people build computers and robots if their only technology is stream powered tech?

Helix
06-28-2014, 07:07 AM
Computers are older (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechanical_computer) than you might think. Have a look at the difference engine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Difference_engine).

Might be worth reading up about Charles Babbage (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Babbage) and Ada Lovelace (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_lovelace).

ETA: Also robots or automata (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automaton).

Once!
06-28-2014, 07:24 AM
Clockwork - lots and lots of intricate clockwork.

SampleGuy
06-28-2014, 07:32 AM
Computers are older (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechanical_computer) than you might think. Have a look at the difference engine (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Difference_engine).

Might be worth reading up about Charles Babbage (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Babbage) and Ada Lovelace (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_lovelace).

ETA: Also robots or automata (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automaton).

Robots with computer brains.

Liosse de Velishaf
06-28-2014, 07:49 AM
It depends on how advanced you want to be. People are currently working on nan-scale mechanical computers that are almost as good as normal ones.


You could scale that tech up a bit and have something maybe good enough to match some of the early home computers. It'd be a lot bigger, though.

PeteMC
06-28-2014, 06:34 PM
The Difference Engine by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling is about exactly this.

SampleGuy
06-29-2014, 06:14 AM
Man I never thought computers were that old.

Jacob_Wallace
06-29-2014, 06:44 AM
Why can't computer be run on steam? Sorry if I'm oversimplifying it, but steam is just the power source, right? Why can't steam generate power for computers?

Roxxsmom
06-29-2014, 07:00 AM
You could certainly have clockwork, or even steam powered computers. The concept of the punch card, and of simple programmables goes back a long way. But if something is based on mechanics and not the flow of electrons through wires or semiconductors, they're going to be a lot slower and a lot less powerful.

I guess how intricately you want to take this into consideration will depend on how "hard" you want the science to be in your steampunk world, or if it's more of a science fantasy or fantasy type setting. Steampunk gets a certain pass for some things that are expected parts of its genre, just like other subgenres of SF or F do (like dragons that can fly in traditional fantasy).

benbradley
06-29-2014, 07:51 AM
In an alternate Victoria Age world, how can people build computers and robots if their only technology is stream powered tech?
They could, sort-of, but not really...

The Difference Engine by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling is about exactly this.
I read it, it was the prototypical (or most popular at the time) steampunk novel, but it had way too little about "the computer" that the police owned/used - it was always in the background, but it had a database (!) of criminals. There was this rather mysterious deck of punched cards for it that DID show up, it was in characters' hands, but there was little or nothing about what they did. I recall the novel as being very character-oriented - there were about three categories: the high society, the criminal underground (the "punk" part of steampunk), and the police.

I was expecting something closer to hard SF, and I was really disappointed.

Why can't computer be run on steam? Sorry if I'm oversimplifying it, but steam is just the power source, right? Why can't steam generate power for computers?Technically, it does, but this isn't what's meant by steampunk.

Steam itself isn't the power source, it's just part of what's used in a steam engine (from back when) to power a factory or locomotive, or to spin a turbine for an electric generator (still used in large power plants today, and of course today's computers run on electricity). It's actually burning coal (or burning SOMETHING to turn the water into steam) that's the source of energy.

The steam part of Steampunk is shorthand for a world with advanced mechanical devices. Think of the original Babbage engine or (more recently, about 50 years ago) the Curta handheld calculator on steroids. But it's not quite conceivable that one would have a database on a mechanical computer. Paper, pencil, and a filing cabinet would be faster.

As for actual mechanical computers, there are the two difference engines built in the last decade or so:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Difference_engine
I understand it was a stretch to build it in Babbage's time (the original designer who spent most of his money and lifetime trying to get it built), because machining at the time wasn't quite up to the tolerances needed to make such a machine. Even in modern times it cost quite a bit of money to make. It was a special-purpose machine anyway, build specifically for calculating and printing mathematical tables (which were replaced with hand-held electronic calculators in the 1970s).

Then there's the LongNow clock, a device designed to run for 10,000 years:
http://longnow.org/clock/
It's quite complicated and has both digital parts (what we now think of as a computer) and analog parts (like a slide rule).

SampleGuy
06-29-2014, 09:42 AM
Or the stream engine can generate electricity and transfer it to the computers.

ClareGreen
06-29-2014, 09:52 AM
Er, SampleGuy, that's what happens now. Steam engines - steam turbines to be precise - generate most of our electricity. Gas, coal, methane, even nuclear, all of 'em drive steam turbines.

Teinz
06-29-2014, 12:10 PM
Saw this video a while back (dunno where I found it, perhaps here on AW?) and was pretty impressed by it.

http://www.chonday.com/Videos/the-writer-automaton

Once!
06-29-2014, 01:08 PM
That's the second time you've referred to a "stream" engine. I ignored the first one (thinking it might be a typo), but now we've got two I'm not so sure.

Let's start from the beginning. Modern computers run on electricity. If you allow that your civilization knows about electricity and can work with it, then there is no reason why a Victorian age civilization can't start down the road of having computers and robots.

How to generate the electricity? Because energy cannot be created or destroyed, you need another energy source. In effect we are transferring energy from one thing to another.

The sun shines down on prehistoric Earth. Mighty trees grow, trapping the sun's energy in their cells. When these trees die, they become fossilised and are squeezed underground by the pressure of the earth above them. This crushes and squeezes the bits of dead tree into hard black lumps of carbon known as coal.

Burn the coal in a steam engine to release this trapped energy. Use the heat to make water hot. The water turns into steam. Because steam takes up more space than water it expands (pushes outwards). Use this pushing power to turn a turbine.

Use the round and round motion of the turbine to rotate wires around magnets. This creates electricity. Take the electricity away and use it to power a computer or a robot or anything else that takes your fancy.

In fact, that is largely how we create electricity today. We burn coal, oil or gas to heat water to turn into steam to drive turbines to turn wires around magnets to make electricity. Coal is fossilised trees. Oil and gas are fossilised fish.

We can also make electricity from any other power source that can turn a turbine. A water wheel powered by a stream. A hamster or human running around a wheel. An internal combustion engine.

Nuclear power stations? That's just another way of using heat to turn water into steam to drive turbines. Yup - electricity produced by nuclear power is another form of steam engine.

That's electricity generation. Anything that produces sufficient heat to boil water or enough rotary energy to turn a turbine can make electricity.

But having lecky is not enough on its own to build computers or robots. The basic building block of a computer is a switch which can be on or off, and some way of doing something based on that information. If the switch is on do X. If the switch is off, do Y. Repeat many times.

The earliest computers did this mechanically using rods, levers and gears. The problem is that you need an awfully large amount of machinery to do anything useful. But it is still technically a computer. That's why my first answer to you was to use clockwork. Lots of clockwork.

After physical computers, early electric computers used valves and transistors to miniaturise this process. Then the development of the computer chip meant that it could be smaller still. But at its heart is still the basis of all computers. Turning a light-bulb on or off and doing something different as a result.

Computers and robots in a Victorian era world? They would have the electricity without any problem. But they would not have the computer chips to miniaturise the decision-making process. Hence ...

Clockwork. Lots and lots of clockwork.

Old Hack
06-29-2014, 06:49 PM
Have a look online for some footage of Colossus, the computer at Bletchley Park. I've seen it in the flesh. It's brilliant.

PeteMC
06-29-2014, 11:51 PM
Would love to see that - is it open to the public?

benbradley
06-30-2014, 04:32 AM
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0anIyVGeWOI

Old Hack
06-30-2014, 10:36 AM
Bletchley Park is definitely open to the public: Colossus is housed in the National Museum of Computing (I think) which is on the Bletchley Park site. It's a very low-key place to visit, with many of the original huts that were used by the WWII codebreakers still in use. It's fascinating if you have any interest in WWII, codebreaking, and history.