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Toys Quickies

LEGO Tech Still Going Strong 120

zimage writes to tell us that Andrew Carol has designed and built a working Babbage Difference Engine out of LEGO. From the article: "Before the day of computers and pocket calculators, all mathematics was done by hand. Great effort was expended to compose trigonometric and logarithmic tables for navigation, scientific investigation, and engineering purposes. In the mid-19th century, people began to design machines to automate this error prone process. Many machines of various designs were eventually built. The most famous of these machines is the Babbage Difference Engine. [...] Babbage's design could evaluate 7th order polynomials to 31 digits of accuracy. I set out to build a working Difference Engine using LEGO parts which could compute 2nd or 3rd order polynomials to 3 or 4 digits." In related, but not quite as functional, news DigitalDame2 writes to tell us that PC Magazine has an interview with LEGO "brick-artist" Nathan Sawaya, creator of their commissioned LEGO PC. There are also several pictures of the creation in addition to a contest to win the snap-together sculpture.
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LEGO Tech Still Going Strong

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  • Amazing (Score:3, Interesting)

    by bassgoonist ( 876907 ) <.aaron.m.bruce. .at. .gmail.com.> on Thursday February 09, 2006 @01:35AM (#14675480) Journal
    This is really great to see a working Babbage computer out of legos, its not as accurate as Babbage's design...but amazing none the less. Too bad Babbage didn't have legos when he was trying to get funding to build his computer! The lego PC mock ups are nice, but nothing compares to a real working mechanical lego computer :-P
    • Re:Amazing (Score:2, Interesting)

      by jibjibjib ( 889679 )
      This is very cool. I would be more impressed if someone was able to build a general purpose computer out of Lego, but that would be even more impractical, and possibly require ridiculous amounts of lego.
      Of course, it would be impossible to make a computer that was actually useful out of Lego, but something more like the Analytical Engine than the Difference engine would be cool. I can imagine it now... winding the little Lego handle and watching the Linux kernel messages scroll up the screen...
      • Not entirely impossible. A year or so ago here on /. someone posted a link to a fellow who'd made logic gates out of Lego. (i.e., and, not, or, nor, nand).

        The basic problem with making a computer out of the gates was basically twofold. Size is an issue (you'd need acres just for a for-banger calculator), and energy requirements to turn all of those parts.

    • Re:Amazing (Score:5, Funny)

      by BeardsmoreA ( 951706 ) on Thursday February 09, 2006 @04:37AM (#14675893) Homepage
      Too bad Babbage didn't have legos when he was trying to get funding to build his computer

      No, don't you see! It explains why the original never got completed - he ran out of red 2x4 pieces with the little holes through for cross axles!

    • Re:Amazing (Score:2, Interesting)

      Good to see this being built and Babbage being appreciated for what he should have achieved. There was a documentary on in the UK about him recently, and it basically stated that if Babbages Difference engine had been built, WW1 would have lasted about 10 minutes due to the accuracy of the gunnery tables that could have been produced.
      • Good to see this being built and Babbage being appreciated for what he should have achieved. There was a documentary on in the UK about him recently, and it basically stated that if Babbages Difference engine had been built, WW1 would have lasted about 10 minutes due to the accuracy of the gunnery tables that could have been produced.

        I seriously doubt that - even today uncertainties about such variable quantities as atmospheric pressure, the effects of wind, the precise performance of the propellant charg

    • Re:Amazing (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Vellmont ( 569020 )

      Too bad Babbage didn't have legos when he was trying to get funding to build his computer!


      Well, the design made out of Legos is far far simpler than Babbages machine, so obviously easier to produce. Difference Engine 2 was supposed to calculate 7th order polynomials to 31 digits of accuracy. The lego contraption can only calculate 2nd or 3rd order polynomials to 3 or 4 digits of accuracy.

      Had Babbage been interested in actually producing these machines rather than designing them and finding out what's poss
      • Kinda, the jumping off point for the Difference Engine seems to be that Lord Byron's (eminently sensible) wife managed to keep him on a tighter leash, and he goes into politics as a supporter of meritocracy. As a result he's in a position to help out his daughter(Ada)'s friend Charles Babbage - and eventualy becomes Prime Minister on the back of the resulting computer revolution.

        It's a bit far-fetched, and not the best written book in the world.

  • by Biul ( 923036 ) on Thursday February 09, 2006 @01:39AM (#14675492)
    Here's real integration of LEGO and computing, the first rev was MIT's Brick, now this...

    http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,69946-0.html?t w=wn_tophead_1 [wired.com]
  • Very nice! Give this guy the geek award for the year! Let's just hope the organ grinders don't find out about him and drive him nuts until he dies...
    • Re:Wow (Score:3, Funny)

      Give this guy the geek award for the year!

      Especially since Babbage never got one of his designs to work in a complete form. Now this (partial) implementation has been thrown together out of an off the shelf toy.

      I am not sure Babbage would appreciate knowing about this.

      • If memory serves, babbage did get his difference machine working. It was only his analytical machine that couldn't get built. The design (and Ada's programs) were both fine, it's just that they didn't have the machining accuracy or funds to make one.
      • Hmm, well I hardly think that he's in condition to complain, now is he?
  • Computers (Score:5, Informative)

    by Bacon Bits ( 926911 ) on Thursday February 09, 2006 @01:50AM (#14675518)
    Before the day of computers and pocket calculators, all mathematics was done by hand. Great effort was expended to compose trigonometric and logarithmic tables for navigation, scientific investigation, and engineering purposes.
    The job title of the people who did all the math? Who got up and all day every day did these same calculations over and over and over to build these tables?

    Computers.

    Note also that ENIAC's inended design purpose was to produce ballistic firing tables for Army artillery during WWII.

    • Re:Computers (Score:2, Insightful)

      by GWTPict ( 749514 )
      Logarithms, invented by John Napier born 1550. Henry Briggs, another British mathematician published a table of logarithms to 14 places of numbers from 1 to 20,000 and from 90,000 to 100,000 in 1624.

      http://www.thocp.net/reference/sciences/mathematic s/logarithm_hist.htm [thocp.net]

      So enlighten me, what sort of computer was he using?
      • No, no, you don't understand. Your 21st century mind is interfering with the original definition of "computer".

        The job title was computer. Say you go up to one of these math people and ask them what they do: "I'm a computer. I am one who computes. I compute the answers to complex formulas for use in various tables."

        Much like one who drives is a driver, and one who monitors is a monitor. We generally don't confuse NASCAR with software that handles communication between OS and hardware, or confuse ma

        • Doh! Slaps self around head and goes for more coffee.
        • The job title was computer. Say you go up to one of these math people and ask them what they do: "I'm a computer. I am one who computes. I compute the answers to complex formulas for use in various tables."
          Hey kid! I'm a computer. Stop all the downloadin'! Help computer.

          Now I understand where that came from.
  • These Lego case mods [google.com] are cool too!
    • And don't forget to search for lego pc [google.com] or even previous slashdot lego pc articles [google.com]. Amazing how the first link from each search ends up at the same site. Also conincidentally with a little hunting you can discover why I knew what to search for and why I'm not an impartial poster :).

      PS. No I never sold it, I still use the lego pc as my main gaming rig. Its very stable and no lego's don't melt.

  • I hope for them they don't host the page on a difference engine
    • It's running mighty slow considering it's Steve Wozniak's server...
    • The Digg effect beat Slashdot to it - they had this ages ago
    • I know you were joking, but still, this would be technically impossible.
      A Difference Engine is a special-purpose device for evaluating polynomial functions, and would not be able to host a web site.
      But the Analytical Engine might be able to, theoretically. It is a more general-purpose machine than the Difference Engine. I'll be very impressed when someone builds one of those out of Lego.
  • by NeoManyon ( 953080 ) on Thursday February 09, 2006 @02:35AM (#14675647) Homepage
    Here is a quote from the man himself which is amazingly still relevant!

    "On two occasions, I have been asked [by members of Parliament], 'Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?'

    I am not able to rightly apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question."

    Charles Babbage (1791-1871)
  • by Boss Sauce ( 655550 ) on Thursday February 09, 2006 @02:48AM (#14675678) Homepage Journal
    Bring on the links! A favorite of mine-- Cable camera rig [arstechnica.com].
    • I think it's interesting how that's been assembled. Rather than using the regular Lego plastic shafts (the sort of X-shaped ones, or rather 'round with 4 deep angle grooves cut into them at 90-degree intervals'), he's used regular machine screws and hardware. It kind of reminds me more of an Erector set than Legos, in terms of how it's built.

      I have to admit I'm sad that Erector seems to have gone the way of the dodo (although Meccano is still around), although Legos are definitely superior in terms of ease-
  • by djvern ( 824535 ) on Thursday February 09, 2006 @02:57AM (#14675697)
    I built a Lego Turing Machine using only 1x1 blocks.
  • The latest Wired... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday February 09, 2006 @03:25AM (#14675759)
    has a nice large article in it about Lego, which basically states that "Lego will do for robotics what iPod has done for music".

    Thats a pretty huge claim - Lego's were something I was interested in when I was 5-6 years old, putting together those $100 kits my parents would buy for me.

    It also seems to me that the image of the company is what's going to detract attention from any serious accomplishments. It's kind of like Toys 'R' Us getting in to the nuclear power industry - nobody would really take it seriously, because of the brand name.

    I think Lego should consider doing whatever they can to shake the "just for kids" image, possibly selling stuff through another company with a different name, in order to really get attention for what they're doing.
    • 'has a nice large article in it about Lego, which basically states that "Lego will do for robotics what iPod has done for music".'

      10,000 Robots in your pocket...
    • by hcdejong ( 561314 ) <hobbes@NOsPAM.xmsnet.nl> on Thursday February 09, 2006 @05:10AM (#14675968)
      It also seems to me that the image of the company is what's going to detract attention from any serious accomplishments.

      I haven't read the Wired article, but IMO Lego is uniquely positioned to revolutionize robotics *because* they're a toy company. With their Technic and Mindstorms ranges, Lego can get kids interested in engineering and robotics at the right age (8-12). Lego certainly contributed to my becoming an engineer.

      The problem with this strategy is getting kids interested in actually building something, rather than vegetating in front of the TV or chatting on the computer.
    • ... putting together those $100 kits ...

      I loved Lego when I was a kid, and still can't resist building something if there's a bucket of Lego about, but I have to say that the whole concept of the "$100 kits" (obviously, £100 in the UK for some reason!) leaves me cold!

      As I understood it, the concept was that there are a bunch of building blocks from which you can build pretty much anything your imagination can fathom, so why, in the name of all that is holy, do we want or need a special kit contain

      • I remember the "old" days of Lego. Sure, you had kits that came out to something, but it was all made up of standardized parts. You had a bunch of 2x4s, a handful of 1x6s, some flat, some tall, and you could build that model they thought up.

        Or you could throw them together with the rest of your stuff and build something else.

        Today's lego is pre-set. You have like 10 parts that you need to puzzle together, and that's it. Where's the fun? I had way more fun building my toys than playing with them! I remember
    • It also seems to me that the image of the company is what's going to detract attention from any serious accomplishments. It's kind of like Toys 'R' Us getting in to the nuclear power industry - nobody would really take it seriously, because of the brand name.

      How many engineers got their start building Erector sets, which entered the american market in 1913? Erector had a realism and complexity that appealed more than Meccano. Our family owns a set which lets you build a model of the Parachute Drop from th

    • It's kind of like Toys 'R' Us getting in to the nuclear power industry - nobody would really take it seriously, because of the brand name.

      Or maybe like a certain computer company getting into the music industry and everyone said it wouldn't work.

      Remember Westinghouse? They used to make blenders... Now they make nuclear reactors. ;)

      Or maybe Nintendo? They used to make poker cards back in the 1800's. Now look what they do.

      If a company wants to exist more than 10 years, then they have to constantly reinvent th
  • Misleading headline (Score:4, Interesting)

    by broothal ( 186066 ) <christian@fabel.dk> on Thursday February 09, 2006 @03:29AM (#14675770) Homepage Journal
    Lego is not going strong. As a matter of fact they're going through their worst crisis ever. Recently, they sold off their theme park "Lego Land" to a capital fund. Their problems are mainly decreasing sales due to illegal copies manufactured in Asia, but also similar toys manufactured in Asia. So, Lego faces a challenge. The danish factories are very effective and produce high quality, but the pay is many times higher than if they outsource. Yet, they core of Lego is their headquarters in Billund, Denmark. If they move everything to the east, would it still be Lego?
    One of the owners og Lego, the millionaire Kirk, has personally piped funds from him to Lego in an effort to ressurect the company. It seems like it's working, but Lego will probably end up with a loss in this fiscal year as it has the last 5 years.
    • by jimicus ( 737525 ) on Thursday February 09, 2006 @08:00AM (#14676334)
      You seen any recent Lego kits?

      10 years ago, your average Technic kit consisted of a few hundred brightly-coloured blocks which were fairly generic, maybe one or two unusual pieces, and they all fitted together in more-or-less the same way. You could even fit them to traditional lego bricks.

      I was given two kits for Christmas 2004. The first consisted entirely of beams which were smooth top and bottom and had to be fitted together with axles. Not very useful in conjunction with the old parts. The second consisted of bricks in about 6 or 7 different colours, all similar shades, and almost impossible to tell one shade from another in the printed instructions. None of the colours were the traditional Lego bright primary colours. Which was a bit of a bugger if you wanted to build the robot the included instructions covered as the whole look was ruined if you got the colours wrong.

      I later discovered that these two kits were close to the top of the Technic range and the range itself had narrowed to no more than about half a dozen or so kits available in your average toyshop.

      Cause of Lego financial difficulties or result?
  • by Beryllium Sphere(tm) ( 193358 ) on Thursday February 09, 2006 @03:34AM (#14675778) Homepage Journal
    Some older references opine that Babbage failed because the parts and the mechanical engineering of the day just weren't up to the job of building a calculating machine.

    That was always questionable -- after all, England had high-precision chronometers the century before Babbage -- but if you can build a Difference Engine out of flexy plastic and gears designed for use in toys, then problems with brass are no excuse.

    The other theory is that the Babbage projects failed because he kept making design changes during assembly.

    Oh, and Wow. All bow to the new alpha nerd!
    • by hcdejong ( 561314 ) <hobbes@NOsPAM.xmsnet.nl> on Thursday February 09, 2006 @04:42AM (#14675904)
      The Science Museum built a Difference Engine no 2 [sciencemuseum.org.uk] using materials and techniques that were available in Babbage's time. They succeeded, so that was that theory out the window. The other theory is more likely.
    • by Bushcat ( 615449 ) on Thursday February 09, 2006 @05:05AM (#14675958)
      The chronometers were individually hand-crafted masterpieces. One of Babbage's assistants for a time was Whitworth, who went on to formulate specifications for screw threads, and helped define the whole concept of repeatable manufacturing quality, where accuracy could be measured, and components became interchangeable. That led to factories where the money someone was paid was based on the time it took, rather than the skill of the operator or the complexity of the product. The Difference Engine/Babbage helped create the Industrial Revolution, and benefitted from it.
    • The other theory is correct. There was no control of the specification which led to feature creep and cost and schedule overruns. Building the Difference Engine might be considered to be the first IT project. It certainly set the trend.
    • I think the real deal is that Babbage was a mathematician, and not an engineer. He was far more interested in what was possible to do rather than actually doing it. He designed the difference engine and made some progress on actually creating it. It seems like after he decided it was possible he went right on into designing a far more advanced computer, the analytical engine. The analytical engine was far more advanced, and was actually turing complete. That means that given enough memory and time, it
  • During the movie at one point they had to calculate something, I forget what, so they all took out slide rules.
    I couldn't figure out why not an electric calculator until I realized it was the early '70s when they were rare.
    Or at least rules were faster when needed to be done quickly.
  • Lego's home Kray super computer. Okay it's the size of a small city and takes a couple of hundred years to assemble but imagine all the geek points you'd get for assembling one!
  • Am I the only one who thought it would be a working PC, with the case made out of legos? That'd be a lot cooler, IMHO. The mouse might be a little annoying to hold, though...
    • Am I the only one who thought it would be a working PC, with the case made out of legos? That'd be a lot cooler, IMHO. The mouse might be a little annoying to hold, though...

      You mean something like this? [mini-itx.com] Or maybe you prefer Mac? [applefritter.com] :-)
    • A working PC would be difficult, but you can build simple mechanical logic gates [superpositioned.com] in Lego. If you build enough, then you can create a simple general purpose computer. Possibly not actually useful, but certainly a worthwhile learning experience.
  • why people have enough time for these things!! I need to sleep!!
  • Virtual Lego (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mustafap ( 452510 ) on Thursday February 09, 2006 @07:21AM (#14676215) Homepage
    There are some nice add-ons for POV-Ray that generate Lego parts, so you can play with them in a virtual environment.

    eg

    http://www.ldraw.org/ [ldraw.org]

    • Gryphon Bricks (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Kadin2048 ( 468275 )
      Better than that, there was actually a 3D "building blocks" (they weren't really Legos) program called Gryphon Bricks. (Possibly 'Bricks 3D'.)

      I just looked it up and it seems as though the company has gone kaput, making me belive the program is probably abandoned. (Release date was Sep 1996.) I have the actual retail box around somewhere.

      I was kind of a neat concept, but honestly I found that arranging bricks via the mouse was considerably more difficult and less intuitive than putting them together by hand
  • I am a big fan of computational historics and all, so I wonder if we'll manage to eventually build a lego difference or analytical engine to do what Babbage and Ada Lovelace died bankrupt trying to do....

    Win at the track betting on the ponies!

    • It's early, I havent had my coffee...

      It's Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace (and the woman for whom the Ada language was named)

    • My followup to the Difference Engine is going to be a "tiny" Analytic Engine like thing. It can't possibly be as Babage envisioned, but it will be a general purpose programmable machine made from pure LEGO.

      I envision four 2 digit "registers", a few math operations, and a conditional store operation. The programming will be via chain link LEGO pieces. Narrow bicycle chain means no-operation, wide tank-track chain indications "do it". There would be a half dozen or more synchonized chains running in paral
  • will this hurt my feet when i set on it in the middle of the night because my kid missed it when he picked up his legos? OHH god how those things peirce the skin of hte foot. :(
  • The first Difference Engine I built could do 2nd order differences to 3 digits. The second machine (the one I posted at http://acarol.woz.org/ [woz.org] had better carry timing and was built to the same 2nd order/3 digit size, but is capable of being expanded to 4 digits and 3rd order differences.

    I've had a lot of people ask for directions on how to make it, so I'm cleaning up the design to be easier than it currently is. Mostly making the adder rotors removable and making the power drive gear box a distinct module
  • > Andrew Carol has designed and built a working Babbage Difference Engine out of LEGO

    So much for the "19th century engineering couldn't actually build such a thing" BS. I wanna see one made out of wood as carved by hatchet!

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