The History of Computing in Lego

The family and I were just at Legoland San Diego, which was big fun.  It’s a cheery small theme park filled with LEGO creations, and with boxes of the blocks everywhere for the kids to create with.   Yet in this networked age, you can always find someone somewhere who takes things to astonishing and intimidating levels.  Here’s a bitmap display built solely out of bricks:

Lego bitmap display by AncientJames

AncientJames’ Lego bitmap display.  Click for site

It uses that little board to specify which disks to flip on the display, where the white cones specify the position of white disks.   A stack of the boards can spell out a message one letter at a time on the 5×5 matrix.    Here it is in operation:

Spelling out Everything Is Awesome!   That song was inescapable at Legoland.

This was done by someone in New Zealand, which is clearly a country of ingenious people with a lot of time on their hands.  It’s like the Jacquard Loom of 1801, which took punch cards and used them to direct the weaving of a piece of cloth.  That was the first real piece of computing technology, incorporating stored memory and a means of output.

So can Lego take one to the next level of computing?  But of course:

Back Camera

Andrew Carol’s Lego Difference Engine.  Click for site

This is several cells of Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2 of 1849, as built by Andrew Carol.   Here it is computing the squares of the first several integers:

If you want to learn more about the Engine, you can’t do worse than to pick up Sydney Padua’s just-released graphic novel about Lovelace and Babbage:

Lovelace and Babbage, Padua

Click for her site

Their actual lives came to depressing ends, but in this better world, this odd couple joined up for excitement and adventure.

Now, can Lego actually take one to the first full computer, ENIAC?

WIP by Christopher Briggs, click for photostream

WIP by Christopher Briggs, click for photostream

Almost certainly not.  ENIAC had about ten thousand gates, so many that it was barely reliable enough to function when using electronics, never mind mechanical parts.   Electronics also have the great advantage of having gain elements, which is so hard to do with mechanics that Babbage himself never accomplished it.

Still, a computer can be built with as few as two hundred transistors, if they implement the Subtract-contents-of-address-A-from-contents-of-address-B-and-branch-if-negative single instruction architecture.   I’m sure that someone somewhere is working on a LEGO version now!

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