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The ancient Romans as computer moguls

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  March 6, 2013 12:52 PM

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Augustus.jpegLast week on his blog, computer engineering student Hunter Scott worked through a fun thought experiment: Could the ancient Romans have built a computer? At first blush the idea seems preposterous, but Scott demonstrates that, given the right set of plans, it's not as far-fetched as it might seem.

Scott works through the problem in MacGyver fashion, thinking about the basic building blocks of a computer and all the different ways the Romans could have created them with the materials and technology available to them. He figures, for example, that they lacked the machining precision to build a mechanical computer but could have made a semiconductor instead using lead sulfide. He thinks they could have gotten around the need for a transistor by building an "inverter" out of a transformer made from a "square iron ring with wire wrapped around each side." He even thinks the Romans could have devised a primitive form of computer memory using ferrite.

Overall, Scott thinks the biggest hurdle for the Romans might have been coming up with an electricity source for their jerry-rigged computer. Commenters on his article have raised other concerns, many of them having to do with how bad the Romans were at math. As one armchair technologist put it, "They didn't have zero. They had horrible awkward notation in which you cannot even do algebra...The best they could have done is maybe an electric abacus, and I have my doubts there."

Via The Browser.

Image of statue of Augustus courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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