Computing with Water

Water seems like such a mundane material, yet it covers roughly 70% of the Earth’s surface area and is essential to sustain all living organisms on this planet. Water is used in many basic chemical reactions, but in its purest form, doesn’t do anything exciting. That’s why I found this article: Gardens as Crypto-Water-Computers, written by Alexander Trevi, so interesting. Trevi describes a 1949 invention called the Phillips Machine, which used a network of intricately connected tubes, valves, tanks, pumps, ect. to model the flow of money in the economy. But this machine wasn’t powered by electricity, it ran on water – just water. By adjusting certain valves and water levels (which represented values such as the amount of money in certain sectors, or tax rates) the Phillips Machine could predict how the economy would react by using hydraulics. I found this concept intriguing and…fantastical. Using the properties of water to create a dynamic feedback system? It seems like something that would come out of a fairytale, a very technically knowledgeable fairytale.

Only 14 Philips Machines were ever built, although Trevi’s article mentions Vladimir Lukyanov’s water computer which was built in 1936. The concept seems so foreign to us modern day folk, but to fully appreciate these marvels, we have to look at context. During this time, digital technology was still in its nascent stages and it was still unclear as to how successful electronics would be in solving complex equations. While the United States and Europe decided to pursue Digital computing, the Soviet Union invested in analog computing, producing such inventions such as Lukyanov’s water computer. Lukyanov’s invention was solving equations that were impossible to solve for half a century…and it was solving them with water. This was a time where scientists were unsure which was better – digital or analog computing – and our world would develop extremely differently based on which won.

A novel called Ada, written by Vladamir Nobokov, takes place in an alternate world where analog computing is the norm, ever since electricity was banned since the mysterious “L-disaster.” Instead of electricity, everything is powered by water. I’m not sure how technically feasible the technology featured in the novel is, but it certainly makes one being to wonder the possibilities of analog computing, if only it was further researched.

Trevi’s article also speculates as to the possibilities of analog computing at grander scales. The aristocratic gardens of Europe – designed with intricate artificial streams and fountains – could be seen as some sort of giant machine that takes measurements of the world. The designs of the gardens could be viewed as circuitboards. In a following article, Trevi explores this concept further by bringing up research on logic gates powered by water – a field known as fluidics. Just looking at the maps of these marvelous gardens, one can easily make the leap to seeing the maps as diagrams of circuitry.

While analog computing now seems extremely impractical, I can’t help but wonder what technical and aesthetic marvels we could create using these concepts. Entire cities with rivers flowing through them could be a giant computer, taking data and producing valuable calculations. Imagine how we can utilize this concept to create responsive infrastructures without electricity. Despite the infeasibility, I can’t help but have my imagination run wild, the stories I could tell. Imagine a secret society of scientists in early modern Europe, commissioning these mysterious gardens to be built behind their lavish estates. Their goal: to uncover the secret to life using these water computers.

I would post more pictures of these water computers, but I don’t want to steal all of them from Trevi’s article. I encourage you to read both of his articles for yourself. While it’s fun to imagine what life would be like if analog computing had taken over digital computing, we should also consider what possibilities fluidics can bring to future technologies. I’m always a fan of technology that requires no electricity to operate (such as AguaClara’s gravity-powered water filtration plants). We are surrounded by so many interesting physical, chemical and biological phenomena to power future technologies, why limit ourselves to just electricity?

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