Infinitely malleable electronic brain — software and hardware

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When I was a little boy, among the gifts from my parents that I treasured most were science kits that allowed me to construct my own instrumentation and use it for various experiments and observations, e.g., microscopes, radios and other electronic circuitry, chemistry sets, ingenious language games, and so on.  (This was in the late 40s and 50s in rural Stark County, northeast Ohio, mind you, when I was between the ages of about 5 and 15.)  But my favorite of all was a box full of materials for computer construction.  It consisted of a peg board, switches, wires, screws, small nuts and bolts, metal bands and clips, batteries, little light bulbs, etc.  Please remember that this was long before personal computers were invented.

I mention this now because of the stimulating discussion going on over at this Language Log post:  "Electronic brain" (7/28/22).  There we're wrangling over differences between calculators (machines) and brains (organic / neural), and which serves as a better model for computers.  The differing importance between software and hardware is also under intense scrutiny.

The box my mom and dad gave me included an instruction manual explaining how to assemble the hardware, but there was no fixed configuration.  There were some sample setups that showed how switches (yes-no, on-off, 0-1 — all binary in nature) could be used to solve simple problems, and there were suggestions for more complicated assemblages.  But the most amazing, wonderful thing of all was that there were no restrictions on the arrangements that one could design and the questions that one could attempt to answer.  I probably spent two solid weeks entranced by that beloved "machine / brain" that I built and rebuilt myself numerous times.  Then the Yuletide vacation came to an end and I went back to school, but I think that the lessons I learned from being totally immersed in my "machine / brain" for those two weeks left an indelible impression on the way I approach problems that has lasted to this very day.


Selected readings



  1. Bill said,

    July 29, 2022 @ 1:22 pm

    There is a book titled "How to Build a Working Digital Computer" which detailed a similar project. I own a copy (never built it) and there's an online copy at archive

  2. Viseguy said,

    July 29, 2022 @ 6:58 pm

    What a wonderful memory! (And what a wonderful thing is memory.) (And it's so cheap these days!)

  3. Bill Benzon said,

    July 29, 2022 @ 9:33 pm

    I got such a kit, too, Victor. I wonder if it was the same thing. I remember the peg board. I also recall a number of round wheels which you could mount on the board and use as switches.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    July 29, 2022 @ 9:54 pm

    Mine also had round wheels that could be used as switches, Bill.

  5. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 29, 2022 @ 11:44 pm

    I had a similar kit as a boy circa 1960, but mine was part of a science-kit-of-the-month club that included units on basic electricity (transformers and RC circuits), rudimentary computer logic, optics (cardboard tubes and lenses with which to assemble spyglasses and microscopes), and so on. There was even a DIY cloud chamber kit with a particle source consisting of a pinhead daubed with radium paint, delivered in a cardboard carton along with the regular mail. Simpler times!

  6. Philip Taylor said,

    July 30, 2022 @ 4:33 am

    Digital computers remained a mystery to me for some time even after I first encountered them, but I was introduced to analogue computers by a boy-genius, Terry Corbyn, at my grammar school in Lewisham, South-East London (Colfe's). I no longer remember the name of the club that Terry founded (it may even have been called a society, I no longer remember) but what I do remember is that he single-handedly designed an analogue computer which we built on his instructions and then demonstrated on open-day. It used a photomultiplier and a beam of light (pre-laser days) to trace the outline of a graph which was cut out of cardboard, and the analogue electronics then calculated the definite integral of the equation represented by the curve. Quite an eye-opener for a 13-year-old !

  7. Anthony said,

    July 30, 2022 @ 7:41 am

    Yes, I remember science kits of the month! Thank you for bringing it to mind after about 60 years. I also remember the book "The Amateur Scientist," a collection of columns from Scientific American. It included a cloud chamber project, and also building an x-ray machine.

  8. Terpomo said,

    July 30, 2022 @ 9:10 am

    Even electronic brain pancake crystal elderly.

  9. Karl Weber said,

    July 30, 2022 @ 3:13 pm

    Victor, you and Bill Benson both refer to your science kits as containing "round wheels." That sounds fine to me on first reading, but on further consideration, I wonder, is there any other kind of wheel?

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    July 30, 2022 @ 4:16 pm

    I assumed "as opposed to toothed wheels", but of course I may have been wrong …

  11. Peter Taylor said,

    July 31, 2022 @ 2:37 am

    @Karl Weber, there are videos on YouTube of a bicycle with Reuleaux triangle wheels.

  12. David Auerbach said,

    July 31, 2022 @ 7:48 pm

    While only a circle will do for an axled wheel ("will do" meaning a level ride), any curve of constant width will do for a roller (like a cylinder, but the cross-section can be any curve of constant width). There are infinitely many curves of constant width.

  13. Rodger C said,

    August 1, 2022 @ 10:15 am

    There was a Poul Anderson story using this. An alien society didn't have wheels because their religion didn't allow them to make circular things, because divine perfection. It strikes me now that they'd surely have figured this solution out on their own by the time the Benevolent Whites I mean Terrans got there.

  14. Sam Livolvski said,

    August 2, 2022 @ 8:31 am

    A heartwarming story with nostalgia. And if the case – it's great that in our time there were such entertaining and useful toys. I think even today's children would be delighted with such a set.

  15. Phliip Zaleski said,

    August 6, 2022 @ 3:06 pm

    The Scientific American book "The Amateur Scientist" mentioned by Anthony is no longer in print but copies are available on the internet, albeit for exorbitant prices. It can be argued, however, that it's a priceless book, offering over fifty superbly designed projects along with ample guidance. When I was in junior high I built — with my father's assistance! — a cloud chamber from two peanut butter jars and was able to witness vapor trails of elementary particles, utilizing free radioactive pinheads offered by the magazine to anyone interested (this was around 1960). I have no idea what happened to the pins they sent me or whether this project would have worked without them. But certainly many of the experiments will appeal to Language Log fans, as this warm oration by the editor C. L. Strong to his readers indicates: "I have supposed that you revel in your simian heritage of curiosity. . . .You take boundless delight in find out what makes things tick. . . .You love to take organized structures apart and put them together again in new and interesting ways. . .". It seems to me that this nicely catches some of the high spirit of this blog.

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