Back to the Future :: science and other curiosities

Abbey Neumünster

Abbey Neumünster

Geek-historians will certainly come to recognize November 10th through 13th 2011 as one of the great moments in syn2cat history. On those cold, damp and foggy November days, we not only participated in the Student’s Fair but also presented a somewhat unique device to the broader Luxembourgian public.

At the 2011 edition of the Science Festival – held at the National Museum for Natural History (MNHN) and the adjacent Neumünster Abbey – syn2cat displayed its mechanical marble adder to almost 11.000 visitors and elucidated the mysteries of binary calculation (at least XOR and AND binary logic) to a varied public of parents and their toddlers, teachers and their pupils, as well as professors and their assistants.

A closeup of the binary marble calculator

Closeup of the binary marble calculator

Though the Science Festival did only enter its 8th edition this year, in putting our binary adder on display at a fair, we sort of travelled back in history to stand on the shoulders of giants such as Charles Babbage and Konrad Zuse. Not only had we initially planned on having our calculator powered by a steam engine just as Babbage had in mind for his Analytical Steam Engine, we were displaying a mightily marvelous machine at a popular fair, in reminiscence of many mechanical analog – and later binary – calculators that were put on display through the 19th and 20th century.

Indeed, “in 1876, only five years after Babbage’s death, an obscure inventor called George Barnard Grant exhibited a full-sized difference engine of his own devising at the Philadelphia Centennial Fair.” Although Grant’s machine contained, with over 15.000 moving parts, “a couple” more than ours, it cannot, in all sincerity, have been much more spectacular.

Also, Babbage’s and Grant’s calculators had been analog devices whereas our first and foremost goal was to build this machine as an illustration of how binary calculation works. The most well-known precursor to binary calculators must have been Konrad Zuse‘s Z1:

“In 1936 he set up his small workshop in his parents’ living room and with assistance from a few close friends who lent him a helping hand and a bit of money, Zuse started development of his calculating machine. He decided that his machine should not be based on a decimal pinwheel, like the mechanical calculators and tabulators of that time, but rather on a yes-no type system controlled by small pins slotting in and out of metal plates. He didn’t realize that he was developing the first electro-mechanical binary calculator.” (, emphasis added)

Tutoring the young on binary logic

Tutoring the young on binary logic

To say that the Science Festival was all about showing off would be entirely wrong though. It was equally a success in terms of getting to know like-minded people and organisations, in striking bold deals with associations, schools and universities, and in getting invited to present our devices at science discovery days or weeks at several distinct secondary schools.

If we would have to put the success of our ventures at both the student’s fair and the science festival into (decimal) numbers, we could say that more than 1.000 people got hold of our flyer, that we gained more than 15 new facebook likes in a little less than a week, and got invited to give another newspaper interview as well as to participate in a games conference abroad.

Hack on!

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