A Steampunk's Guide To Clockworks: From The Cradle Of Civilization To Electromechanical Computers

    The History of Computing 1/21/2021


We mentioned John Locke in the episode on the Scientific Revolution. And Leibniz. They not only worked in the new branches of science, math, and philosophy, but they put many of their theories to use and were engineers. 

Computing at the time was mechanical, what we might now think of as clockwork. And clockwork was starting to get some innovative new thinking. As we’ve covered, clockworks go back thousands of years. But with a jump in more and more accurate machining and more science, advances in timekeeping were coming. Locke and Huygens worked on pendulum clocks and then moved to spring driven clocks. Both taught English patents and because they didn’t work that well, neither were granted. But more somethings needed to happen to improve the accuracy of time. 

Time was becoming increasingly important. Not only to show up to appointments and computing ever increasing math problems but also for navigation. Going back to the Greeks, we’d been estimating our position on the Earth relative to seconds and degrees. And a rapidly growing maritime power like England at the time needed to use clocks to guide ships. Why?

The world is a sphere. A sphere has 360 degrees which multiplied by 60 minutes is 21,600. The North South circumference is 21603 nautical miles. Actually the world isn’t a perfect sphere so the circumference around the equator is 21,639 nautical miles. Each nautical mile is 6,076 feet. When traveling by sea, trying to do all that math in feet and inches is terribly difficult and so we came up with 180 lines each of latitude, running east-west and longitude running north-south. That’s 60 nautical miles in each line, or 60 minutes. The distance between each naturally goes down as one gets closer to the poles - and goes down a a percentage relative to the distance to those poles. Problem was that the most accurate time to check your position relative to the sun was at noon or to use the Polaris North Star at night.

Much of this went back to the Greeks and further. The Sumerians developed the sexagesimal system, or base 60 and passed it down to the Babylonians in the 3rd millennium BCE and by 2000 BCE gave us the solar year and the sundial. As their empire grew rich with trade and growing cities by 1500 BCE the Egyptians had developed the first water clocks timers, proved by the Karnak water clock, beginning as a controlled amount of water filling up a vessel until it reached marks. Water could be moved - horizontal water wheels were developed as far back as the 4th millennium BCE. 

Both the sundial and the water clock became more precise in the ensuing centuries, taking location and the time of the year into account. Due to water reacting differently in various climates we also got the sandglass, now referred to as the hourglass. 

The sundial became common in Greece by the sixth century BCE, as did the water clock, which they called the clepsydra. By then it had a float that would tell the time. Plato even supposedly added a bowl full of balls to his inflow water clock that would dump them on a copper plate as an alarm during the day for his academy. 

We still use the base 60 scale and the rough solar years from even more ancient times. But every time sixty seconds ticks by something needs to happen to increment a minute and every 60 minutes needs to increment an hour. From the days of Thales in the 600s BCE and earlier, the Greeks had been documenting and studying math and engineering. And inventing. All that gathered knowledge was starting to come together.

Ctesibius was potentially the first to head the Library of Alexandria and while there, developed the siphon, force pumps, compressed air, and so the earliest uses of pneumatics. He is accredited for adding a scale and float thus mechanics. And expanding the use to include water powered gearing that produced sound and moved dials with wheels.

The Greek engineer Philo of Byzantium in the 240s BCE, if not further back, added an escapement to the water clock. He started by simply applying a counterweight to the end of a spoon and as the spoon filled, a ball was released. He also described a robotic maid who, when Greeks put a cup in her hand, poured wine. 

Archimedes added the idea that objects displaced water based on their volume but also mathematical understanding of the six simple machines. He then gets credited for being the first to add a gear to a water clock. We now have gears and escapements. Here’s a thought, given their lifetimes overlapping, Philo, Archimedes, and Ctesibius could have all been studying together at the library. Archimedes certainly continued on with earlier designs, adding a chime to the early water clocks. And Archimedes is often credited for providing us with the first transmission gears.

The Antikythera device proves the greeks also made use of complex gearing. Transferring energy in more complex gearing patterns. It is hand cranked but shows mathematical and gearing mastery by choosing a day and year and seeing when the next eclipse and olympiad would be. And the Greeks were all to happy to use gearing for other devices, such as an odometer in the first century BCE and to build the Tower of the Winds, an entire building that acted as a detailed and geared water clock as well as perhaps a model of the universe. 

And we got the astrolabe at the same time, from Apollonius or Hipparchus. But a new empire had risen. The astrolabe was a circle of metal with an arm called an alidade that users sighted to the altitude of a star and based on that, you could get your location. The gearing was simple but the math required to get accurate readings was not. These were analog computers of a sort - you gave them an input and they produced an output. At this point they were mostly used by astronomers and continued to be used by Western philosophers at least until the Byzantines.

The sundial, water clocks, and many of these engineering concepts were brought to Rome as the empire expanded, many from Greece. The Roman Vitruvius is credited with taking that horizontal water wheel and flipping it vertical in 14 CE. Around the same time, Augustus Caesar built a large sundial in Campus Martius. The Romans also added a rod to cranks giving us sawmills in the third century. The larger the empire the more time people spent in appointments and the more important time became - but also the more people could notice the impact that automata had. Granted much of it was large, like a windmill at the time, but most technology starts huge and miniaturizes as more precision tooling becomes available to increasingly talented craftspeople and engineers. 

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio was an architect who wrote 10 books in the 20s BCE about technology. His works link aqueducts to water-driven machinations that could raise water from mines, driven by a man walking on a wheel above ground like a hamster does today but with more meaning. They took works from the Hellenistic era and put them in use on an industrial scale. This allowed them to terraform lands and spring new cities into existence. Sawing timber with mills using water to move saws allowed them to build faster. And grinding flour with mills allowed them to feed more people.

Heron of Alexandria would study and invent at the Library of Alexandria, amongst scrolls piled to the ceilings in halls with philosophers and mechanics. The inheritor of so much learning, he developed vending machines, statues that moved, and even a steam engine. If the Greeks and early Roman conquered of Alexandria could figure out how a thing work, they could automate it. 

Many automations were to prove the divine. Such as water powered counterweights to open doors when priests summoned a god, and blew compressed air through trumpets. He also used a wind mill to power an organ and a programmable cart using a weight to turn a drive axle. He also developed an omen machine, with ropes and pulleys on a gear that caused a bird to sing, the song driven by a simple whistle being lowered into water. His inventions likely funding more and more research. 

But automations in Greek times were powered by natural forces, be it hand cranked, fire, or powered by water. Heron also created a chain driven automatic crossbow, showing the use of a chain-driven machine and he used gravity to power machines, automating devices as sand escaped from those sand glasses.

He added pegs to pulleys so the distance travelled could be programmed. Simple and elegant machines. And his automata extended into the theater. He kept combining simple machines and ropes and gravity into more and more complex combinations, getting to the point that he could run an automated twenty minute play. Most of the math and mechanics had been discovered and documented in the countless scrolls in the Library of Alexandria. 

And so we get the term automated from the Greek word for acting of oneself. But automations weren’t exclusive to the Greeks. By the time Caligula was emperor of the Roman Empire, bronze valves could be used to feed iron pipes in his floating ships that came complete with heated floors. People were becoming more and more precise in engineering and many a device was for telling time. The word clock comes from Latin for bell or clogga. I guess bells should automatically ring at certain times. Getting there...

Technology spreads or is rediscovered. By Heron the Greeks and Romans understood steam, pistons, gears, pulleys, programmable automations, and much of what would have been necessary for an industrial or steampunk revolution. But slaves were cheap and plentiful in the empire. The technology was used in areas where they weren’t. Such as at Barbegal to feed Arles in modern France, the Romans had a single hillside flour grinding complex with automated hoppers, capable of supplying flour to thousands of Romans. Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, was based there before founding Constantinople.

And as Christianity spread, the gimmicks that enthralled the people as magic were no longer necessary. The Greeks were pagans and so many of their works would be cleansed or have Christian writings copied over them. Humanity wasn’t yet ready. Or so we’ve been led to believe. 

The inheritors of the Roman Empire were the Byzantines, based where Europe meets what we now think of as the Middle East. We have proof of geared portable sundials there, fewer gears but showing evidence of the continuation of automata and the math used to drive it persisting in the empire through to the 400s. And maybe confirming written accounts that there were automated lions and thrones in the empire of Constantinople. And one way geared know-how continued and spread was along trade routes which carried knowledge in the form of books and tradespeople and artifacts, sometimes looted from temples. One such trade route was the ancient Silk Road (or roads).

Water clocks were being used in Egypt, Babylon, India, Persia, Greece, Rome, and China. The Tang Dynasty in China took or rediscovered the escapement to develop a water powered clockwork escapement in the 700s and then in the Song Dynasty developed astronomical clock towers in the 900s. By now the escapements Su Sung is often credited for the first mechanical water clock in 1092. And his Cosmic Engine would mark the transition from water clocks to fully mechanical clocks, although still hydromechanical. The 1100s saw Bhoja in the Paramara dynasty of India emerge as a patron of the arts and sciences and write a chapter on mechanical bees and birds. These innovations could have been happening in a vacuum in each - or word and works could have spread through trade. 

That technology disappeared in Europe, such as plumbing in towns that could bring tap water to homes or clockworks, as the Roman Empire retreated. The specialists and engineers lacked the training to build new works or even maintain many that existed in modern England, France, and Germany. But the heads of rising eastern empires were happy to fund such efforts in a sprint to become the next Alexander. And so knowledge spread west from Asia and was infused with Greek and Roman knowhow in the Middle East during the Islamic conquests. The new rulers expanded quickly, effectively taking possession of Egypt, Mesopotamia, parts of Asia, the Turkish peninsula, Greece, parts of Southern Italy, out towards India, and even Spain. In other words, all of the previous centers of science. And they were tolerant, not looking to convert conquered lands to Islam. This allowed them to learn from their subjects in what we now think of as the Arabic translation movement in the 7th century when Arabic philosophers translated but also critiqued and refined works from the lands they ruled.

This sparked the Muslim golden age, which became the new nexus of science at the time. Over time we saw the Seljuks, ruling out of Baghdad, and Abbasids as Islamic empires who funded science and philosophy. They brought caravans of knowledge into their capitals. The Abbasids even insisted on a specific text from Ptolemy (the Almagest) when doing a treaty so they could bring it home for study. They founding of schools of learning known as Madrasas in every town. This would be similar to a university system today.

Over the centuries following, they produced philosophers like Muhammad Ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi, who solved quadratic equations, giving us algebra. This would become important to make clockwork devices became more programmable (and for everything else algebra is great at helping with). They sent clockworks as gifts, such as a brass automatic water clock sent to Charlemagne between 802 and 807, complete with chimes. Yup, the clogga rang the bell.

They went far past where Heron left off though. There was Ibn-Sina, Al-Razi, Al-Jazari, Al Kindi, Thābit ibn Qurra, Ridwan, and countless other philosophers carrying on the tradition. The philosophers took the works of the Greeks, copied, and studied them. They evolved the technology to increasing levels of sophistication. And many of the philosophers completed their works at what might be considered the Islamic version of the Library of Alexandria, The House of Wisdom in Baghdad. In fact, when Baghdad was founded about 50 miles north of ancient Babylon, the Al-Mansur Palace Library was part of the plan  and over subsequent Caliphs was expanded adding an observatory that would then be called the House of Wisdom.

The Banu Musa brothers worked out of there and wrote twenty books including the first Book of Ingenious Devices. Here, they took the principles the Greeks and others had focused on and got more into the applications of those principles. On the way to their compilation of devices, they translated books from other authors, including A Book on Degrees on the Nature of Zodiacal Signs from China and Greek works.The three brothers combined pneumatics and aerostatics. They added plug valves, taps, float valves, and conical valves. They documented the siphon and funnel for pouring liquids into the machinery and thought to put a float in a chamber to turn what we now think of as the first documented crank shaft. We had been turning circular motion into linear motion with wheels, but we were now able to turn linear motion into circular motion as well.

They used all of this to describe in engineering detail, if not build and invent, marvelous fountains. Some with multiple jets alternating. Some were wind powered and showed worm-and-pinion gearing.  

Al-Biruni, around the turn of the first millennia, came out of modern Uzbekistan and learned the ancient Indian Sanskrit, Persian, Hebrew, and Greek. He wrote 95 books on astronomy and math. He studied the speed of light vs speed of sound, the axis of the earth and applied the scientific method to statics and mechanics. This moved theories on balances and weights forward. He produced geared mechanisms that are the ancestor of modern astrolabes. 

The Astrolabe was also brought to the Islamic world. Muslim astronomers added newer scales and circles. As with in antiquity, they used it in navigation but they had another use, to aid in prayer by showing the way to Mecca. 

Al-Jazari developed a number of water clocks and is credited with others like developed by others due to penning another Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. Here, he describes a camshaft, crank dive and reciprocating pumps, two way valves, and expanding on the uses of pneumatic devices. He developed programmable humanoid robots in the form of automatic musicians on a boat. These complex automata included cams and pegs, similar to those developed by Heron of Alexandria, but with increasing levels of sophistication, showing we were understanding the math behind the engineering and it wasn’t just trial and error.

All golden ages must end. Or maybe just evolve and migrate. Fibonacci and Bacon quoted then, showing yet another direct influence from multiple sources around the world flowing into Europe following the Holy Wars. 

Pope Urban II began inspiring European Christian leaders to wage war against the Muslims in 1095. And so the Holy Wars, or Crusades would begin and rage until 1271. Here, we saw manuscripts copied and philosophy flow back into Europe. Equally as important, Muslim Caliphates in Spain and Sicily and trade routes. And another pair of threats were on the rise. The plague and the Mongols. 

The Mongol invasions began in the 1200s and changed the political makeup of the known powers of the day. The Mongols sacked Baghdad and burned the House of Wisdom. After the mongols and Mughals, the Islamic Caliphates had warring factions internally, the empires fractured, and they turned towards more dogmatic approaches. The Ottomon empire rose and would last until World War I, and while they continued to sponsor scientists and great learners, the nexus of scientific inquiry and the engineering that inspired shifted again and the great works were translated with that shift, including into Latin - the language of learning in Europe. By 1492 the Moors would be kicked out of Spain. That link from Europe to the Islamic golden age is a critical aspect of the transfer of knowledge.

The astrolabe was one such transfer. As early as the 11th century, metal astrolabes arrive in France over the Pyrenees to the north and to the west to Portugal . By the 1300s it had been written about by Chaucer and spread throughout Europe. Something else happened in the Iberian peninsula in 1492. Columbus sailed off to discover the New World. He also used a quadrant, or a quarter of an astrolabe. Which was first written about in Ptolemy’s Almagest but later further developed at the House of Wisdom as the sine quadrant. 

The Ottoman Empire had focused on trade routes and trade. But while they could have colonized the New World during the Age of Discovery, they didn’t. The influx of wealth coming from the Americas caused inflation to spiral and the empire went into a slow decline over the ensuing centuries until the Turkish War of Independence, which began in 1919. 

In the meantime, the influx of money and resources and knowledge from the growing European empires saw clockworks and gearing arriving back in Europe in full force in the 14th century. 

In 1368 the first mechanical clock makers got to work in England. Innovation was slowed due to the Plague, which destroyed lives and property values, but clockwork had spread throughout Europe. The Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomons in 1453 sends a wave of Greek Scholars away from the Ottoman Empire and throughout Europe. Ancient knowledge, enriched with a thousand years of Islamic insight was about to meet a new level of precision metalwork that had been growing in Europe.

By 1495, Leonardo da Vinci showed off one of the first robots in the world -  a knight that could sit, stand, open its visor independently. He also made a robotic lion and repeated experiments from antiquity on self driving carts. And we see a lot of toys following the mechanical innovations throughout the world. Because parents. 

We think of the Renaissance as coming out of Italy but scholars had been back at it throughout Europe since the High Middle Ages. By 1490, a locksmith named Peter Hele is credited for developing the first mainspring in Nurnburg. This is pretty important for watches. You see, up to this point nearly every clockwork we’ve discussed was powered by water or humans setting a dial or fire or some other force. The mainspring stores energy as a small piece of metal ribbon is twisted around an axle, called an abror, into a spiral and then wound tighter and tighter, thus winding a watch. 

The mainspring drove a gear train of increasingly smaller gears which then sent energy into the escapement but without a balance wheel those would not be terribly accurate just yet. But we weren’t powering clocks with water.

At this point, clocks started to spread as expensive decorations, appearing on fireplace mantles and on tables of the wealthy. These were not small by any means. But Peter Henlein would get the credit in 1510 for the first real watch, small enough to be worn as a necklace.

By 1540, screws were small enough to be used in clocks allowing them to get even smaller. The metals for gears were cut thinner, clock makers and toy makers were springing up all over the world. And money coming from speculative investments in the New World was starting to flow, giving way to fuel even more investment into technology.

Jost Burgi invented the minute hand in 1577. But as we see with a few disciplines he decided to jump into, Galileo Galilei has a profound impact on clocks. Galileo documents the physics of the pendulum in 1581 and the center of watchmaking would move to Geneva later in that decade. Smaller clockworks spread with wheels and springs but the 1600s would see an explosion in hundreds of different types of escapements and types of gearing.  He designed an escapement for a pendulum clock but died before building it. 

1610 watches got glass to protect the dials and 1635 French inventor Paul Viet Blois added enamel to the dials. Meanwhile, Blaise Pascal developed the Pascaline in 1642, giving the world the adding machine.

But it took another real scientist to pick up Galileo’s work and put it into action to propel clocks forward. To get back to where we started, a golden age of clockwork was just getting underway. In 1657 Huygens created a clock driven by the pendulum, which by 1671 would see William Clement add the suspension spring and by 1675 Huygens would give us the balance wheel, mimicking the back and forth motion of Galileo’s pendulum. The hairspring, or balance spring, then controlled the speed making it smooth and more accurate. And the next year, we got the concentric minute hand.

I guess Robert Hooke gets credit for the anchor escapement, but the verge escapement had been in use for awhile by then. So who gets to claim inventing some of these devices is debatable. Leibniz then added a stepped reckoner to the mechanical calculator in 1672 going from adding and subtracting to multiplication and division. Still calculating and not really computing as we’d think of it today.

At this point we see a flurry of activity in a proton-industrial revolution. Descartes puts forth that bodies are similar to complex machines and that various organs, muscles, and bones could be replaced with gearing similar to how we can have a hip or heart replaced today. Consider this a precursor to cybernetics. We see even more mechanical toys for the rich - but labor was still cheap enough that automation wasn’t spreading faster. 

And so we come back to the growing British empire. They had colonized North America and the empire had grown wealthy. They controlled India, Egypt, Ireland, the Sudan, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Cyprus, Hong Kong, Burma, Australia, Canada, and so much more. And knowing the exact time was critical for a maritime empire because we wouldn’t get radar until World War II. 

There were clocks but still, the clocks built had to be corrected at various times, based on a sundial. This is because we hadn’t yet gotten to the levels of constant power and precise gearing and the ocean tended to mess with devices. The growing British Empire needed more reliable ways than those Ptolemy used to tell time. And so England would offer prizes ranging from 10,000 to 20,000 pounds for more accurate ways to keep time in the Maritime Act in 1714. Crowdsourcing.

It took until the 1720s. George Graham, yet another member of the Royal Society, picked up where Thomas Tompion left off and added a cylinder escapement to watches and then the deadbeat escapement. He chose not to file patents for these so all watch makers could use them. He also added mercurial compensation to pendulum clocks. And John Harrison added the grid-iron compensation pendulum for his H1 marine chronometer. And George Graham added the cylinder escapement. 

1737 or 1738 sees another mechanical robot, but this time Jacques de Vaucanson brings us a duck that can eat, drink, and poop. But that type of toy was a one-off. Swiss Jaquet-Droz built automated dolls that were meant to help sell more watches, but here we see complex toys that make music (without a water whistle) and can even write using programmable text. The toys still work today and I feel lucky to have gotten to see them at the Museum of Art History in Switzerland. Frederick the Great became entranced by clockwork automations. Magicians started to embrace automations for more fantastical sets. 

At this point, our brave steampunks made other automations and their automata got cheaper as the supply increased. By the 1760s Pierre Le Roy and Thomas Earnshaw invented the temperature compensated balance wheel. Around this time, the mainspring was moved into a going barrel so watches could continue to run while the mainspring was being wound. Many of these increasingly complicated components required a deep understanding of the math about the simple machine going back to Archimedes but with all of the discoveries made in the 2,000 years since. 

And so in 1785 Josiah Emery made the lever escapement standard. The mechanical watch fundamentals haven’t changed a ton in the past couple hundred years (we’ll not worry about quartz watches here). But the 1800s saw an explosion in new mechanical toys using some of the technology invented for clocks. Time brings the cost of technology down so we can mass produce trinkets to keep the kiddos busy.  This is really a golden age of dancing toys, trains, mechanical banks, and eventually bringing in spring-driven wind-up toys. 

Another thing happened in the 1800s. With all of this knowhow on building automations, and all of this scientific inquiry requiring increasingly complicated mathematics, Charles Babbage started working on the Difference Engine in 1822 and then the Analytical Engine in 1837, bringing in the idea of a Jacquard loom punched card. The Babbage machines would become the precursor of modern computers, and while they would have worked if built to spec, were not able to be run in his lifetime. 

Over the next few generations, we would see his dream turn into reality and the electronic clock from Frank Hope-Jones in 1895. There would be other innovations such as in 1945 when the National Institute of Standards and technology created the first atomic clock. But in general parts got smaller, gearing more precise, and devices more functional. We’d see fits and starts for mechanical computers, with Percy Ludgate’s Analytical Machine in 1909, the Marchant Calculator in 1918, the electromechanical Enigma in the 1920s, the Polish Enigma double in 1932, the Z1 from Konrad Zuse in 1938, and the Mark 1 Fire Control Computer for the US Navy in the World War II era, when computers went electro-mechanical and electric, effectively ending the era of clockwork-driven machinations out of necessity, instead putting that into what I consider fun tinkerations.

Aristotle dreamed of automatic looms freeing humans from the trappings of repetitive manual labors so we could think. A Frenchman built them. Long before Aristotle, Pre-Socratic Greek legends told of statues coming to life, fire breathing statues, and tables moving themselves. Egyptian statues were also known to have come to life to awe and inspire the people. The philosophers of the Thales era sent Pythagoras and others to Egypt where he studied with Egyptian priests. Why priests? They led ascetic lives, often dedicated to a branch of math or science. And that’s in the 6th century BCE. The Odyssey was written about events from the 8th century BCE. 

We’ve seen time and time again in the evolutions of science that we often understood how to do something before we understood why. The legendary King Solomon and King Mu of the Zhao dynasty are said to have automata, or clockwork, or moving statues, or to have been presented with these kinds of gifts, going back thousands of years. And there is the chance that they were. Since then, we’ve seen a steady advent of this back and forth between engineering and science. 

Sometimes, we understand how to do something through trial and error or random discovery. And then we add the math and science to catch up to it. Once we do understand the science behind a discovery we uncover better ways and that opens up more discoveries. Aristotle’s dream was realized and extended to the point we can now close the blinds, lock the doors, control the lights, build cars, and even now print cars. We mastered time in multiple dimensions, including Newton’s relative time. We mastered mechanics and then the electron and managed to merge the two. We learned to master space, mapping them to celestial bodies. We mastered mechanics and the math behind it.

Which brings us to today. What do you have to do manually? What industries are still run by manual labor? How can we apply complex machines or enrich what those can do with electronics in order to free our fellow humans to think more? How can we make Aristotle proud? One way is to challenge and prove or disprove any of his doctrines in new and exciting ways. Like Newton and then Einstein did. We each have so much to give. I look forward to seeing or hearing about your contributions when its time to write their histories!

(OldComputerPods) ©Sean Haas, 2020