Saturday, November 8, 2014

Steampunk Saturday - Tide and Time

E. G. Fischer's Tide Calculating Machine No. 1
Fresh from one of Charles Babbage's dreams comes this mechanical beauty. In 1905 the US faced a problem. Its influence was spreading across the globe, exported to places like Venezuela and Panama, on the decks of dreadnoughts in what Teddy Roosevelt would call The Great White Fleet under the moniker of "gunboat diplomacy", but these seagoing behemoths became useless if they ran aground while coming into port. What was needed was an accurate and fast way of calculating the depth of a harbor at any certain point in time, and that is where E. G. Fischer's little thinking machine came into play.

The instrument, touted as "a most intricate and wonderful machine" was encoded with information obtained through human observations and allowed an operator to set 19 variables on its dials, then turn a crank to get predictions on tides at a specific point for which it had been programmed at any desired time. In 1905 when this article ran in Popular Mechanics an updated version of the tide calculator was being produced, a more accurate version which would take 39 variables into consideration when making calculations, be powered by clockwork rather than hand-crank, and print its readouts as curves on a paper tape.  This improvement, dubbed Tide Predicting Machine No. 2, would finally come to fruition in 1912, a more massive and industrial beast for the dawning age of mechanization that would come with World War I.

E. G. Fischer's Tide Calculating Machine No. 2
Either machine would be perfectly at home on Captain Nemo's Nautilus, a ticking brain to help plot his terrorist takeover of Earth's oceans. Right there in the wheel house, the first officer setting the dials and reading off the results so that his commanding officer could decide when best to make his move.

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