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In many alternate technological settings (steam/electro/diesel punks) there are powerful energy sources that allowed technology boom (like whale oil in Dishonored game series).

However handwaving computers is more complicated. You need massive infrastructure and industry to make fast, cheap reliable microchips, which limits the whole setting to be very advanced (at minimally at our modern times).

What can be the most realistic "handwaved" alternative to modern computers? Something that can be used even by 19th century scientists?

Clarification:

1) No need to be limited to Von Neumann architecture.

Clarification #2

I'll add more details to questions:

1) "Realistic handwave" is more meant to be "more efficient that currently believed" but still not bending laws of nature. For example "handwave compound" that makes super efficient batteries fits, but transmuting elements at room temperature not.

2) I am looking for something that potentially can be portable - I want to have a "clockwork army" at some point. So manual labour is not fitting (Unless using a very small sentient race that would perform slave labour... which is something I can consider).

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    $\begingroup$ The standard solution is souped up Babbage Analytical Engines, which you might be interested in. $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Feb 13 '18 at 11:10
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    $\begingroup$ There really isn't an alternative to modern computers. Computers today are insanely fast. Billions of calculations a second fast. You're not going to replicate that easily in the 19th century. I would agree with Joe Bloggs' recommendation in that Babbage's Analytical Engine, which I'm pretty sure was never actually completed, is as close as you'll get. $\endgroup$ – B.fox Feb 13 '18 at 11:16
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    $\begingroup$ @B.fox Current smartphones are as fast as supercomputers 10-15 years ago, thats true. Such computing power is sweet but i am afraid cannot be introduced in setting without really big stretching of physical laws. But as well Babbage engine level is totally not enough for me - mostly due size. I don't want lets say for Hotel guest book to be the size of whole building. $\endgroup$ – G.ogre Feb 13 '18 at 12:22
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    $\begingroup$ I don't believe that "most realistic handwave" is objectively anwerable. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Feb 13 '18 at 14:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Bilkokuya Thanks for question! I've added clarifications to the main question. At some point "mechanical servants" should be made - used for manual labour. $\endgroup$ – G.ogre Feb 13 '18 at 15:01

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The only other thing that can compete (and at some things surpass) modern computers is a brain, you could go the biological route and have a selectively bred species of animals that act of a sort of a biological computer, this way computers are bred rather then manufactured.

Another possibility of an organic based computers is having a plant based one, it will likely require advanced genetic engineering to create such a thing but once created farming it should be no different then any other crop so maybe if your setting allows for such things it could have been originally created by ancient aliens and gifted to the people of your setting which while have no idea how to create it but know how to raise a crop of it and use it?

Note that both options only answer the questions in regards to computer = math machine. Graphics and screens and such are another thing entirely, so the best bet for both is to have some sort of a voice/touch/chemical based input/output mechanism. Screens are kinda out of the question with those options.

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    $\begingroup$ I like idea of "computer" crops. It doesn't matter for me if it was invented by local people. In fact it is best if it is given by advanced civilisation(so people can use without understanding underlying mechanisms). Probably i should make another question regarding if "plant" computer is possible. $\endgroup$ – G.ogre Feb 13 '18 at 12:13
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    $\begingroup$ The display could be derived from cuttlefish somehow. For that matter, the CPU itself could be a cuttlefish brain as well- they are among the most intelligent cephalopods, after all. $\endgroup$ – Someone Else 37 Feb 13 '18 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ Depending on what the use-cases are, plants may already exhibit the behaviours required. For example, they react to generally hot or cold weather by shedding leaves, or growing them. They sort-of adapt to prevailing winds, or by proximity to other plants. Climbers can be incredibly 'sticky' on porous surfaces and generally climb towards the light. And lastly, things like the Venus Fly Trap respond to physical stimulus and perform a mechanical function. All that could be enough to have walking, permanent record keeping self-preserving plant-o-bots. $\endgroup$ – Ralph Bolton Feb 13 '18 at 16:17
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe better suited than plants are mushrooms. Their mycelium creates a network somehow similar to a brain. Also, mycelium already connects roots of multiple trees in mycorrhizal association. Some people already consider a healthy wood to behave like a big brain. $\endgroup$ – mviereck Feb 13 '18 at 16:59
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    $\begingroup$ @mviereck Mushrooms network "computer" also have advantage that processing images and sound can easily be paralleled. So maybe Machine won't run computer game, but will be able to recognise face of person to open the door for example. $\endgroup$ – G.ogre Feb 14 '18 at 9:59
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You could actually build the Memex. Although the concept decidedly postdates the 19th century it is an early and most importantly purely mechanical computer, of sorts.

The Memex would have been used to rapidly retrieve static data such as microfilm but it was never actually built. The user would create a specialised and specific library of works to which they wanted immediate access and store this material in the Memex with associated keywords referencing each entry which the machine could then retrieve when triggered. A Memex would therefore be great for storing and retrieving text and image files.

For mathematical computation you'd want to integrate something akin to a Difference Engine.

Now neither of these systems is "Turing Complete", even in combination. So for a true computer you need something like Babbage's Analytical Engine, which has its own storage and programmable logic pathways, etc... The Analytical Engine was designed, but never actually built and there are questions as to its actual feasibility.

So depending on what you actually want computers for in this setting you have some options ranging from the intensely complex, but potentially unlimited, to the simpler, but specialised.

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  • $\begingroup$ small correction. While Analytical engine wasn't built, Babbage tried to build Difference engine, but it wasn't complete by Babbage. In 1991 a working copy was built using 19th century technology. You can see it in London Science Museum. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Analytical_Engine#Construction $\endgroup$ – Devstr Feb 13 '18 at 15:21
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    $\begingroup$ He tried to build both the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine but ran into the same problem both times, he wasn't a good mechanical engineer and couldn't hire someone he got along with so ran out of money while fighting with his chief engineer over the details of construction. $\endgroup$ – Ash Feb 13 '18 at 16:26
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Before you write off the Babbage Analytical Engine altogether, take a good look at high Victorian (and earlier) watchmaking.

While the Analytical Engine was prototyped on this sort of scale ... (sorry, not an Analytical Engine, but a bitmapped graphic output device, AKA Jacquard Loom - apologies for unclear photo, but the topmost bit is the punched card handling mechanism) ... the Victorians could also work on a smaller scale...

enter image description here

... like this... enter image description here ...with components on this scale...enter image description here ... and sometimes insanely highly decorated, even on internal components like this balance cock (that's a diamond endstone in the middle, for the ultimate low friction bearing)enter image description here

The last is almost pre-Victorian, from 1841 (around the time of the Difference Engine). It has a verge escapement, which means you really don't know what the time is (though it can keep within 5 minutes on a really good day!) which is why verge escapements fell out of favour as the railway era started...

There was a famous court case which hinged on the difference between astronomically correct time between one end of the Great Western Railway (Bristol) and the other (London), which ultimately led to Greenwich Mean Time, and the adoption of timezones.

This is worth mentioning to establish the importance of a good watch in the Steam Era, and the lever escapement and the fusee chain.

You can see the chain in the second photo, running from the spring barrel on the right to the variable diameter "Fusee" on the left, so that as the spring unwinds, the drive strength to the watch remains constant. That and the much improved lever escapement makes a watch capable of keeping time to about a minute per week, which IMO is pretty good on a 150 year old machine!

It's also very maintainable. A few screws and taper pins, and the whole comes apart for servicing, cleaning, oiling, and as you can see in the third photo, replacing the hooks on the fusee chain. (Each link is about 1mm long and the whole chain is 0.2mm thick. I'm embarassed by the huge clunky replacement hooks I made, but I did eventually make one that worked, and hand-riveted it (the rivet came out of that pin) to the end of the chain. Every small market town in ... well at least Europe, would have a "watchmaker" capable of servicing and repairing it.

Now imagine a watch that's also capable of chiming the hours, in the same space.

Now all this proves nothing. But it should establish that Victorian engineering could be of extremely high quality when it mattered, and that the size of the prototype Analytic Engine is not any kind of hard limit.

Extrapolate from the watch, and you could imagine a small Analytic Engine on a handcart, or perhaps even a large suitcase, powered by a strong boy on the treadles...

But would this technology only be available to Imperial governments? I think not. Consider 1951, the era of vacuum tube computers and mercury delay lines, when computers were reserved for designing nuclear weapons and missile trajectories...

I give you ... not from the Manhattan Project, or a secret spy operation, or a rocket science laboratory, ... but from the chain of Lyons Coffee Houses ... yes, in 1951, to handle payrolls, inventories, and ledgers, the Lyons Electronic Office.

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That would be a miniaturized combination of Hollerith's tabulation machines (electromechanical, patented in 1889, but you can handwave it as being invented earlier) and a more complex Pascaline (completely mechanic, invented in 1642).

Your clanks may take input,.i.e.: anything from orders to new programming by means of perforated cards. As to how they are so powerful - even if they have little random access memory and short registers, as long as their clocks are insanely fast, they would be perceived to be faster than real world's nowadays computers. Handwave away how that could be and the implications of infinitely high clocks (i.e.: how your machines don't catch fire or melt within moments of being turned on).

As a bonus, some machines may be powered by flywheels for mobility.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thats something i like - having mechanical machine but for "Handwave reasons" working really fast. However i cannot see right now how it can be done without twisting of thermodynamic laws. $\endgroup$ – G.ogre Feb 13 '18 at 13:08
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Analog Computers could be a viable option. They can solve certain problems very quickly and only require basic components.

Furthermore, you can use electrical components to design oscillators which can solve optimization problems efficiently. A while ago, I designed an oscillator that would solve least squares problems. Only worked on paper because I crashed the simulator, but it's definitely doable with enough time.

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    $\begingroup$ There was an article many many years ago in Scientific American which talked about Analogue computers, the key issue is the setup takes a long time, but the act of calculating the answer can happen very rapidly. A civilization built around analogue computing will need very patient programmers and data handlers for the input stage. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Feb 14 '18 at 14:24
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Does a biomechanical system count as an answer? That could simplify something.

I'm talking about the use of some animal parts (or complete miniature animals) in conjunction with mechanical ones in order to create a complex system.

Something like this, but with mechs and watch pieces:

Flesh controller Waiter! I found this in my soup! See short video: Waiter! I found this in my soup!

Think about the current boom in artificial neural networks. In simple terms, you have some network with some inputs and some outputs, and you train to respond in the way that you want to. You can feed some images on the input, and train to recognize numbers, or faces. You "reward" right answers and "correct" the wrong ones.

The way I'm thinking is this: They start with tiny creatures that look like frogs but with less complexity, more close to a worm*, and trained them to specific tasks. Then, they do selective breed between the best ones. Among centuries, you have little "brains" that you can train to do what you need, and have muscles as activators (engaged with mechanisms) and other tentacles to transmit to and receive from other "units".

How do you train them?

At first you could you something like pianola with the sets to be trained for. But then you can train trainers ;).

Pianola roll and mechanism

  • How much complexity it is required?

To train an artificial neural network to behave as an ALU (Arithmetic Logic Unit) you need 2 hidden layers (plus input and output) with about just 20 neurons! The C. elegans, a worm about 5mm of length, have about 300 neurons:

A C. elegans conectome

Theorically (in fiction), you could force evolution of a worm to act as an ALU.

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  • $\begingroup$ Existnz! Nice, weird, weird movie but an excellent reference. $\endgroup$ – Ash Feb 19 '18 at 11:25
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In the Greatwinter Trilogy (Souls in the Great Machine, The Miocene Arrow, and Eyes of the Calculor), by Sean McMullen, one of the characters creates a computer composed of slave labor. She buys a bunch of convicts (and I think pressgangs some other people) who have some skill with math, and has them all work at desks that are linked to each other by cables, with mechanical number displays. Each person performs some function (like adding, multiplying, etc.). She ends up building two systems so she can compare results between the two to check the calculations.

Of course, this requires the infrastructure to run what is essentially a very weird prison, but she eventually also implements the "Battle Calculor" which is a similar team, of fewer but more-skilled people with portable desks and message runners to carry results around. It's not exactly pocket-sized, but at least it's somewhat mobile (until everyone gets tired).

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    $\begingroup$ So if slaves are "very small" - lets say race of semi-sentient miniature insects then such "Calculor" can be handheld? $\endgroup$ – G.ogre Feb 13 '18 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ similar alien soldier-based computer is described in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Alien individuals perform simple basic rules depending on what they see around them. $\endgroup$ – Devstr Feb 13 '18 at 15:24
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    $\begingroup$ Also ants in Discworld's Hex computer. $\endgroup$ – Renan Feb 13 '18 at 22:06
  • $\begingroup$ Until the 1940's "Computer" was a job description, not a machine. Many offices had large teams of "computers" doing complex calculations needed for engineering, finance and so on. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Feb 14 '18 at 14:25
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I think some sort of "natural" or "organic" computer is the way to go. Maybe there is an organism that naturally forms significant colonies of single cells, and has evolved to act as a neural network to make simple decisions and react to stimuli collectively. Humans can cultivate larger-than-natural colonies and then train them (the way a machine-learning algorithm trains a virtual neural network) to react to various types of electrical inputs. Then its just a matter of plugging the right types of analog inputs into the organic neural network, and then plugging the outputs into mechanical arms, legs, etc.

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    $\begingroup$ That is idea i am currently leaning to. $\endgroup$ – G.ogre Feb 14 '18 at 14:36
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While it wasn't quite as small or as fast as you'd be hoping for as it was built, the only thing between the mid-19th century and Konrad Zuse's Z3 and Z4 relay-based computers was the idea. In essense, it uses nothing that wasn't already in use by then: the word "relay" is just "telegraph" spelled weirdly (it was invented for telegraphy, and is simply the telegraph receiver driving another telegraph key); the Jacquard loom with its punched cards already existed, being a mere extension of the barrel organ and carrilon, which was in turn derived from a simple trip hammer; and the leap from there to perforated tape (for self-playing organs and player pianos) was buzzing in the air in the early 19th century and in place by the middle of the century.

All you need to build a relay computer from scratch is the ability to provide electrical current, to be able to create conductive wires and to insulate them, springs, hinges and to know about simple electromagnets. There is no fundamental technological reason why there couldn't have been a Tudor computer; people simply hadn't had a good enough reason to stick two dissimilar metal probes into a lemon to see if it made their tongues tingle or brought a compass needle (which they had) close enough to the contraption while they were doing it to notice the needle acting funny. All they were missing was some knowledge. Allesandro Volta invented the pile (battery) in 1800, mostly as a way to debunk Luigi Galvani's "animal electricty" nonsense. By the middle of the 1820s, that had led to Ørsted and Faraday discovering and developing electromagnetism to the point that everyone and his uncle Bob was inventing some kind of telegraphy system, and Morse's simple on/off system with an equally simple code was off and running before 1832 was out (though a more complex system was operating commercially before Morse's system). A system with relays in it was demonstrated in 1838. So, under 40 years to go from no continuous source of electricity to everything needed for a digital computer's hardware because of a skeptic's need to slap down a woomeister in scientist's clothing.

Charles Babbage rightfully gets a mention here, but not for his machines as much as for his central idea and impetus for creating them: that computation itself should, in principle, be subject to automation. It simply had to be, since human computers, even those using mechanical aids, made far too many mistakes. There were various arithmometers (mechanical calculating aids like the Pascaline or the 20th-century Curta calculator) already, but they still relied on the operator to do the mathematics - all they could do was a stage of the arithmetic. You needed to know not just which numbers to put in, but how to set up the operator and how many times to crank the handle, when to move the decimal point, etc. Then you had to write the answer out without error and hope the printer you gave the answers to set the type without error. The Difference Engines could only do one kind of calculation (sums of polynomials by the method of finite differences), but they were completely automatic after the "program" - the initial condition - was set up. The fellow cranking the handle only needed to know how to crank a handle. There are two working copies of Difference Engine Nº 2, and they do what it says on the tin. They caculate and print out the results and they create a stereotype mould from which a printing plate may be cast. The Analytical Engine would have been Turing complete, and a computer in the modern sense, but monstrously large, heavy, expensive and likely a nightmare to maintain. I'm just a little too old and unwell to expect to see it working in my lifetime, even as a proper mechanical simulation, but I do expect Plan 28 to become a real working thing at some point. But it's not the machine that's important as much as the ideas it embodies: function external to mechanism (lifted from Jacquard and his predecessors), working memory (storage other than on the cards), and conditional branching to enable iteration and recursion. But Babbage's use of decimal numbers, requiring great mechanical complexity, and his inability to see his machine as anything other than a programmable calculator mean that he's disqualified himself as the father of your practical, ubiquitous computer.

Binary wins for the same reason that binary won: everything is much, much simpler. Apart from the idea, that is.

George Boole and Augustus De Morgan had already lain the basis for, well, Boolean algebra by 1854, and the idea of binary arithmetic (which Boole's and De Morgan's work could handily automate the moment somebody noticed that it could) goes back at least to Gottfried Leibniz. (To be sure, binary existed before Leibniz, but its use seems to have been restricted to logic, philosophy, mysticism and - believe it or not - poetry.) To an unseemly degree, though, we are still dealing with mathematics in the sense of numbers. And to anybody working with pencil and paper, binary is an awful lot of ones and zeros and chances to make mistakes. Boolean algebra may make sense for logical problems, but without computers (or something very like them), it's just something nice to discover and file away in the annals of mathematical academia when it comes to arithmetic.

For anybody paying attention, though, Ada King, the Countess Lovelace - who had been tutored by De Morgan - had already made the distinction between computing as we understand it today and mere mechanical calculation in her rightfully famous translation and considerable expansion of Manabrea's Sketch of the Analytcal Engine invented by Charles Babbage. She was talking about a machine that was largely hypothetical, but whose operation was fairly well understood. (That is, what it did was fairly well understood; how to build it so that it does that without breaking while using only the power of a modestly-sized stationary steam engine, keeping within the budget of a wealthy nation and taking slightly less time to build than a medium-sized Gothic cathedral was a different, somewhat harder question.) She had been an acquaintance and sometime friend of Babbage's since she was 17, and was in contact with him while writing the Sketch. Her assertion that a machine of that construction could be used for almost any purpose was astonishing - she recognized that while the machine could only operate on numbers, those numbers didn't have to represent numbers. They could be anything: letters of text, notes of music, colours of a picture - anything that could be represented concretely - and that, while the operations were, strictly speaking, additions and multiplications and such, they could have and necessarily would have different meaning when applied to these numbers-as-metaphor. When looked at one way, that's just saying pray, Mr. Babbage, why can't the pictures from Mr. Jacquard's loom still be pictures in your machine?, but she went deeper than that - about a hundred years before Turing.

All this to say that the technology itself was contemporary with the late Georgian and Victorian period, the ideas were in the air, and the critical insight - using numbers to represent entities other than quantities - was there to be seen by the first person to have a good reason to notice it. Have the right random Belgian sneeze at exactly the right time on a particular Tuesday morning in 1798, just hard enough to have someone next to him spill his coffee in a particular way, causing... and all of a sudden you have Turing-complete binary relay computers by 1820 or so, and wonderfully miniaturized versions running at a reasonable clip (think early vacuum tube mainframe speeds, not today's) only a few years later, even before the incandescent light bulb has been invented. Using such machines to control the gearboxes of armies of clockwork servants is left as an exercise for the reader.

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What you appear to be looking for is a clockwork device, powered by your personal brand of unobtainium/handwavium, that acts as a Turing-complete computational system. Based on that premise you're looking at Babbage's Analytical Engine and the issue of portability and complexity of use is entirely one of machining tolerances because the smaller you can make the components the more compact and complex the machine can be. So if you have say, Pixies with magnifying glasses, producing gears and other mechanisms at the millimeter size range then you can have a full function Analytical Engine the size of a pocket calculator that you feed program cards smaller than the micro-sd card in my smart phone. If, on the other hand, your labour pool consists of ham-fist trolls you are out of luck on that front.

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What is faster than light? Nothing!

Here is what I am envisioning. Create a Handwavy light source, like LEDs, that always emit at specific wavelengths. create receptors that will pick the light from the LED's up. Use vacuum tubes as switches and triggers.

OK, I admit, I have no idea how exactly this would be constructed, but you are exploiting a couple of things that were known a long time ago.

Light behaves as a wave, and specific colors have specific wavelengths. That's why LED's. They are not as precise as coherent light, but they are pretty good at always emitting a very precise color. They are not energy intensive to run. They have existed for a pretty long time. Electroluminescence was discovered back in 1907.

We also know that different materials reflect edifferent wavelengths and that can be used. Spectrgraphy has been around since the late 1800's as well.

So blend this together to build your "brain". Maybe not as big as a house, but probably big enough to warrant a substantial part of your basement.

Now for the clockwork people. You need a mobile power source. I'm thinking a Flywheel, mainly because I like the concept. a small but very heavy perfectly balanced wheel inside each clockwork man provides the mechanical power to move your bots around. After a few hours, when the wheel winds down to a specific RPM, the bot returns to a "charging station" which spins the flywheel back up. This is probably going to require some handwavey lubricant as well. These bots will take instruction from your crystal computer in the attic to navigate around and do simple tasks like making tea and cleaning the cat's litter box.

Your battle bots are going to come about with a breakthrough in hydraulic actuators run by electrical motors. They are going to have to have huge batteries to keep the flywheels spinning or something. Use your now advanced LED technology to beam instructions to the clockwork soldiers via IR. It will require line of sight, and you will have to schlep your attic sized computer with, but they might make useful shock troops to take out fortified positions and a flywheel breaking will be hazardous to anyone nearby.

So there is a plate full of handwavy spaghetti that was hurled at the wall, I hope you find something that sticks!

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    $\begingroup$ The light sources won't be LEDs but glass tubes filled with exotic gases; neon, argon, oxygen and sodium vapour. cover red, green, blue and amber. Easy to build if you can build vacuum tubes, and already proven. $\endgroup$ – Brian Drummond Feb 14 '18 at 11:20
  • $\begingroup$ @BrianDrummondtrue, but the downside is that those take an awful lot of current to run. Neon, Argon etc. would look really cool though...hmm, realism vs Rule of Cool....a conundrum, to be sure :) $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Feb 14 '18 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, similar currents to LEDs, or less. Higher voltages, though... $\endgroup$ – Brian Drummond Feb 14 '18 at 16:03
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Ancient Artifacts

The only way to handwave something properly is by saying nothing. The people in the present of your story simply don't know how things work.

Once upon a time there was a Golden Era. People then knew how to make the most amazing things! Some disaster happened and the knowledge was lost. Even the knowledge of the what the disaster was has been lost.

But the devices remain. Unique ancient artifacts nobody understands.

Fortunately, one of the devices that remain is an automated factory, making "golems". People know that they should put raw materials on once side of the factory and some time later "golems" will appear on the other side. Nobody dare tamper with this factory.

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If you sacrifice some eye-candy, then the computer, that took people to moon was much more primitive, than what you have in old dumbphone.

So if you handwave in lot of man-month work of good engeneers to make the program fast and smart and EFFECTIVE, then you need much less of computing power. And a lot of computing can be done in analog means much faster too, if you allow for some small inaccuracy (which can be later corrected by re-aproximation, as your target is nearer and bigger on visible scale)

Balistic curves can be computed with few cams ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cam ) and gears. All multiplications/divisions, trigonometric functions, logarithmus and exponetials are mechanically trivial, while in computer it takes a lot of work/time and silicon. Barrels with pins or punch cards can keep program, conditional branching can be done by transmission with more gears ...

So if you can go with specialised computers for partial tasks, the mechanics can go really great way. And with modularity is possible to change function relativly fast (and have more similar modules switched in real time).

So just handwave in the speed, size and the complicated design and you will have great semi-automatic machines. (sensors can be kind of problem, but you can use "black box" sensore module somwhere and let reader supposed, that it somehow works like the rest, which is realistic, just little overclocked gear-work)

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Fluidics

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fluidics

Just about everything on pre mid 1960s cars runs on fluidics. Carburetors, automatic transmissions etc. They can control servos mix colored fluids for displays, do analog and digital math, and can be constructed with pre bronze age tech.

Aside from the Jacquard loom, look up the history and design of the Norden bombsight for incredible computational power in a purely mechanical device. Also, of course, the Curta calculator.

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I'd recommend some kind of handwavy Curta Calculator. They're remarkably advanced. If you develop some kind of handwavy calculator (just a couple of orders of magnitude faster than by hand or simple adding machine will do) that can be operated quickly, that should be enough to give an advantage to whatever industry you apply it to.

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Don't forget that "computer" used to be a job title. Prior to the invention of electronic computers (a.k.a., "electronic brains"), the people who performed complex calculations for engineers and scientists were known as "computers."

Human computers could be "programmed." Somewhere in Richard Feynman's autobiography, you can read a description of a roomful of computers, who all worked together on some massive calculation. Each one had an in-box and a mechanical calculator on his/her desk. They would;

  • take a card from the in-box,
  • do some small calculation using numbers that were written on certain spaces on the card,
  • write the result in a different space on the card, and
  • hand the card to a clerk who would deposit it in the in-box at a different station.

The person at each station followed different instructions, and sometimes a card could be routed to any one of several different stations depending on the result of a calculation. The whole system was equivalent to what we would call a data flow architecture today.

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