I'm working on a Dieselpunkish Science-Fantasy setting and I am trying to find an alternative to conventional electrical systems used in computers.

Computer and telecommunication systems in the setting are optically based, technology developed along this route do to the radiation from the omnipresent Dwimer Field, quickly burning out any electrical device more sensitive than a vacuum tube;access to the material that made a device analogous to the Photophone viable at the time of its invention also helped.

I could either make up my own terminology or just take a shortcut by saying "optical chips and circuitry", I would preferably do neither.

What are the possible alternatives to the circuitry currently used in electronics. I'm especially interested in alternatives that would be well suited for an optical scheme.

  • $\begingroup$ Awesome question. Are you interested only in optics or anything that could replace electronics? Your title and your question don't seem to match on that. $\endgroup$
    – PatJ
    Jun 14, 2016 at 14:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Are you looking for what alternative might arise without "traditional" silicon chips, or are you looking for something powerful enough to be a drop in replacement for them in modern equipment? $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Jun 14, 2016 at 14:33
  • $\begingroup$ What makes the field burnout electronics "more sensitive than a vacuum tube"? I.e., optical circuitry also depends upon electronic components that includes transistors in most cases, esp. for the more powerful optical computing. I.e., why are optical components different. High power computing will always require miniaturization as the speed of light limit for propagation of information between components necessitates miniaturization for high performance. Tiny components are inherently "delicate" in at lease some senses. $\endgroup$ Jun 14, 2016 at 20:09
  • $\begingroup$ @PatJ A little bit of both. I'm interested in optical components and possible alternatives to how modern computer electronics are deigned,even if they were technological deadends in the real world. $\endgroup$ Jun 15, 2016 at 1:09
  • $\begingroup$ @GaryWalker. I'm deigning the world around the aesthetic and feel that I want. And I wanted the people that live in the world to be incapable of building modern computer systems. So microchips had to be taken out, so the setting's magic happens to burn out anything more sophisticated than a vacuum tube. I envision the computers in the setting using very little electricity compared to what ours do. Using directed light for their processes. $\endgroup$ Jun 15, 2016 at 1:18

4 Answers 4


Computing as a system is independent of the mechanisms that do the computing, it is interesting to contemplate that the word "computer" was a job title prior to the Second World War, for example. Teams of mathematicians in rooms could calculate various tables of numbers for such things as navigation, actuarial tables and interest rate calculations, for example. Teams of "computers" were recruited by the United States to work on the Manhattan Project, doing the intricate calculations required for nuclear physics to develop the atomic bomb.

So in the simplest Dieselpunk iteration, the computer room is full of desks and chairs for the computers, and it is wise to have washroom facilities and a lunch room close by.

1930 era computer room

Of course Steampunk is famous for imagining that mechanical computers such as the Babbage Machine and the Analytical Engine were actually built and used (real life replicas demonstrate that they really could have worked as advertised), so dieselpunk settings could simply grow out of this, with the steam engine and "black gang" powering early mechanical computers being replaced by internal combustion engines for large "servers", while electric motors power desktop "PC's" more analogous to Singer sewing machines than the devices we understand today.

Babbage Machine replica

And of course the first electronic computers used vacuum tubes, which are acceptable in your setting. Monster computers with massive banks of vacuum tubes, electromechanical switching (much like telephone exchanges prior to the computer revolution) and massive cooling infrastructure to deal with the waste heat would be quite possible, and indeed was the model of "modern" computing back in the late 1940's and early 1950's, when the president of IBM famously declared that the global market for computers might be as high as six machines. Of course using that technology and needing an army of toiling technicians to monitor and change out vacuum tubes, six computers would have been a very impressive and expensive undertaking....



Not optical technology, but perhaps even better for Dieselpunk:

  • Analog computing. And a Memex for information storage. Historically, analog computers were competitive or even superior to digital computers in the early years. They were hard to modify, but so where digital ones.
  • Fluidic circuits. Probably impractical in the real world, but you never know.
  • $\begingroup$ I didn't know about memex until to day so thank you. Aside from saying that the computers use a light conducting fluid,I'm not sure what my setting could with fluid processing. $\endgroup$ Jun 15, 2016 at 2:32
  • $\begingroup$ @Trismegistus, my suggestion was to use fluid processing instead of optical processing. Optical "feels" to microscopic for Dieselpunk. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Jun 15, 2016 at 17:06
  • $\begingroup$ As Dieselpunk is normally seen, with the photophone an optical communication device having been invented in 1880. I think that it fits especially if the currently available systems still make heavy use of mechanical parts. $\endgroup$ Jun 16, 2016 at 14:14

Photonics is actually an active discipline in science currently. Integrated circuits, similar to electronic integrated circuits, are now being made. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photonic_integrated_circuit

Researchers in our world have demonstrated photonic transistors, which could in theory (though slightly impractical) be used to do computations. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optical_transistor). If you can link these together on chips just as you do with electronic transistors, you could theoretically make a photonic computer.

  • $\begingroup$ Do you know of any alternatives to the integrated circuit, even if they didn't work put that well in reality? $\endgroup$ Jun 16, 2016 at 15:40
  • $\begingroup$ Well, from vacuum tubes we (real world) moved first to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transistor_computer transistor computers, which had individual transistors. Then, after that, we moved to IC's containing transistors. Unfortunately, once we knew how to make nano-scale transistors the optical transistors we've researched are all nanoscale. Basically you need something that, when light shines on one end, allows light to pass through the other end. Nothing that is cheap really comes to mind for that, but I'll keep thinking about it for a bit and see if I can come up with a mechanism. $\endgroup$
    – Kaia
    Jun 17, 2016 at 19:53
  • $\begingroup$ Obviously you could hook up something like a photoresistor that detects light and then some electronic component that moves a shutter out of the way of the incoming light, or somehow renders it transparent. $\endgroup$
    – Kaia
    Jun 17, 2016 at 19:55
  • $\begingroup$ There are light reactive materials now, a more sophisticated version could be used as a part of optical circuitry. $\endgroup$ Jun 21, 2016 at 19:45

Consider fungi.

I recall a demo where a slime mold, grown into a shape of a graph, "solved" a problem it was designed for by determining optimal weights between the nodes.

With the background magic going on, you might get living things to perform useful computing. We already know that unlike electronics, life works just fine in that universe.

You, you grow "vegitable brains" of some type or another.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .