Science: Mathematical Robot

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What Harvard University unblushingly described as "the world's greatest mathematical calculating machine" was last week shown to newsmen. In the presence of high officers of the Navy, which gets exclusive use of the instrument for the duration, Harvard unveiled a bewildering, 50-foot panel of knobs, wires, counters, gears and switches (see cut). It has 500 miles of wire, 3,000,000 electrical connections and, according to the University, will make any mathematical calculation suggested on earth, as well as a number posed by the celestial universe.

This colossal gadget was invented by Harvard's Associate Professor (now Commander) Howard H. Aiken, with the assistance of engineers of International Business Machines Corp., which built the machine and presented it to Harvard last week. Its calculating versatility is much greater than that of the even more complicated differential analyzer, developed by Vannevar Bush and associates at M.I.T. (TIME, Nov. 29), which merely solves intricate differential equations.

Harvard's calculator adds or subtracts in a third of a second, multiplies in six seconds, calculates the sine of x in 88 seconds. It has solved in 19 hours a problem that took four operators three weeks on ordinary office calculators. Given guinea-pig birth and mortality rates, for example, it is capable of computing how many living progeny a pair of guinea pigs would have by St. Patrick's Day, 1968. It solves simultaneous linear algebraic equations, analyzes statistics, stores up the answers to difficult computations for future use in similar problems—and gets answers accurate to 23 places. When the machine makes an error, it automatically stops. Commander Aiken says it has already exposed eleven miscalculations in a certain formula that has been standard for years. He predicts that after the war his machine will solve problems in star movements which have never been tackled because the computation was too laborious.

Aiken took two years to develop the theory on which the calculator is based, six more years to build the machine. Many operations can be done by laymen, with the use of a code book prepared by a mathematician. The operator feeds a problem into the machine by punching holes in a tape in a coded sequence. The tape then rolls over a drum, which picks up the message by means of mechanical feelers and closes electrical circuits that start the calculation process.