I only recently found out about Google's reverse image search functionality. Since then I've been busy feeding its search engine some of the more mysterious images that have been littering my archives for years, hoping finally to figure out what they are actually pictures of, and why I even found them interesting enough to keep in the first place.
One of those images is the one you see above. According to a translation of this article published in the Russian magazine Science and Life in 2000, it shows one of the “monuments of science and technology” that “brought [the Soviet Union] to the forefront of the analog computer” — Vladimir Lukyanov's marvelous water computer.
Built in 1936, this machine was “the world's first computer for solving [partial] differential equations,” which “for half a century has been the only means of calculations of a wide range of problems in mathematical physics.” Absolutely its most amazing aspect is that solving such complex equations meant playing around with a series of interconnected, water-filled glass tubes. You “calculated” with plumbing.
To better explain how it works, here is a description by Steven Strogatz of what I'm assuming is a comparable device. Built in 1949, nearly a decade and a half after Lukyonov's, it's called the Phillips machine, after its inventor, Bill Phillips.
In the front right corner, in a structure that resembles a large cupboard with a transparent front, stands a Rube Goldberg collection of tubes, tanks, valves, pumps and sluices. You could think of it as a hydraulic computer. Water flows through a series of clear pipes, mimicking the way that money flows through the economy. It lets you see (literally) what would happen if you lower tax rates or increase the money supply or whatever; just open a valve here or pull a lever there and the machine sloshes away, showing in real time how the water levels rise and fall in various tanks representing the growth in personal savings, tax revenue, and so on.
“It’s a network of dynamic feedback loops,” Strogatz further writes. “In this sense the Phillips machine foreshadowed one of the most central challenges in science today: the quest to decipher and control the complex, interconnected systems that pervade our lives.”
To go back to Lukyanov, his water computer was built specifically to solve the problem of cracking in concrete, a “scourge” that slowed the construction of railroads by his employer. Doing so meant developing manufacturing regimes for concrete blocks that took into account the complex relationships between material properties, the curing process and environmental conditions. Existing “calculation methods were not able to give fast and accurate solutions.” Lukyanov's invention did.
Appropriating and altering Strogatz's text, we get:
Filling up not just a corner but the entire room, inside not one but several structures that resemble large cupboards with a transparent front, is a Rube Goldberg collection of tubes, tanks, valves, pumps and sluices. You could think of it as a hydraulic computer. Water flows through a series of clear pipes, mimicking the production line of concrete blocks. It lets you see (literally) what would happen if you change the type of cement used or increase the load capacity of the concrete or whatever; just open a valve here or pull a lever there and the machine sloshes away, showing in real time how the water levels rise and fall in various tanks representing material properties, curing time, temperature, and so on.
Changes to the water level in the “measuring tube” would be marked on a graph paper (“a kind of curve”), and “these marks build schedule, which was the solution of the problem.”
Because of the simplicity of their design and programming, subsequent models were “successfully used” in other fields such as geology, thermal physics, metallurgy and rocket engineering. The first and second generations of digital electronic computers could not match their computing abilities. In the mid-1970s, they were still being used in “115 manufacturing, research and educational institutions located in 40 cities” across the Soviet Union. “Only in the early 80s” were digital computers cheap, configurable and powerful enough to match the “possibility of [the] hydraulic integrator.”
Having briefly traced the history of water computers forward from Lukyanov to the rest of the 20th century, I can't help but thread the timeline backward to include some of the most elaborate hydraulic engineering schemes used in the sprawling aristocratic gardens of early modern Europe, such as the always indispensable Versailles, the hydro-acoustically drenched Tivoli, the masterworks of Salomon and Isaac de Caus, and one of my top favorite gardens, Pratolino.
Garden historians usually characterize the technical control of water in stately gardens as part of a system of social control. As an alternative, or at least to offer another layer of meaning, this augmented timeline presents a crypto-historical narrative of gardens as gigantic water computers.
All those water-screws, force pumps, water-lifting wheels, vents, wells and settling tanks, all those reservoirs, canals, aqueducts and pipes buried under mountains and rivers, and all those jets spurting out of vases and statuaries, creating water rainbows and sonic merriment, and all those fountains, water parterres, giochi d'acqua, automatas and damp grottos: those are the gurgling circuits, the programmable interfaces, the data storage devices and the visualization screens of landscape proto-supercomputers.
To operate it, you will have to consult an unpublished edition of Solomon de Caus's Les raisons des forces mouvantes, avec diverses machines tant utiles que plaisantes, auxquelles sont adjoints plusieurs dessings de grotes & fontaines, from which the following may have been excerpted:
Embedded in the earth is a Rube Goldberg collection of tubes, tanks, valves, pumps and sluices. You could think of it as a hydraulic computer. Water flows through a series of clear pipes, mimicking the way that money flows through the empire. It lets you see (literally) what would happen if you lower the price of bread or increase the construction of palaces or whatever; just open a valve here or pull a lever there and the machine in the garden sloshes away, showing in real time how the water levels rise and fall in various tanks representing colonial trade supplies, food riots, and so on.
Attached to the measuring tube is a series of fountains that gurgles the solution to the equation.
Gardeners and their patrons would then walk around marking the fluctuating levels of these fountains on graphic paper. From fountain to fountain, they follow a set of programmed perambulations, gathering data at relevant nodal points, along the way not just picking up the solutions to the problem being computed but also gaining a greater understanding of the complexities of the natural and social worlds.
With these gardens as crypto-water-computers, they were taking measurements of the universe.