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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » music box tech

   
Author Topic: music box tech
babooher
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I'm planning a steampunk piece, but I've run into my own ignorance. The story involves an automaton. I was thinking of a cylinder contraption like what is used in a music box to be the automaton's programming.

Does this sound feasible enough for a steampunk piece and is there a name for that kind of device?

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extrinsic
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Music box movement is the name I know for the assembly. Basic components include a key-wound spring, a spurred cylinder, and a reed comb. Feasible and credible if the movement or multiple sequenced movements contain enough data to initiate the desired command sets. Sounds to me a little like a Turing machine.
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MattLeo
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Well, obviously *none* of the technologies available in Victorian times would make any steampunk technology feasible.

The tin cylinder in a music box has one major drawback: it's use of only the surface of the cyclinder is very space inefficient. Even a very expensive music box plays only a tiny snatch of music.

In 1837 Charles Babbage conceived of his Analytical Engine [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Analytical_Engine] as being programmed with a continuous roll of punch cards, a technology invented for the Jacquard Loom in 1801 ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacquard_loom ). This is not unlike a player piano. This technology would allow you to store a great deal of data in a small area.

The problem with this kind of storage is that it's not very suitable for an automaton unless that automaton is performing a task that is always executed in order start to finish. Suppose the automaton has to choose between two complex series of operations. They can't *both* be the next sequence in the cards. What if it needs to re-execute a sequence of instructions it's already done?

You need to have memory that you can skip ahead of or move back in. Either something like a paper tape that can be moved in either direction on a sprocket, or (as in computers as late as the 1970s) you can load the program from a sequential tape into some arbitrarily addressable memory. Magnetic core memory ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnetic_core_memory ) is something which could have been fabricated in the 19th C, although the electronics that go around it were not possible yet.

Magnetic wire recording ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wire_recording ) was invented in 1891, and with a two way motor would fit the bill for input and addressable memory, but it doesn't really have a steampunk vibe.

I'd consider something like a two-way piano roll ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piano_roll invented 1883) only with tiny holes and wonderfully precise mechanisms. Something like a cross between a player piano and a fine watch ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronometer_watch#Complications ). Clockworks *do* have a steampunk vibe.

Another candidate would be sequentially load the software into a storage medium. One of the earliest computer memory technologies developed was the mercury delay line ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercury_delay_line ), an *acoustic* technology. Mercury is unfamiliar to most of us in our daily lives because it's so poisonous, which I think gives it a steampunk aesthetic. I'm envisioning mercury lines interfaced to tuning forks and wonderfully precise mechanical triggers.

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extrinsic
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Instead of a key-wound spring, steam-actuated cylinders. A master cylinder movement actuates subroutine cylinders in sequence. Instead of spurred cylinders, cam and cog shaft cylinders precisely raise levers instead of reeds. The spring-loaded levers open and close steam valves that power movement.

Sufficient control for an automaton to follow a simple, predetermined sequence of operations, like walk out of a shed, pick up a standard crate from a suitably positioned standard wagon, carry the crate into the shed, and set it in a predetermined location. Interchangeable master cylinders execute different routines.

A default error shutdown subroutine if specfic conditions aren't met keeps the automaton from causing harm. Say like a Mark V mine's contact arming studs, one or more are depressed and it shuts down the automaton or executes different subroutines, like it grips a smaller crate or shuts down if it doesn't touch what it's supposed to. Funny possibly, that it needs at least as as much effort as it saves to keep it running.

A clockwork mechanism, not elegant or pretty, but credible enough for fiction.

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babooher
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I was thinking about using the cylinder like a boot command. From there, the clockwork mechanisms would take over and the willing suspension of disbelief required in steampunk would come into play.

Thanks MattLeo and extrinsic, you've both been helpful.

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LDWriter2
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I've only read a few steampunk stories-novels but personally I think it fits. I've read stories with hand held steam operated devices and steam powered what are basically robots--very dumb but they always work. [Smile]

So clockworks would be the same. Especially with so many titles with the word Clockwork in them. extrinsic's ideas so good even though I'm not sure how you do a subroutine with steam and clockworks unless you add another player piano cylinder or set of gears that can operate only under certain circumstances which you would have to work out. Come to think of it that might be what he said.

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LDWriter2
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Seems like I just saw a book with clockworks as a major component. But I can't recall where. On Barnes and Noble new books list online maybe.
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