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Over on the twobithistory Twitter channel, I came across this post from Gothamist about a computer from 1913 under Grand Central that was purportedly developed by Westinghouse.

According to the tour guide who was giving the talk,

Westinghouse in 1913, before the first World War, built the first ever, ever, ever electronic computers that could actually compute that train’s exact location.

Does anyone have more information about this mystery computer? I can't seem to find any other wiki or anything about it. I'm a bit incredulous about how this would have worked, given it seems electric switches weren't really invented until about 10 years later. I suppose it could have been an "analog" computer of some sort, maybe more like an electric calculator, but even the earliest of those weren't developed till much later as far as I can tell.

In any case, this doesn't seem to appear in any other history of early computers.

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    IDK, but I remember seeing a list of computers that had been proclaimed "the first" by one person or another, and there were more than thirty of them on it---30+ different opinions about what the word "computer" really means. – Solomon Slow Aug 22 '18 at 20:46
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    I wonder if they had their dates mixed up. Westinghouse was an early leader in the development of analog computers, thanks largely to the work of Edwin L Harder, but as he only joined the company in 1926, and no other Westinghouse employees are regularly mentioned as having made major contributions to the field, it seems unlikely they built such a system that early. – Jules Aug 22 '18 at 20:48
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    "Actually computing a train's exact location" could be achieved by means of electromechanical relay-based signalling control. The train has passed the sensor at A but has not yet reached sensor B, therefore it is between A and B. – Leo B. Aug 22 '18 at 22:19
  • That's not really a computer though, agreed? – dashnick Aug 22 '18 at 23:06
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    To some journalists, anything that's sufficiently complex and at least marginally involves electric signals, "must be a computer". – tofro Aug 23 '18 at 9:26
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Does anyone have more information about this mystery computer?

Sorry to disappoint you, it's not a computer and not even a computer-like fixed-function machine. It's simply a system of cables, switches, relays and Morse writers. There was no automated signaling. It was just a bunch of switches mounted at pillars along a track, cabled in parallel. Each switch could be pulled by said cable. When a train stopped, the engineer grabbed the cable and pulled. The first pull activated the bell and powered the Morse writer. Further pulls could then be used to send over the position manually. A little clockwork was triggered with every signal; when it ran out, the Morse writer was stopped again. It was built with a mercury switch timer.

Simple but effective by any time's standards - and a great achievement back then.

given it seems electric switches weren't really invented until about 10 years later.

Reliable relays have been around since the 1850s. In theory, they could have been used to make a computer even back then - just at hard to imagine cost :))

I suppose it could have been an "analog" computer of some sort, maybe more like an electric calculator, but even the earliest of those weren't developed till much later as far as I can tell.

There were many mechanical and electro-mechanical special-purpose machinery around at that time.

In fact, 1913 and the Grand Central Station are keywords to this, with the Electric Interlocking Machine installed there. The whole Grand Central system between Grand Central station and Mott Haven (up in the Bronx) was all electric for control and handling of all switches and trains with a block based handling. Much like today. For back then, it was a masterpiece of unimaginable complexity - the whole system with several hundred sections was controlled by just 5 men in a single control room. Including a wall sized display of all sections indicating each switch and its position.

It wasn't the first interlocking system, not even the first electric, but by far the biggest of its time. While for example the Berlin subway system was several times the size, it consists of dozens of independent operating small systems, many of them still mechanical.

While the interlocking system was able to tell an assumed position down to about 1-3 miles, it was independent from above mentioned, way simpler system, and could not narrow the location down. Also it reported to the central switching room, not down to the works.

(Information mainly from memory and an article in Electric Railways Journal of 1914)

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    No disappointment, I didn't really believe it to begin with, just wanted to learn more about it. Amazing info, thanks! – dashnick Aug 23 '18 at 1:21
  • Some of New York's subway control is from the 1930s. See nytimes.com/interactive/2017/12/22/nyregion/…. – Peter A. Schneider Aug 23 '18 at 8:55
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    In contrast to dashnick’s comment above: Complete disappointment. 😂 And also, awesome answer. – Jason C Aug 23 '18 at 12:57
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    Oh I see @Raffzahn, I read it to mean the entire line was connected together by a single cable pulling all of the switches down the line. – Maury Markowitz Aug 23 '18 at 15:08
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    it was a stretch, i thought this might qualify as an early data network/bus for reporting train/car positions (where cars would pull on said cable, or otherwise close the loop to signal the morse writer) but after re-reading i can see it always required a human to yank on a rope (?).. and since humans are the recipients of the morse (?) that really just makes it a clever communications device (not a network of machines as i'd hoped ;) – Shaun Wilson Aug 23 '18 at 20:49

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