Meccano Differential Analyser

A Differential Analyser  is a mechanical analogue computer. It is used for solving complex mathematical equations involving calculus.  An example would be the acceleration of a car.  As the speed increases in metres per second per second, a graph can be drawn against time on the vertical scale, which would show a curve.  If one wanted to find what distance the car had travelled in unit time, a complex mathetical formula would be needed which would constantly sample the speed at frequent intervals and add them together (integration).  The more frequently this occurs, the more accurate the result.  A differential analyser could solve this problem. 

The mechanics of a Differential Analyser

The machine essentailly consists of five parts.

1.  The integrator.  This consists of a disc on which a wheel at right angles to it is caused to turn.  Either the disc can be moved horizontally under the wheel, or the wheel itself can be moved.  There is a special mathematical relationship  between ther two.  At least two such integrators are required to show the principles of the machine, and often many more are used for complex problems.

2. Torque amplifiers. There must be no slippage between disc and wheel, and as the wheel itself is required to drive quite complex gearing, some form of torque amplification is essential.  This can be done either electrically, or through a special torque amplifier mechanism.

Principle of the torque amplifier.  The two drums are driven by a motor in opposite directions. Movement at the input shaft tightens the thread on the drum, which causes the motor driven output shaft to rotate - thus amplifying the torque.

3.  Complex gearing to link the two integrators and to provide for adding, subtraction, division and multiplication as required.  In order to function, the gearing must be set up in advance, which is directly analogous to a computer program. 

4.  Input table.  A stylus must be made to follow a pre-plotted curve.  The result is mechanically linked to the input drives.

5.  Ouput table.  This has a similar construction to the input table, and a pen writes on paper, thus plotting the resultants of the various mechanical linkages.

This diagram, shows the input table at the top, the various mechanical linkages and integrators, and the output, thus providing a solution on the output table shown below.
The first differential analyser was built in the United Sates in 1930 by  Dr Vannever Bush, Vice President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  A machine was then constructed a few years later by Professor Hartree at Manchester University in England out of Meccano in order to demonstrate its principles and to obtain funding for a more complex machine. The machine turned out to be surprisingly accurate and was used to solve quite complex problems during the second world war.  Eventually about 14 machines were built in the UK.  One Meccano machine was bought by Professor Whale and taken to New Zealand in 1950 and was used for his research at Seagrove Radio Research Station. It was subsequently used to study river silting, rabbit migration and at a salt works, and was eventually presented to the Auckland Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT).

The Museum still has the Meccano Differential Analyser.  It was the first analogue computer to be used in New Zealand, and as such has very great historical interest.  It is also a most important part of Meccano History.  The museum plans to put the original machine on display, but it is thought that that a second machine might have to be constructed with new parts to demonstrate its operation.  William Irwin of the New Zealand Federation of Meccano Modellers is conducting research into the Differential Analyser, and can be contacted by email at

A Meccano Differential Analyser is to be found in the Science Museum in London.

Meccano Models

Two working models of a differential analyser  have been built.  The first was a Morris Maurice Modelplan Meccanomans Club leaflet No. 4. The second is shown here and was built by Ron Fail to show its essential features.  Tim Robinson has built a torque amplifier which could be used in the machine.

Meccano Differential Analyser built by Ron Fail - from Midlands Meccano Guild Gazette No 16  April 1993

Further details on this machine will be published as the material becomes available. Please contact William Irwin if you would like to make a contribution to his research work.

Michael Adler

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