We’ve always been told that you should never get a computer wet, but these examples fly in the face of that advice. One recent breakthrough using water could even change how we think of a computer forever.
In 1936, a Russian scientist, Vladimir Lukyanov, made the first computer that ran on water called a Water Integrator. The computer was the first for solving partial differential equations. Lukyanov used water-filled tubes that were interconnected, and plugs changed the variables in the equation. The water level in specific tubes answered the problem. This computer was originally used to solve problems related to cracked concrete, but in later years, it was used in the fields of geology, metallurgy, and the production of rockets.
A later example of this same type of computer using fluid was made in 1949 by Bill Phillips, a New Zealand economist. It was called the MONIAC, or Monetary National Income Analogue Computer, and also known as the Phillips Hydraulic Computer. Similar to the Russian computer, the MONIAC used fluid to solve a problem, and in this case, the workings of the economy of the United Kingdom. It used a large tank of fluid as the treasury and used colored water to represent the flow of money around the economy. Taps were used to have water flow from the treasury to tanks that represented segments of the economy, and a pump was used to resupply the treasury tank to represent taxation.
There has been a more recent innovation that shows computers and water can cohabitate together. In 2015, bioengineering researchers at Stanford University developed a computer that uses the movement of water droplets to operate. This computer is synchronous, meaning that the operations are governed by one clock, and it is similar to how a regular computer operates using a microprocessor’s clock.
This particular process works by flipping a magnetic field on a chip that has tiny iron bars. The team put magnetic nanoparticles into water droplets, and when the polarity was flipped to the iron bars, the water was able to follow a specific path. While the process is much slower than a computer using electrons, this water computer can still carry out computations toward one specific goal since it is synchronous. It’s thought that this type of computer can be used in biology, medicine, and chemistry since it could compute and manipulate physical matter as it is found in nature.