Analogue computing: fun with differential equations

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When it comes to differential equations, things start to get pretty complicated—or at least that’s what it looks like. When I studied mathematics, lectures on differential equations were considered to be amongst the hardest and most abstract of all and, to be honest, I feared them because they really were incredibly formalistic and dry. This is a pity as differential equations make nature tick and there are few things more fascinating than them.

When asked about solving differential equations, most people tend to think of a plethora of complex numerical techniques, such as Euler’s algorithm, Runge–Kutta or Heun’s method, but few people think of using physical phenomena to tackle them, representing the equation to be solved by interconnecting various mechanical or electrical components in the right way. Before the arrival of high-performance stored-program digital computers, however, this was the main means of solving highly complicated problems and spawned the development of analogue computers.

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