analog computer

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analog computer:

see computercomputer,
device capable of performing a series of arithmetic or logical operations. A computer is distinguished from a calculating machine, such as an electronic calculator, by being able to store a computer program (so that it can repeat its operations and make logical
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analog computer

[′an·əl‚äg kəm′pyüd·ər]
(computer science)
A computer is which quantities are represented by physical variables; problem parameters are translated into equivalent mechanical or electrical circuits as an analog for the physical phenomenon being investigated.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Analog computer

A computer or computational device in which the problem variables are represented as continuous, varying physical quantities. An analog computer implements a model of the system being studied. The physical form of the analog may be functionally similar to that of the system, but more often the analogy is based solely upon the mathematical equivalence of the interdependence of the computer variables and the variables in the physical system. See Simulation


An analog computer is classified either in accordance with its use (general- or specific-purpose) or based on its construction (hydraulic, mechanical, or electronic). General-purpose implies programmability and adaptability to different applications or the ability to solve many kinds of problems. Most electronic analog computers were general-purpose systems, either real-time analog computers in which the results were obtained without any significant time-scale changes, or high-speed repetitive operation computers.

Since the 1970s, digital computer programs have been developed which essentially duplicate the functionality of the analog computer. Modern simulation languages, such as ACSL, GASP, GPSS, SLAM, and Simscript, have replaced electronic analog computers. They provide nearly the same highly interactive and parallel solution capabilities of electronic analog computers, but without the technical shortcomings of electronics: accuracy inherently limited to 0.01%, effective bandwidths of 1 MHz, and cumbersome and time-consuming programming. Simulation languages also avoid the large purchase investments and the continual maintenance dependencies of complex electronic systems.

Another type of analog computer is the digital multiprocessor analog system, in which the relatively slow speeds of sequential digital increment calculations have been radically boosted through parallel processing. In this type of analog computer it is possible to retain the programming convenience and data storage of the digital computer while approximating the speed, interaction potential, and parallel computations of the traditional electronic analogs.

The digital multiprocessor analog computer typically utilizes several specially designed high-speed processors for the numerical integration functions, the data (or variable) memory distributions, the arithmetic functions, and the decision (logic and control) functions. All variables remain as fixed or floating-point digital data, accessible at all times for computational and operational needs.


The typical modern general-purpose analog computer consists of a console containing a collection of operational amplifiers; computing elements, such as summing networks, integrator networks, attenuators, multipliers, and function generators; logic and interface units; control circuits; power supplies; a patch bay; and various meters and display devices. The patch bay is arranged to bring input and output terminals of all programmable devices to one location, where they can be conveniently interconnected by various patch cords and plugs to meet the requirements of a given problem. Prewired problem boards can be exchanged at the patch bay in a few seconds and new coefficients set up typically in less than a half hour. Extensive automatic electronic patching systems have been developed to permit fast setup, as well as remote and time-shared operation.

The analog computer basically represents an instrumentation of calculus, in that it is designed to solve ordinary differential equations. This capability lends itself to the implementation of simulated models of dynamic systems. The computer operates by generating voltages that behave like the physical or mathematical variables in the system under study. Each variable is represented as a continuously varying (or steady) voltage signal at the output of a programmed computational unit. Specific to the analog computer is the fact that individual circuits are used for each feature or equation being represented, so that all variables are generated simultaneously. Thus the analog computer is a parallel computer in which the configuration of the computational units allows direct interactions of the computed variables at all times during the solution of a problem.


To solve a problem using an analog computer, the problem solver goes through a procedure of general analysis, data preparation, analog circuit development, and patchboard programming. Test runs of subprograms may also be made to examine partial-system dynamic responses before eventually running the full program to derive specific and final answers. The problem-solving procedure typically involves eight major steps, as follows:

  •  The problem under study is described with a set of mathematical equations or, when that is not possible, the system configuration and the interrelations of component influences are defined in block-diagram form, with each block described in terms of black-box input-output relationships.
  •  Where necessary, the description of the system (equations or system block diagram) is rearranged in a form that may better suit the capabilities of the computer, that is, avoiding duplications or excessive numbers of computational units, or avoiding algebraic (nonintegrational) loops.
  •  The assembled information is used to sketch out an analog circuit diagram which shows in detail how the computer could be programmed to handle the problem and achieve the objectives of the study.
  •  System variables and parameters are then scaled to fall within the operational ranges of the computer. This may require revisions of the analog circuit diagram and choice of computational units.
  •  The finalized circuit arrangement is patched on the computer problem board.
  •  Numerical values are set up on the attenuators, the initial conditions of the entire system model established, and test values checked.
  •  The computer is run to solve the equations or simulate the black boxes so that the resultant values or system responses can be obtained. This gives the initial answers and the “feel” for the system.
  •  Multiple runs are made to check the responses for specific sets of parameters and to explore the influences of problem (system) changes, as well as the behavior which results when the system configuration is driven with different forcing functions.

Hybrid computers

The accuracy of the calculations on a digital computer can often be increased through double precision techniques and more precise algorithms, but at the expense of extended solution time, due to the computer's serial nature of operation. Also, the more computational steps there are to be done, the longer the digital computer will take to do them. On the other hand, the basic solution speed is very rapid on the analog computer because of its parallel nature, but increasing problem complexity demands larger computer size. Thus, for the analog computer the time remains the same regardless of the complexity of the problem, but the size of the computer required grows with the problem.

Interaction between the user and the computer during the course of any calculation, with the ability to vary parameters during computer runs, is a highly desirable and insight-generating part of computer usage. This hands-on interaction with the computed responses is simple to achieve with analog computers. For digital computers, interaction usually takes place through a computer keyboard terminal, between runs, or in an on-line stop-go mode. An often-utilized system combines the speed and interaction possibilities of an analog computer with the accuracy and programming flexibility of a digital computer. This combination is specifically designed into the hybrid computer.

In a modern analog-hybrid console, the mode switches in the integrators are interfaced with the digital computer to permit fast iterations of dynamic runs under digital computer control. Data flow in many ways and formats between the analog computer with its fast, parallel circuits and the digital computer with its sequential, logic-controlled programs. Special high-speed analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog converters translate between the continuous signal representations of variables in the analog domain and the numerical representations of the digital computer. Control and logic signals are more directly compatible and require only level and timing compatibility. See Analog-to-digital converter

The programming of hybrid models is a more complex challenge than described above, requiring the user to consider the parallel action of the analog computer interlaced with the step-by-step computations progression in the digital computer. For example, in simulating the mission of a space vehicle, the capsule control dynamics will typically be handled on the analog computer in continuous form, but interfaced with the digital computer, where the navigational trajectory is calculated. See Computer

McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Engineering. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

analog computer

A device that processes infinitely varying signals, such as voltage or frequencies. A thermometer is a simple analog computer. As the temperature varies, the mercury moves correspondingly. A slide rule is another example. Although special-purpose, complex analog computers are built, almost all computers are digital. Digital methods provide programming flexibility. See digital computer.

The Antikythera Analog Computer
Estimated to be at least 2,000 years old and discovered in 1901, this is the largest gear (5.5") in the analog device found in the Antikythera Roman-era shipwreck. It modeled the movement of celestial bodies in order to calculate the position of the sun and moon at various times. (Image courtesy of Creative Commons license 2.5 Generic,
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References in periodicals archive ?
In turn, this was used to predict the locations of hot spots in castings and thus to check, using the analog computer, a proposed gating and risering system, rather than following the classical trial-and-error technique.
In the pioneering early days of computing, the first experiments were done on analog computers. These experiments were performed by computers imitating the continuous varying of physical quantities in time.
Whereas analog computers maintain some direct connection to data sources, digital computers require that all inputs and outputs be mediated through a symbolic code or language.