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Did the first cars have computers???


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I learned today that you can't underestimate the ignorance of the current generation of kids regarding how cars work.

A 30-ish guy in my office came in today, and told me he discovered the used BMW he just bought needs a clutch. The service dept said it was 'slipping.' He asked me what that meant, so I diagrammed a rough outline of a flywheel-clutch assembly on a legal pad. That led to a conversation about how a transmission works, so I drew a basic constant mesh trans. Then I discovered he had no idea how an internal combustion engine functioned, so I drew a cutaway front and side view of an overhead cam four cylinder. He asked good questions, he's not dumb, and pretty soon we were into a discussion about the relationship between valve timing and ignition timing. Then I talked about how all this had evolved with the advent of ECUs and computers. At which point he asked me, "wait, so cars didn't always have computers? They didn't have them from the beginning?"

He seemed shocked when I told him the earliest was the mid-eighties.

Should this make me feel old?

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First off I'm 32, you shouldn't feel old, he should know better. I remember not having a computer in the home and when we did get one it was an Apple IIE or something and had a green screen with DOS, and 5" floppy discs.

Sounds like you need to take him to the next AACA meet near you and enlighten him to the world of mechanical brakes, steering via tiller, wood frame bodies, straight 8's and flat heads, etc, etc, etc.

In all seriousness he might appreciate it and AACA might get a new member someday out of it.

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The first cars with computers towed them behind on a trailer because of the computer's size, right?

Did he know what a carburetor was?

Actually a carburetor can be described as a fluid computer. It determines the correct amount of fuel based on operator input, manifold vacuum, flow rate and, on cars with automatic chokes, temperature.

Hmmm. Googling around, it seems the term "fluid computer" has changed its meaning since I came across it maybe 40 years ago. More about using digital electronics to model fluid flows rather than the older meaning of using fluid flows to model or control real world things. Oh well, I guess time does not stand still in any field.

That is funny ersatz. One caveat. The differential of automobiles is sometimes considered a

merchanical computer.

And the advance mechanisms built into a distributor can be considered a computer too. I determines the amount of advance needed based on RPM and/or engine load (manifold vacuum).

So cars have had "computers" for a long, long time. They just were fluid and mechanically based, not based on digital electronics.

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If you're willing to accept a distributor or carburetor as a form of "computer". then the sliding valve gear on a steamer would apply also. This would lead us to the Cugnot steam transporter of 1748, the first vehicle to move self-propelled.

Here's a slightly different twist: What does every 1989 and later USA qualified car have in common?

Answer: An on-board computer with more computation power than the 1969 Apollo moon lander!

Think that one over!

Regards, Dave Corbin, Society of Automtive Historians #1917

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Ha! Points well taken. I am constantly impressed with the extent of R&D that occurred from 1900 to 1920. Following the explosion of creativity and experimentation of that period, it is difficult to find examples of anything truly new in the subsequent 90 years. (new in execution, maybe, but not in concept) I agree the examples given meet the 'computer' definition!

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If you're willing to accept a distributor or carburetor as a form of "computer". then the sliding valve gear on a steamer would apply also. This would lead us to the Cugnot steam transporter of 1748, the first vehicle to move self-propelled.

Here's a slightly different twist: What does every 1989 and later USA qualified car have in common?

Answer: An on-board computer with more computation power than the 1969 Apollo moon lander!

Think that one over!

Regards, Dave Corbin, Society of Automtive Historians #1917

If my web search turned up the correct facts, the Apollo computers had 16 bit words with 2K words of RAM (4Kb) and 36K words for program ROM (72Kb). And the instruction cycle time was 11.72 uS or about 85KHz. A typical smart phone nowadays is about 10,000 times more powerful than that. I wouldn't be too surprised to find the computer in a modern microwave oven is more powerful than that Apollo computer.

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In a Pontiac Enthusiast magazine, or similar, Jim Wangers (The Father of the GTO) noted that (at that time) when you mentioned the name "Pontiac", the first thing that came to many younger people's mind was "AZTEC". Not Catalina, Bonneville, or GTO, but "AZTEC". These would be "the kids" who grew up in the minivan era, who never knew the spacious back seats of cars "Before AZTEC".

Unfortunately, as many generations have now grown up with vehicles which had on-board computers running things, they never did know any different . . . unless they did some research on their own or a friend had an older car they had bought. Computerized vehicles is their point of reference for "normal". Can't really fault them for that, although we might find it somewhat amusing.

Back in the middle 1980s, we had a Corvair in the repair shop. One of the apprentices we had back then was looking at it. His comment was "They sure did a good job of putting that Delco radio in the dash." The shop foreman almost fell over laughing. The kid looked puzzled as to why the laughter . . . he'd not noticed the Chevrolet emblems on the car. The shop foreman then realized that the kid was born after the last Corvair was produced, so he re-composed himself and explained that it was a full production car, not a custom-built kit car.

Remember . . . before vehicles had computers, the "computers" that ran them were in the driver's (aka, "That nut behind the steering wheel") head, but actuation of various systems was "analog". Possibly "digital" if you didn't need the full hand to make something happen. Sensors were body parts . . . glutes, eyes, skin, etc. Actuators were hands, fingers, feet, legs, toes, and arms. How well they worked came from "continuous improvement" of techniques and enhanced levels of "finesse".

Enjoy!

NTX5467

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In a Pontiac Enthusiast magazine, or similar, Jim Wangers (The Father of the GTO) noted that (at that time) when you mentioned the name "Pontiac", the first thing that came to many younger people's mind was "AZTEC". Not Catalina, Bonneville, or GTO, but "AZTEC". These would be "the kids" who grew up in the minivan era, who never knew the spacious back seats of cars "Before AZTEC".

Unfortunately, as many generations have now grown up with vehicles which had on-board computers running things, they never did know any different . . . unless they did some research on their own or a friend had an older car they had bought. Computerized vehicles is their point of reference for "normal". Can't really fault them for that, although we might find it somewhat amusing.

Back in the middle 1980s, we had a Corvair in the repair shop. One of the apprentices we had back then was looking at it. His comment was "They sure did a good job of putting that Delco radio in the dash." The shop foreman almost fell over laughing. The kid looked puzzled as to why the laughter . . . he'd not noticed the Chevrolet emblems on the car. The shop foreman then realized that the kid was born after the last Corvair was produced, so he re-composed himself and explained that it was a full production car, not a custom-built kit car.

Remember . . . before vehicles had computers, the "computers" that ran them were in the driver's (aka, "That nut behind the steering wheel") head, but actuation of various systems was "analog". Possibly "digital" if you didn't need the full hand to make something happen. Sensors were body parts . . . glutes, eyes, skin, etc. Actuators were hands, fingers, feet, legs, toes, and arms. How well they worked came from "continuous improvement" of techniques and enhanced levels of "finesse".

Enjoy!

NTX5467

A good reality check for those of us believing the best on board computer is between the ears and the only GPS we need is published by Rand-McNally, sometimes aided by the position of the Sun or a compass on the dash.

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Back to the original post,the sad thing is the guys parents are most likely still paying for the dummies college education. Sadder still he can vote, one of the reasons we're in the mess we're in.

I could get onto my soapbox about that real quick, but I'll limit my comment to saying the parents may be getting exactly what they deserve for having shirked their responsibilities and having turned an airhead loose on society. Unfortunately we seem to have an entire generation comprised mostly of airheads.

End of rant!

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A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, I will probably demonstrate, but I think there is a subtle difference between a senor (or sensory input) causing some predictable output that we may observe, which is the case with most monitored systems in an automobile. I think the inputs need to interact and supply their own predictable outputs. Hence, the simple action/reaction inputs of say, a distuributor compare nothing, in and of themselves, whereas a differential (if each axle is spun at a different speed, jacked off the ground, and NOT positraction) will average the inputs "all by itself" and yield that average back out the pinion gear. Some may have heard the term differential Cal-culus (and which I am pathetically inept at). This should keep the discussion alive.

I hope this makes sense.

Perry

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I could get onto my soapbox about that real quick, but I'll limit my comment to saying the parents may be getting exactly what they deserve for having shirked their responsibilities and having turned an airhead loose on society. Unfortunately we seem to have an entire generation comprised mostly of airheads.

End of rant!

I remember my Dad saying the same thing about my generation back in 1952, or thereabouts.

Ben

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I remember my Dad saying the same thing about my generation back in 1952, or thereabouts.

Ben

Hee, hee...........Your Dad was right, he just had no basis upon which to predict it would become a progressive thing, becoming worse with each subsequent generation.

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Hee, hee...........Your Dad was right, he just had no basis upon which to predict it would become a progressive thing, becoming worse with each subsequent generation.

Except that his father and grandfather probably had said the same things too. :)

The young person the original poster wrote of certainly seemed to be interested and intelligent. Just ignorant. And ignorance is curable, especially by someone who becomes interested in the subject, while some other faults are much harder to deal with.

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In a Pontiac Enthusiast magazine, or similar, Jim Wangers (The Father of the GTO) noted that (at that time) when you mentioned the name "Pontiac", the first thing that came to many younger people's mind was "AZTEC". Not Catalina, Bonneville, or GTO, but "AZTEC". These would be "the kids" who grew up in the minivan era, who never knew the spacious back seats of cars "Before AZTEC".

Enjoy!

NTX5467

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Just a note on the "Father of the GTO" . Jim is actually known as the "God Father of the GTO" . The "fathers of the GTO" are John DeLorean, Jack Collins and Russ Gee.

Volkswagen started using Bosch Electronic Fuel injection in the type 3 ( notchback, fastback and squareback ) in 1968. Nissan started EFI in 1975 on the Z car. These cars were Not half way EFI like TBI injection, but multi-port electronic direct fuel injection and controlled by a ECM or computer.

Don

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___________________________________________________________________

Just a note on the "Father of the GTO" . Jim is actually known as the "God Father of the GTO" . The "fathers of the GTO" are John DeLorean, Jack Collins and Russ Gee.

Volkswagen started using Bosch Electronic Fuel injection in the type 3 ( notchback, fastback and squareback ) in 1968. Nissan started EFI in 1975 on the Z car. These cars were Not half way EFI like TBI injection, but multi-port electronic direct fuel injection and controlled by a ECM or computer.

Don

My apologies for the correct parentage of the first Pontiac GTO. DeLorean (et al) might have "invented" it and got it into production, but Wangers was the Pontiac PR guy, so he was "involved", even as "God Father".

As for Fuel Injection . . . the FIRST prototype Bendix electronic fuel injection was installed in the rh front floorboard of a '53 Buick V-8. Mainly vacuum tubes and somewhat bulky. This system was later optional in many '57 or '58 cars, later to be retrofitted with carburetion due to RFI issues from things like mercury vapor lights. Finding a Chrysler 300 (letter car) with the original Bendix system stilll installed, even in the earlier 1960s, a real find.

Don't forget about the GM Central Port Injection system used on many Chevy 4.3L V-6s in Astro Vans and S-10s (and similar GMC models). One "central injector" which fed individual nozzles, one in each intake port.

Regards,

NTX5467

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As far as I am concerned the guy who didn't know cars didn't always have computers was right. For an ordinary person in his everyday life this would be totally useless information. I expect he does know all kinds of things that are far more useful that are a closed book to me like what an ipad is for.

One thing that is a never ending marvel to me is the mechanical controls that were devised before computers came along. The Stanley Steamer had a whole set of automatic controls for water, oil, steam, etc that were perfectly ingenious and invented before 1900. Probably some adapted from steam locomotives and stationary power plants.

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The problem is that computers and the complexity of cars now have limited the amount of work the average person can do under the hood. Kids don't have the opportunity or inclination to mess around with cars like they used to. Between the electronics and how the engine compartment is so crammed together that you can't get to anything, it is tricky to work on newer cars. Picking up carburetors from the scrap yard isn't so easy anymore. Most people don't even know how to properly wash their own car. The latest Honda Odyssey minivan comes with a food cooler unit and a large video screen. There are groups which customize their cars, but it's to trick them out -- I know someone who has a microwave and video game console in his Civic.

I agree that the man showed a lot of interest and intelligence, and kudos to you Ersatz for taking the time to teach him. You can direct him to the website HOWSTUFFWORKS.com for some good articles and illustrations.

My teen had to do a report on why Harvey Firestone was important... "Who's that?" So I explained the transition from solid rubber carriage wheels to having a rim that let you change your own tire, then came pneumatic tires, then low pressure ballon tires with treads and how that made motoring more enjoyable, easy and affordable. How there once wasn't a highway system or good roads, service stations, a trucking industry, or rubber tires for farm equipment. Firestone broke the British monopoly on rubber production. And how Firestone the CEO pushed for innovation, paid his employees well and gave them health and life insurance, all for an 8 hour day! (then compared that to Edison and Ford and how anyone could have any color car as long as it was black...) My son stared at me in amazement and said "HOW do you know all that?!?" Simple, no video games when I was your age, kid!

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Yes, Maradeth, hats off for caring and taking the time to pique your teen's interest! Broadening his scope like that, while explaining specific things, causes your son to WANT to know/learn. Not only is that an effective teaching method (deduction), for the purpose of understanding the particular, but the seed you nurtured (i.e., satisfaction gained by resolving curiosity) will sprout and grow, and commend itself to society as a whole! My late father, a typically frank old mechanic, used to say this about unruly teenagers. "that kid wasn't brought up, that one was jerked up". This was his way of getting across the idea that

we need to spend time with the young ones, for the better interests of all. On the other hand, he spent lots of time with me, and I certainly might have turned out better (I am 58, and still an idiot)! For one thing, I have trouble staying on topic! Perhaps too much of a good thing, was a bad thing !

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As far as I am concerned the guy who didn't know cars didn't always have computers was right. For an ordinary person in his everyday life this would be totally useless information. I expect he does know all kinds of things that are far more useful that are a closed book to me like what an ipad is for.

One thing that is a never ending marvel to me is the mechanical controls that were devised before computers came along. The Stanley Steamer had a whole set of automatic controls for water, oil, steam, etc that were perfectly ingenious and invented before 1900. Probably some adapted from steam locomotives and stationary power plants.

I'll go along with this and add the Doble Steamer to the list... check-out the Doble videos at Jay Leno's Garage.com, and see his guided-tour of the Doble Sedan and all of it's electro-mechanical / hydro-mechanical "management systems", and not a transistor in sight !

:)

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Why, from running with the governor's ball weights all the way out, of course! In other words, WAO.

Had this topic come up a few weeks ago I could probably have got a picture of one for a large steam turbine. We had one of ours tore down.

whew, that's great! fantastic topic for a thread of its own. In fact...

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If any of you live in the south or Hawaii try and visit the USS North Carolina or in Hawaii the USS Missouri. The mechanical computer rooms for the main armament are something to see.

Don

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helfen,

I live in Wilmington NC, and will have to agree with you about the computer room of the USS North Carolina. That was one of the locations visited on the 2011 AACA Southeast Divisional Tour. While I don't think there are any computer room photos on the website, feel free to check out photos from that day of the tour, including a few of the USS North Carolina.

day_3

If interested in planning a trip, here is the link for information about the USS North Carolina.

http://www.battleshipnc.com/

Edited by MCHinson (see edit history)
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Tim, that is AMAZING! I will definitely have to try that on someone...

But how many con artist mechanics/shops are out there scamming people? I remember years ago taking my car in to a shop and they told me the fuel injector needed cleaning ($100). I darn well knew the car didn't HAVE a fuel injector and ran for the door.

Ever since then I have deeply regretted not batting my eyelashes and innocently asking if that big strong man would please show lil ole me that part on the engine just to see what he would do!

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But how many con artist mechanics/shops are out there scamming people?

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About the same ratio as any other reputable occupation.

Don

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