Differential Analyzer Club gains members


by Tiffany VanVolkinburg

Few are operational in the world, let alone the United States, and now Simpson’s own Differential Analyzer Club has its very own differential analyzer (DA), built by the two co-leaders of the club, seniors Dani Peterson and Molly Peterson.

“A differential analyzer is an analog computer used to approximate solutions to differential equations,” said Heidi Berger, assistant professor of mathematics and faculty advisor to the Differential Analyzer Club. “Research into such devices dates back to the 1800s, but the first practical unit was not built until the 1930s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”

The club all began with a presentation presented by Dr. Lawrence where Molly Peterson was in attendance.

“The Differential Analyzer was designed and first built in the late 1920s to solve nonlinear differential equations that could not be solved by other methods,” Molly Peterson said. “This machine is a precursor to the modern computer. Vannevar Bush, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), designed and built the first machine and then the idea traveled to England in the early 1930s.”

There are many differential analyzers in existence. However, few are operational and most sit in museums around the world. The differential analyzer present at Simpson College is only one of three fully functioning/accessible differential analyzers in the U.S. The other two are both located at Marshall University in West Virginia.

The machine intrigued Molly Peterson so much that she spoke with Berger to request if she could study the machine further for her senior research project.

“Dr. Berger and Dr. Lawrence decided that I would [go] out to Marshall University to learn about the [Differential Analyzer] and build [one] at Marshall’s DA Lab then bring it back to [Simpson] for my senior research [project],” Molly Peterson said.

Knowing that she would not be able to complete the construction alone in the short amount of time allotted, Molly Peterson asked her long-time friend and roommate, Dani Peterson, to accompany her on the trip to West Virginia.

“Molly asked me to help her build the DA, so that it would be built in 11 days, which is a really short time, so I went with her for that reason,” Dani Peterson said. “I think the most rewarding part is seeing that it works and runs well and knowing that I was a part of it. I had a really good experience at Marshall and am very glad that Molly asked me to help her build it.”

This club has not been present on campus for very long, and there are still some complications that arise with the machine. The complications are discussed and steps are taken to improve the machine.

“My favorite part of the club is working together to try to solve the mechanical issues with the DA,” Molly Peterson said. “Working by myself on the machine sometimes gets very frustrating, but as a club we are able to talk through the issues in hopes to solve them.”

The club is open to all students regardless of educational background.

“We have students with mathematics, computer science, physics, and education backgrounds who each contribute significantly to the project,” Berger said.

Differential Analyzer club meets every Thursday at 4:00 p.m. in Carver 340, and all students are welcome.