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Can You Build a Computer Out of Paper Clips?

You might never have asked yourself this question, because it's a pretty weird question, but the answer is essentially yes

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Dawn LeClair, member of the 1975 Wickenburg High School Math Club, sits in front of the paper clip computer. Image: Wickenburg High School

In the 1960s, some strange computers were being tinkered into existence. There was one that operated solely on rolling marbles and gates that flipped open and closed. And in 1967, the manual How to Build a Working Digital Computera book that explains just how to build a computer out of paper clips—came out.

Okay, so you need more than just paper clips. Evil Mad Scientist explains:

How to Build a Working Digital Computer is both an introduction to the “new and exciting field of digital computers” and a set of plans to build one.  What’s especially interesting is that the plans don’t call for any specialized electronic components, but instead show how to build everything from parts that you might find at a hardware store: items like paper clips, little light bulbs, thread spools, wire, screws, and switches (that can optionally be made from paper clips).

This isn’t your average paper-clip chain, though. One piece of the computer is made from a juice can and bent paper clips. It works kind of like those little music box rolls, where the cylinder rotates and the bumps on it are struck to make sounds. Except that the cylinder is a juice can and the heads are made of paper clips.

If this all sounds super weird, it is. But, like the very best super weird things, it also actually works. This guy made one:

Apparently so did a couple of 9th graders in Cleveland in 1972. They named their computer Emmerack. Mark Rosenstein, one of those kids, has some photographs of Emmerack that still survive. He writes:

In the summer between 8th and 9th grade, my friend Kenny Antonelli and I built an electro-mechanical computer. We had been lucky enough to use our high school’s HP2114B computer for a couple of weeks when it had been lent to our junior high school. The 2114B had a massive 8k words of core (yes magnetic donuts) memory, of which 4k was reserved for the Basic operating system, and the rest was available to the user via optical mark cards or by typing in via a teletype. The design of our computer was based on the book, “How to Build a Working Digital Computer” by Edward Alcosser, James P. Phillips and Allen M. Wolk. The book used paper clip switches, but we used our paper route money to purchase a zillion real slide switches from Radio Shack. We ganged the switches together by drilling a hole in each switch handle and inserting a metal rod through the holes of the switches that needed to be operated together.

Sadly, Emmerack was trashed when Rosenstein went to college. In 1975, the Wickenburg High School Math Club also built one of these home supply computers.

And if you want to try it, you can download the instructions from the Bitsavers.org archive. Mostly, you’ll need a lot of paper clips and a lot of patience.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Charles Babbage’s Difference Machine No. 2
Should All Students Be Forced to Learn Computer Science?

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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