If you ripped the covers off whatever device you're reading this on, the chip-packed boards beneath will likely be something of a mystery. In an effort to make it easier to understand how these marvels of modern technology actually work, engineer James Newman has built a room-sized computer he calls the Megaprocessor, which is big enough to walk through and studded with LEDs to visually represent data moving through the system
At 10 m long and 2 m tall (32.8 x 6.6 ft), the machine reveals the inner workings of a microprocessor on a macro scale. In creating his Megaprocessor, Newman says he wanted to demonstrate the invisible processes that take place inside modern microprocessors to let the layman see behind the curtain of electronic devices they use everyday.
Just like modern processors, the key to the Megaprocessor is transistors. Current microprocessors use millions or billions of tiny ones on a tiny integrated silicon chip, but to blow it up to a scale we can actually see, Newman built the Megaprocessor using tens of thousands of larger, electronic hobbyist transistors, with LEDs attached to the inputs and outputs that light up as the current moves through them.
It may be the size of one, but this is no supercomputer. Unlike the GHz-scale we measure modern CPUs with, the MegaProcessor's clock speed maxes out at a quaint 8 kHz, but usually operates at just 1 Hz. It's a necessary throttling though: as Newman demonstrates, even at 8 kHz the processor works too fast to see, resulting in the LEDs appearing to stay on all the time and the purpose of the exercise being summarily defeated.
So what can you do with a room-sized, 1 Hz computer? Play Tetris of course. Newman has a makeshift monitor rigged up out of yet more LEDs and 256 bytes of memory, where he demonstrates his (somewhat rusty) Tetris skills. Like early university computers, games seem to be the best way to engage the general public in what computers are capable of – even when you're severely hobbling them.
If you're curious to see the Megaprocessor in action, and maybe challenge its creator to a round of giant LED Tetris, Newman plans to run open days in Cambridge, UK, if the interest is there, so you could try getting in touch via the project's Facebook page. Charging admission might help offset some of the money Newman has already outlaid on the project, which currently stands at over £40,000 (approx. US$52,000).
If you can't make it to Cambridge, Newman takes you on a tour of the machine in the video below, and he's posted a ton of info on the ins and outs of the machine on his website.