Friday Night Flicks: Mechanical Pi — In memory of William Shanks

Tomorrow is Pi Day, and in celebration here’s a flick about a machine that produces the number π. The machine was created by Florian Born and David Friedrich for the Digitale Klasse – University of the Arts Berlin 2014, and was displayed at Art+Bits Festival, PL and Transmediale, GER in 2015.

From the text by Florian Born:

The mathematician William Shanks sacrificed years of his spare time to the decimal expansion of the irrational number pi by hand. In 1873 he published his handwritten calculations to the 707th digit. Much to his regret, in 1945, D.F. Ferguson proved that only the first 527 decimal places have been calculated correctly. Nowadays Shanks tedious manual task is done with the help of computer algebra, performing millions of steps in fragments of a second, while calculating billions of decimal places. Mechanical PI is a computing machine replacing this repetitive algorithm back into a physical, mechanical language. A constant rotation, pressing and repeating the calculator’s keys, approaching the number Pi, yet never reaching it…

The machine utilizes the Leibniz formula for pi which is an infinite series of additions and subtractions of quotients. Each subsequent denominator in this series is the sum of the previous one plus two, starting with the value one. With this being the only variable expression and the possibility to store values in the calculators memory, the formula can be expressed as a repetitive keystroke combination activated by circular motion.



You could take a few minutes this weekend to learn more about the construction process. There’s a post here with explanations and more images.


About Byopia Press

I have been working in the book arts field for more than twenty years, and operating Byopia Press with my husband David since the late 1990s. I began producing artist's books and altered books in 2004.
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