This Early Computer Was Based on a Urinal Flush Mechanism – Facts So Romantic

John Horton Conway, a Fellow of the Royal Society who hails from Princeton via Cambridge, England, is notorious for many things—perhaps most for his promiscuous curiosity and his lifelong love affair with playing all manner of games.

He’s also celebrated for his Conway groups in mathematical symmetry, for his surreal numbers, and for inventing cellular automaton Game of Life—though he’s gone off that game lately. He opened a talk at an artificial intelligence conference in New York City last summer with the booming confession:  I HATE LIFE!

The Game of Life, which Conway invented circa 1970, was not his first foray into the realm of computer science, as it were. During his undergraduate career at Cambridge, he tinkered with what one might call artisanal computers. Conway and his friend Mike Guy engineered a computer using knotted embroidery string, and another using marbles. And then Conway unveiled his water computer. 

In October 1957, Conway and a few of his chums walked along the cobblestoned Trinity Street in Cambridge and put up posters announcing:

WINNIE is coming!

The posters went up along King’s Parade, Trumpington Street, the fence around Great St. Mary’s Church, and scattershot about town:


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