All modern computers rely on switches to operate. By taking advantage of Boolean logic, the on or off states of sets of switches can be used to perform basic arithmetic. That, in turn, can by used for increasingly more complex calculations. Eventually, when you have millions or billions of switches, you end up with computers like we have today, where the the states of switches have been abstracted away so much that you’ll never need to know them. But a pair of designers from Vienna, Ebru Kurbak and Irene Posch, wanted to make those switches artwork unto themselves and did so with embroidery.
Their art piece, called The Embroidered Computer, is part of a larger project called Stitching Worlds that focuses on textiles and technology. They wanted this computer to be functional, but to also look unlike any other computer in the world. To do that, they devised small switches made with magnetic beads. Electrical current flows through gold or silver conductive thread and into handmade coils. That creates a small electromagnetic force that reacts to the bead and pulls the coil into either the on or off position.
Depending on the bead switches’ position, current can either continue flowing or stop. That provides the circuitry needed for a extremely simple operations. In this case, there are a total of 369 of the bead switches, which puts it roughly on par with the earliest all-electric computers — though this likely operates much more slowly because of the switching speed. Of course, speed isn’t really the point of The Embroidered Computer. This is a project that is meant to be thought-provoking, not practical.