MU Differential Analyzer Grand Opening


A Grand Opening to launch the Marshall Differential Analyzer, aka “Art” and “The Big Machine,” will be held at the Keith-Albee Theatre on Saturday, May 2, 2009.

Drs. Porter and Hartree with the original DA.

Inspired by a machine invented in the 1930’s to answer war-related mathematical questions, Drs. Bonita Lawrence and Clayton Brooks have spent the last five years building a Differential Analyzer (DA). The overall goal of the DA is to provide an innovative tool for teaching and learning mathematics through the visualization of mathematical functions. To begin, a DA Team was formed whose first mission was to locate the nearest differential analyzer. This assignment led to contact with Tim Robinson, an engineer who had built a DA in his home, and subsequently to meetings with Dr. Arthur Porter (pictured to the left with Dr. Douglas Hartree), one of the first developers of such a machine. Through the various phases of the project, both scientists have served as mentors to the DA Team and as guest lecturers at Marshall.

In Spring 2006, a miniature version of the DA, “Lizzie" (pictured below), was built to learn more about gearing and torque amplification. The construction of "Lizzie" sparked interest and presentation/demonstration invitations from national and international enthusiasts. In January 2007, “Lizzie” was introduced at the Joint Meetings for the American Mathematics Society and the Mathematics Association of America, followed by a trip to Washington, D.C., and an invited lecture for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology Department of Victoria College at the University of Toronto. For the Spring 2007 “Posters on the Hill” session sponsored by the National Council for Undergraduate Research, mathematics undergraduate Richard Merritt was chosen to be among sixty poster presenters. Merritt and the DA Team showcased “Lizzie” at this session and then again to Senator Jay Rockefeller, and the Education Advisors of Senator Robert C. Byrd (Mr. Christopher Gould), Congressmen Nick Rahall (Ms. Katherine Denman), and Congressman Charlie Wilson. In 2008, more fame came to both “Lizzie” and her creators. Richard Merritt won a NASA award for his contribution, and the WV Public Radio and MU television and radio stations did segments on the machine.

The DA Team and “Lizzie” has been invited to the Mathematics Colloquium at Charleston Southern University, in South Carolina; the Appalachian Association of Mathematics Teachers Educators Conference; the Mathematics Department Colloquium at Missouri University; and the 14th International Conference on Difference Equations and Application in Instanbul, Turkey. In addition, the DA Team’s poster won second place at the MU annual Sigma Xi Research Day.

After “Lizzie” was complete, the DA Team began building “The Big Machine.” First, the four integrator carriages were constructed, followed by the development of pathways between the integrators. By March 2008, the machine was near completion.

It is evident that the DA Team has a lot to show for their work. With education as their overall goal, the DA Team involved several undergraduate and graduate students in the making of the machines. This project has exposed these students to various aspects of mathematics and physics, as well as provided invaluable hands-on experience that they will be able to apply in their future endeavors. Now that “The Big Machine” is complete, teachers from high schools and universities will be invited to MU to learn about and use the DA.

To see “The Big Machine” (pictured to the left) in action, join the DA Team at the grand opening on May 2. In addition, Tim Robinson will be presented with the Drinko Scholar Medallion and will be named a Distinguished Visiting Professor by the Drinko Academy. Anyone interested in attending this event should contact Dr. Bonita Lawrence ( or Stacy Good ( for more information.

This project has been supported by MU-ADVANCE, the College of Science, the Marshall University Foundation, and WV-EPSCoR.