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simplisticly some event that happens every time the engine rotates generates
a small signal(spark). a digital counts the events where an analog dumps them into a capacitor and measures the voltage. The details of how this is done can get rather involved,
and unless you are designing one not important. The pickup can be distributor spark, a magnet on the flywheel, or even a spot of paint on the crank pulley. I have always liked the magnet on the flywheel more difficult to install but permanate.
 
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