Curta Calculator is a piece of Mechanical Engineering Awesomeness so radical that it added a new term to the English language. Yeah! Thats right. The phrase “Cranking out answers” – which we associate mainly with with penny pinching accountants- came about thanks to this baby. I might be bluffing a bit there but never mind 🙂
This is what a Curta Calculator looks like:
The Curta Calculator story starts when a particularly insane Charlie Chaplin imitator called Adolf Hitler thought that it might be a really good idea to take his Panzer battle tanks and Messerschmidt fighter aircraft on a cross country hike across Europe and dump a crapload of bombs, bullets and bad German Martial music on unsuspecting Europeans till they died of it. Somewhere in this madness was his idea of killing Jews wherever he could find them. Anyways, during his tramp through the country of Austria, one of the Jews captured by the Nazis was a young Mechanical Engineer called Curt Herzstark.
Curt Herzstark was working on a prototype of a portable calculator when he was caught by the Nazis and thrown into the Buchenwald Concentration Camp in 1943.
Hmmm… Epic Suck.
Just when it seemed that Curt Herzstark was doomed to end his life sucking down poison gas in a Nazi gas chamber, his mechanical engineering know-how came to his rescue. His supervisor at the camp came to know of his portable calculator idea and asked him to develop it further. The idea was to present a completed piece to Hitler as a gift once the Germans won the war.
Well, as we all know, the war didn’t turn out all that well for the Germans and their leader. Hitler swallowed a piece of hot lead fired from a 9 mm Luger pistol, which killed him for some strange reason.
Curt Herzstark on the other hand survived the war and walked out of the Buchenwald Concentration camp with the completed plans of his calculator. It took him a few more years to start a company and begin manufacturing his calculator.
The concept of a mechanical calculator was not new. What differentiated the Curta was its compact size, relative ease of use and and a method to cross check your answers. It could perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and with a little extra effort, square roots as well.
Check out this video of a Curta in action:
You set your inputs, turn the crank and the machine just puuurrrrrrrrrs as it gets you the answer! Something deeply satisfying about that crank whirring around and generating the answer.
To return to Curt Herstark, he continued to make his calculators. Over the years he also continued to make improvements to his original design. These remained the preferred portable calculators till the 1970s when they were replaced by electronic calculators.
Today, nobody manufactures them anymore. The remaining Curtas remain highly collectible (and expensive) items. There are some of them for sale on Amazon and Ebay as well.
But looking at these I can almost visualize a half starved Jew sitting in an overcrowded cell, scribbling numbers and drawings on scraps of paper in the dim light. I can imagine the hope in his heart. The hope, not for wealth or material possessions, but hope for survival. Cliff Stoll describes it much better than me in this video: