It is the first compact calculator in history and was created in a Nazi concentration camp

As with flared trousers in fashion, which come and go, it seems that in the history of technology the tendency to increase or decrease the size of certain devices has also experienced variations over time. But the compact has always had its status of achievement, because it is practical and perhaps because it is comfortable, and although mobile phones seem to never stop growing, computers and calculators had to be reduced with respect to the former, and there the key was the Like.

As in the case of calculation computers, we are not talking about an electronic device, but about what would still be one of the grandmothers of those calculators that we may have at home, already with buttons, a screen and perhaps solar power. We talk about something entirely mechanical, great-great-grandson of the abacuses and that after its creation there is quite a striking story.

No, it’s not a pepper mill

The origin of calculators, strictly speaking, dates back to 1623 when the German Wilhelm Schickard devised the first device capable of performing arithmetic operations of which there is evidence. It was large, complex, with many levers and it served to add and subtract, so it had little portable or practical.

With calculators it happened as with computers, although not occupying entire rooms like these. It was a solution longed for by those mathematicians, physicists, engineers and scientists in general who they needed to do a lot of calculations a day, however simple they are.

Pascaline Pascalina, the first mechanical calculator in history (created by the scientist Pascal). Image: Wikimedia commons

Spinning with this, Cliff Stoll alluded in Scientific American to Johannes Kepler or Isaac Newton in that they already complained about the time that was used with simple calculations, but although as we have seen at that time there were already attempts at calculators, mechanical they would not arrive until the twentieth century. In 1914 there was a first attempt with the ten-key adding-listing machines, but in 1948 the Curta arrived, with an innovative and truly compact design by the time.

It stood out for its compact design, but it is quite far from the calculator image. In fact, it looks more like a pepper mill.

In fact, it is considered the first pocket calculator of history. But it is quite a departure from the current calculator image, in fact it looks more like a pepper mill, which, as we will see, he ended up baptizing it.

Short Type Ii A Curta Type II (image: Carlton).

Early for the electronics explosion, the Curta calculator was a cylinder that fit in the palm of your hand (moving away from the previous models) and was used to perform operations such as addition, subtraction, products, divisions and even square roots. All without battery, screen and not even keyboard; with a crank.

The operation of the Curta is based on the selection of the figures with which we want to operate using some sliders that are in the contour of the cylinder, for later turn the crank. Here we must take into account both the direction, as well as the times and the position of the crank, so that depending on the combination we will add, subtract or do another calculation.

Resorting to 9’s complement arithmetic, Curta could subtract, since with it we can calculate a difference transforming it into a sum. This was achieved by creating gears that combined both the addition and the complement to 9, so that depending on how high the crank is adjusted, when turning it will be added or subtracted.

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Thus, to add for example 12 + 35 + 62, first of all we would resort to the ring (the cleaning ring or “wiper ring,” the “C” key on a modern calculator) to zero. Then we would select 1 and 2 in the two sliders on the right, and then we would give the crank one turn, complete.

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The same would be repeated with the numbers 35 and 62, and with each turn of the crank it would add up and appear on the result dials. To do a subtraction, instead of simply turning the crank, the crank would also be pulled upwards, so that the operation would be changed (as the dual gear had moved).

The Curta also (the second model, Type II) had three security mechanisms to avoid errors (to fix the numbers or to avoid inadvertently switching from one operation to another). Being capable of solving operations with up to eleven digits and with a design as compact as it is practical, it was considered “a technological marvel”, according to Stoll.

Curta’s design was based on the arithmometer of the mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, invented at the end of the seventeenth century within that wave of first calculation devices. This, in turn, was based on stock accumulation with sprockets using multiple cylinders, but in the case of the Curta there is only one main cylinder.

When the resume saves your life

Curta comes from Curt Herzstark, its inventor. Born in 1902, he was interested from a young age in those first larger mechanical calculators and above all more complex in mechanism and heavy. One of the previous ones, that of Thomas de Colomar (in 1855), was as big as a piano and could already add, subtract, multiply and divide, but weighing about 27 kilograms it was not very portable.

During the first World War, Herzstark’s father had to dedicate himself to selling these used calculators as his war material factory was destroyed. This conditioned that the young Curt was immersed in that world and, around 1930, he detected that “something was missing in the market”, and over the years he studied the previous models and the possibilities with arithmetic to, in 1937, already have some designs of calculators.

But, shortly after, German troops entered Austria, and in 1943 he was charged with supporting the Jews among other “charges.” Then they took him away from his factory, first passing through the Pankratz prison and later taking him to the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald.

There he was selected to work in an army factory and it was what allowed him to find Fritz Walther, a long-time rival in Herzstark’s business. Walther, recognizing him and drawing on the good status he enjoyed under Hitler, informed the concentration camp commander of the value of the prisoner and of his specialty.

And then they offered to build “a little calculating tool” that would be given to the Führer as a gift if it really worked, as Scientific American records from Herzstark’s testimonies. The calculator could be the bargaining chip to save your life.

Finally, his release came with the American troops, when he already had his designs very advanced. After more difficulties and with hardly any resources, with effort and seeking them even in the royalty of Liechtenstein, the calculators were made by Contina AG Mauren in said nation.

Of the 500 that were manufactured in a first batch, they began to have to fulfill an order of 10,000 units and it was a success until, finally, the era of electronics arrived and this type of calculators fell into disuse over the years 70. It came to be known as the “pepper grinder” due to its design and Herzstark’s work was recognized by the Liechtenstein government, although when he was already 84 years old.

Imagen | The Curta Calculator


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