7/26/10

Curta Portable Calculator - Ten clocks in one fishing reel.

I found this ad in the back of  a 1952 copy of Popular Mechanics. I may have looked right past it if I hadn't read Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson. The Curta is featured in the early parts of the novel.

The Curta Portable Calculator is a mind-injuringly complicated mechanical pocket calculator, developed in the forties by Curt Herztark. The price in the ad is $134.50, which in modern money is $1075.18. "Wow" is right. Curtas are currently selling on Ebay starting around a thousand dollars, going up to several thousand for rare examples. Somehow, a few sellers are clued in enough to understand the value of a Curta despite not being able to spell "wonderfull". You'd think they'd be listing the device as a fishing reel. Oh, sorry... "Fishing real".

The Chicago address on the ad is almost certainly an importing company. Herztark seems to have  lived out his postwar life in Austria, and to have maintained control of the commercial rights to the Curta.

Cliffs notes version of the Curta's invention, courtesy of the Summarization Department of Phil Are Go! now follows. Herztark filed a patent in 1930's Vienna for a mechanical pocket calculator, though he had not built one yet. In 1938, the Nazis stuck him in the Buchenwald concentration camp on grounds of partial Jewishness. Never missing an opportunity to be dicks, the Nazis decided that the Curta calculator would make a nice gift for Hitler, so they told him to finish the design in prison, and in exchange they'd declare him an Aryan after they won the war... if the device were determined to be "really worth something". Herztark did so, but the war did not go exactly as the Nazis had planned, and riding on the virtue of his invention, Herztark  managed to build his business and make money after the war.

So, this device was designed by one man, in a prison camp, working with paper and pencil and maybe a few rulers.

The Curta worked by entering numbers via the sliders on the sides of the device. Turning the crank on the end added the digits, and the result was displayed in a little window, also on the end of the unit. To subtract, the crank was pulled outwards, like a watch stem, and then rotated. Other functions like multiplication could be carried out with further manipulations of the crank and carriage adjustments, all of which engaged different sets of wiggly bits inside, which in turn  motivated the gnomes to run the functions.

The Curta was fantastically reliable despite it's unreasonable mechanical complexity, and they only fell out of use in the 1970's with the advent of electronic calculators. Few were returned to the company under warranty, but many were returned after owners, being retards, disassembled them. Many of the Curta's components are visually identical, but functionally distinct, and curious owners often wound up spending half the Curta's value in service charges to get them put back together properly.

It is a historical irony that the owners of disassembled Curtas could have mathematically worked out just how retarded they were, if only they hadn't disassembled their Curtas. But in that case, then they wouldn't be retards. The only solution of this logical impossibility would be to own two Curtas -  one to take apart and one to calculate your idiocy afterwards. If both were eventually disassembled, the owner would probably find a way to be killed walking down to the post office to send the units back to the company. History has shown time and again that stupid is always expensive.

4 comments:

Phil said...

My new maxim: Stupid is Expensive. XD

Phil Are Go! said...

I have been expensive many times in the past, and will be again... possibly today. Cheap is hard!

Jason Wisnieski said...

My goodness, how have I never before encountered this wonderful device? Glorious! Thank you so much for featuring it.

Anonymous said...

surely all great engineers cut there teeth by taking apart any machine they can find (not me, im far to incurious/dull). id say taking the curta apart was a sign of ambition to be smart, which is the most vital ingredient to becoming smart!

Post a Comment