A post from Shady Characters

Shady Char­ac­ters advent calendar 2023: the Curta

This is the ninth in a series of twelve posts on 2023 Advent calendar. Start at PART 1, continue to PART 10 or view ALL POSTS in the series.

Today, a repost of an entry from my Calculator of the Day series: we’re taking a look at the “math grenade”, as William Gibson calls it in his novel Pattern Recognition, the mechanical, cylindrical, pocketable Curta.

Curta mechanical calculator with case and box.
Curta mechanical calculator with case and box. (CC BY-SA 2.0 image courtesy of Magnus Hagdorn.)

The Curta is noteworthy for two reasons. One is that it was the first practical pocket calculator, being as it was a miniaturised version of an existing mechanical calculator called the arithmometer. (The arithmometer, in turn, had its roots in a mechanism called the “Leibniz wheel”, an invention of the prolific but unlikeable Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. This seventeenth-century German polymath was allegedly so unpopular that his funeral was attended only by his secretary.) With a Curta, a practiced user could add, subtract, multiply and divide numbers by adjusting a few sliders and then turning the crank on top. The answer then appeared in a set of displays arrayed around the top of the device.

It’s possible to be simultaneously entranced by the Curta’s mechanical cleverness and sobered by the circumstances of its creation. That’s because the second reason for the Curta’s prominence is that it was designed in a Nazi concentration camp. Curt Herzstark, its inventor, thinking it his only way out, designed the Curta to appease his captors — and, after the liberation of the notorious Buchenwald camp in which he was imprisoned, found his way to the tiny principality of Liechtenstein to see his blueprints put into production.

Perhaps alone among the calculators I write about in Empire of the Sum, the Curta melds tragedy and triumph in a single artefact. Herzstark’s tenacity in the face of one of the great atrocities of our time, and the ingenuity of the calculator that resulted, are equally worthy of note.

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