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posted by martyb on Sunday December 12 2021, @09:42AM   Printer-friendly

The hand-cranked calculator invented by a Nazi concentration camp prisoner:

It's no bigger than a drinking glass, and it fits easily in the palm of the hand. It resembles a pepper grinder—or perhaps a hand grenade.

The diminutive "Curta" is a striking machine, a mechanical calculator that combines the complexity of a steamship engine and the precision craftsmanship of a fine pocket watch. It first appeared in 1948, and for the next two decades—until it was displaced by the electronic calculator—it was the best portable calculating machine on the planet. And its story is all the more compelling in light of the extraordinary circumstances in which it was invented.

The idea of the Curta came to its Austrian-born inventor in the darkness of the Buchenwald concentration camp.

[...] Today, we take number-crunching for granted. Our smartphones have calculator apps, and most of us have a pocket calculator somewhere in our home or office. But it wasn't always so easy. For centuries, anything more than simple addition was painfully time-consuming. The first slide rules appeared in the 17th century, not long after John Napier's invention of the logarithm, but they could only handle a couple of positions beyond the decimal place. There were also various kinds of mechanical adding machines, but most were crudely built and unsuited to scientific work. By the late 19th century, more reliable desktop calculators began to appear, but they were heavy and expensive.

The shortcomings of these machines were very much on the mind of the young Curt Herzstark, whose family was in the business of making and selling calculating machines and other office equipment. Born in 1902 in Vienna, Herzstark was running the family business by the 1930s. He traveled extensively across Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, selling mechanical calculators to banks and factories.

[...] "People said again and again, 'Yes, that is nice, but isn't there anything smaller?'" Herzstark recalled. Slide rules were not good enough; his customers wanted precise figures, not approximations. Simply taking existing designs and making all of the various parts smaller wouldn't do the trick; the keys and knobs would be too small to use. A radical redesign was needed.

[...] Herzstark began to experiment with "sliders" that wrapped around a cylinder so that numbers could be entered by moving a thumb or finger. He also reasoned that there only needed to be a single calculating mechanism, so long as each input digit could access it. At the heart of the device would be a single, rotating "step-drum"; the drum would have two sets of teeth, one for addition and one for subtraction. A central hand crank would turn the drum, and shifting the drum's position by a few millimeters was enough to switch between the adding and subtracting functions. Multiplication and division were slightly more complicated, but they still required just a few flicks of the sliders and a few turns of the crank.

By 1937, Herzstark had the essentials of the design worked out; after that, it was just a matter of machining the parts and building a prototype.

And then Hitler came to power.

It's a long-format story complete with pictures. Many videos are available on-line of the device in operation and even YouTube videos 3D-printing one of your own.


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  • (Score: 5, Funny) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @10:21AM (16 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @10:21AM (#1204165)

    You can't say "concentration camp prisoner." It's "person experiencing genocide" now.

    • (Score: 2) by Bill Evans on Sunday December 12 2021, @11:24AM (2 children)

      by Bill Evans (1094) on Sunday December 12 2021, @11:24AM (#1204177) Homepage

      I guess that's humorous.

      • (Score: 0, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @05:08PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @05:08PM (#1204294)

        Sure it is if you are one of Runaway's sock puppets. Post as AC and mod bomb it it up.

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @08:05PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @08:05PM (#1204394)

        No, that's the ulna. The humorous is over there.

    • (Score: 2, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @12:57PM (12 children)

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @12:57PM (#1204185)

      We have concentration camps located in the US, and also illegal genocidal activities such as the forced sterilization of people imprisoned in those camps. We also have slave labor sponsored and provided by the federal government.

      Until the day comes when my country no longer practices lynching, slavery, and genocide, I'll continue to beat the drum.

      • (Score: -1, Troll) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @01:32PM (10 children)

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @01:32PM (#1204196)

        >> We have concentration camps located in the US

        They're called "high schools"... and don't worry, Junior, life gets much better in college.

        • (Score: 2, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @01:36PM (9 children)

          by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @01:36PM (#1204199)

          Stop being a useful idiot. Concentration camps in the United States of America are an actual thing happening, shithead.

          https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/07/border-facilities/593239/ [theatlantic.com]

          • (Score: 3, Touché) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @02:27PM (8 children)

            by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @02:27PM (#1204221)

            If you can't see the difference between a detention center to hold people illegally and willingly entering the country, and a facility built to forcibly bring people to work as slaves and murder them by the thousands a day, than you aren't even a useful idiot, you're an unuseful idiot. Actually, just plain idiot. There are many issues with the detention centers that cover everything from policy down to details of how they're operated, but to compare them to Nazi concentration camps shows what a hyperbolic dumbass you are and you actually hurt your cause by turning people off of the topic with your ridiculous arguments.

            • (Score: 5, Informative) by mhajicek on Sunday December 12 2021, @04:48PM (7 children)

              by mhajicek (51) on Sunday December 12 2021, @04:48PM (#1204286)

              The above referenced detention centers do meet the definition of concentration camps. It's a common misconception that something isn't a concentration camp if there isn't mass murder.

              --
              The spacelike surfaces of time foliations can have a cusp at the surface of discontinuity. - P. Hajicek
              • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @05:22PM (4 children)

                by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @05:22PM (#1204300)

                Built and used by Obama, blamed on Trump, and overcrowded by Biden.

                • (Score: 2) by mhajicek on Sunday December 12 2021, @05:31PM (3 children)

                  by mhajicek (51) on Sunday December 12 2021, @05:31PM (#1204308)

                  Expanded and used by all of the above. Trump made them worse, with punitive policy changes in violation of international treaty. Biden ran on reversing, but is continuing in Trump's footsteps.

                  Obama ran on closing Gitmo...

                  --
                  The spacelike surfaces of time foliations can have a cusp at the surface of discontinuity. - P. Hajicek
                  • (Score: 2) by mcgrew on Sunday December 12 2021, @06:03PM

                    by mcgrew (701) <publish@mcgrewbooks.com> on Sunday December 12 2021, @06:03PM (#1204333) Homepage Journal

                    The courts stopped Biden but he still managed to get rid of the most horrible of it. Obama was stopped by almost everybody.

                    --
                    mcgrewbooks.com mcgrew.info nooze.org
                  • (Score: 1, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @06:12PM (1 child)

                    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @06:12PM (#1204340)

                    Obama ran on closing Gitmo...

                    He tried, but Congress wouldn't let him. They wanted to disperse the inmates to Fed Penns around the country, but Congress wouldn't let that happen either. There's a big empty maximum security facility in Colorado that said they'd take them, but Congress wouldn't let that happen. The countries of interest wouldn't take their people back either.

                    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @11:21PM

                      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @11:21PM (#1204443)

                      Many people say they're building an oval office for a future resident at Gitmo.

              • (Score: 0, Troll) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @06:03PM

                by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @06:03PM (#1204332)

                It is a concentration camp if you are free to leave and go back to where you came from? I wonder why the Jews or the Japanese didn't think of that during WWII.

              • (Score: 2) by Freeman on Monday December 13 2021, @03:39PM

                by Freeman (732) on Monday December 13 2021, @03:39PM (#1204648) Journal

                A somewhat forgotten bit of American History. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internment_of_Japanese_Americans [wikipedia.org]

                --
                Joshua 1:9 "Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee"
      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 13 2021, @09:05AM

        by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 13 2021, @09:05AM (#1204565)

        Let me guess, it's the old "uterus collector" conspiracy theory. I was horrified too, when I first heard it, but it turned out to be fake news.

        Turns out there were only two hysterectomies performed, and they were both medically necessary, or at least justifiable. One woman in question (because of the language barrier) did not understand what the surgery was, but she had uterine cancer, and if the hysterectomy hadn't been done, she would have died.

        The other woman had one (not both) of her fallopian tubes removed, due to some kind of inflammation. The issue in question was discovered during surgery, and obtaining her consent would have required a second surgery and general anesthesia process. Some doctors have criticized the urgency of the surgery (not that it was unjustified, but that it wasn't immediately necessary), but she can still have children if she wants, meaning that this is not sterilization, forced or otherwise.

        Another woman who had ovarian cysts removed (a non-sterilizing operation), with her full consent, has had trouble retrieving her medical records, but there's no evidence that this is anything other than a paperwork problem. Some women also seem to have received medical tests, such as ultrasounds or pap smears, that they may not have understood. However, these are tests, not surgeries or sterilizations.

        There are also complaints that the hospital was not correctly following COVID protocols, and there might be some substance to that, but it has nothing to do with "forced sterilization."

        The "whistleblower" who caused the whole thing eventually admitted she was just spreading rumors [lawandcrime.com].

        https://www.washingtonpost.com/immigration/ice-detainee-hysterectomies-hospital/2020/09/22/aaf2ca7e-fcfd-11ea-830c-a160b331ca62_story.html [washingtonpost.com]
        https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck-were-mass-hysterectomies-performed-on-detainees-at-a-us-immigration-centre [channel4.com]

  • (Score: 2, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @01:58PM (2 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @01:58PM (#1204212)

    Many videos are available on-line of the device in operation and even YouTube videos 3D-printing one of your own.

    That's the same journalistic sin as the phrase, "many people say...".

    I finally went back and read TFS, and I saw, oh hey, I can 3D print one of these. Nothing in TFA about that. Wah wah wah.

    https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:1943171 [thingiverse.com]

    You're welcome.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @02:21PM (1 child)

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @02:21PM (#1204217)

      Here's a nice video [youtube.com] describing how it works from an awesome YouTube channel.

      • (Score: 3, Informative) by driverless on Monday December 13 2021, @10:23AM

        by driverless (4770) on Monday December 13 2021, @10:23AM (#1204573)

        I think this one [youtube.com] explains it better, it has computer animations of the insides in operation.

  • (Score: 2) by bzipitidoo on Sunday December 12 2021, @04:40PM (5 children)

    by bzipitidoo (4388) on Sunday December 12 2021, @04:40PM (#1204280) Journal

    I've heard of Babbage's difference engines, and have seen and used a slide rule once, but cannot recall ever hearing of this Curta device.

    • (Score: 3, Informative) by mcgrew on Sunday December 12 2021, @06:06PM (1 child)

      by mcgrew (701) <publish@mcgrewbooks.com> on Sunday December 12 2021, @06:06PM (#1204336) Homepage Journal

      I hadn't either, but there's one in the movie Hidden Figures. I wondered what it was when I saw the movie and found out watching a documentary about computing devices quite a bit later.

      --
      mcgrewbooks.com mcgrew.info nooze.org
      • (Score: 1, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @07:49PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @07:49PM (#1204386)

        I hadn't either, but there's one in the movie Hidden Figures. I wondered what it was when I saw the movie and found out watching a documentary about computing devices quite a bit later.

        I wonder how many people read about them in William Gibson's book "Pattern Recognition"?

    • (Score: 3, Interesting) by number11 on Sunday December 12 2021, @09:54PM

      by number11 (1170) Subscriber Badge on Sunday December 12 2021, @09:54PM (#1204420)

      Curtas were popular with auto rally navigators and others who needed to do precise calculations quickly, away from a desk, in the 1950s and 1960s, until battery-powered electronic calculators came in.

      I would have loved to have one, but they were very pricey. Some of the calculations could be done with an abacus. I had a soroban (the Japanese version) and learned to use it. There were a few competitions where an adding machine operator and a soroban operator were given the same problem, and the soroban was faster (given a skilled operator). But it takes years of practice to become proficient, so I never did.

      But I still have it, along with several slide rules. When civilization ends, if people need precise calculations, they'll have to come to me.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @11:23PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @11:23PM (#1204446)

      They were used frequently in automobile time-distance rallies.

    • (Score: 1) by NPC-131072 on Sunday December 12 2021, @11:43PM

      by NPC-131072 (7144) on Sunday December 12 2021, @11:43PM (#1204451) Journal

      Then the Antikythera Mechanism [youtube.com] will blow your mind.

  • (Score: 1, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @05:06PM (1 child)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @05:06PM (#1204292)

    Before electronic calculators, if you drove in a road rally, you were in one of two classes--the top class where Curta calculators (and other instrumentation) were allowed, or the lower class with paper/pencil. In these events, the scoring is based on matching the average speed called out in the instructions. This is measured at checkpoints along the route, early or late earns penalty points.

    • (Score: 2) by istartedi on Monday December 13 2021, @06:14AM

      by istartedi (123) on Monday December 13 2021, @06:14AM (#1204541) Journal

      I first heard about the Curta in this very context. I was reading a library book about rallies. I knew nothing about it except Cannon-ball stuff and was surprised to find that there was this whole world of legal rallying. I don't know if the book was out-dated, or if the Curta hung on with rally participants because of tradition. I mean, we're talking about clubs that maintain antique vehicles so maybe they have a yen for antique calculators as well. Either that, or there may have been a rule against electronic aids and the Curta got around that.

      --
      Appended to the end of comments you post. Max: 120 chars.
  • (Score: 3, Insightful) by sjames on Sunday December 12 2021, @06:15PM (2 children)

    by sjames (2882) on Sunday December 12 2021, @06:15PM (#1204343) Journal

    It's easy to forget that the time when we didn't have calculators and spreadsheets quickly and easily performing arithmetic for us wasn't THAT long ago. Slide rules trading precision for speed were worth it where feasible. Trig tables were a thing.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @09:02PM (1 child)

      by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @09:02PM (#1204407)

      I remember when "computer" and "calculator" were job titles and you had to wait a week for the results for calculations that we take for granted today.

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @09:49PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @09:49PM (#1204418)

        Yes, I'm driving a car that I inherited from a computer. She worked in an aerospace R&D company and her husband passed first, no kids or other heirs. Per her will, her estate went to friends and a variety of charities.

        It's not a great car (she was in a few fender benders before she quit driving), but I'm not about to look a gift car in the mouth...

  • (Score: -1, Flamebait) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @08:21PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @08:21PM (#1204396)

    By 1937, Herzstark had the essentials of the design worked out; after that, it was just a matter of machining the parts and building a prototype.

    And then Hitler came to power.

    You got your history mixed up. Mr. Adolf Hitler came to power in early 1933. Jewry of the world declared war on Germany on that day.

    Now imagine if Mexicans declared war on the U.S, and the U.S didn't bomb them to oblivion...

    The declared enemy must be watched after it openly declares war on you. The jews have declared war on humanity and today Palestinians are living in a prison, a concentration camp with jews in tall towers with sniper rifles shoot at them.

    The jews aren't human.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @10:56PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 12 2021, @10:56PM (#1204435)

    In the old days we had to hand crank everything. Especially the purple headed custard cannon.

  • (Score: 4, Touché) by optotronic on Monday December 13 2021, @02:57AM (1 child)

    by optotronic (4285) on Monday December 13 2021, @02:57AM (#1204501)

    What a beautiful device! And it worked! It puts most modern software to shame.

    • (Score: 2) by dw861 on Monday December 13 2021, @03:15AM

      by dw861 (1561) on Monday December 13 2021, @03:15AM (#1204507) Journal

      I share your enthusiasm. And here is my favourite part of the original Ars article.

      (A Curta contains some 600 parts; Wikipedia notes that “a small but significant number of buyers returned their Curtas in pieces,” having taken them apart and finding themselves unable to put the device back together.)

  • (Score: 2) by hendrikboom on Monday December 13 2021, @04:03AM (1 child)

    by hendrikboom (1125) on Monday December 13 2021, @04:03AM (#1204513) Homepage Journal

    I have one of those stashed away somewhere. It is truly a lovely device.
    I once figured out how to take square roots using it. That was a challenge, easy to get the procedure wrong without noticing it.

    • (Score: 2) by Rich on Monday December 13 2021, @09:53AM

      by Rich (945) on Monday December 13 2021, @09:53AM (#1204569) Journal

      I was occasionally pondering to get one for my calculator assortment (to avoid calling it a "collection"), but didn't pull the trigger yet.

      I wonder how it holds up against an abacus; after all it's just a mechanical summer (the user has to rotate the digits for multiplication).

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