The Curta is a small, hand-cranked mechanical calculator that was created in the 1930s by an Austrian engineer named Curt Herzstark. These little devices were marvels of innovation, able to perform complex math right in the palm of your hand!
In this article, I‘ll walk you through the Curta‘s impressive capabilities, the remarkable story behind its invention, and why these "peppermills" became so prized by engineers, pilots, and collectors. I‘ll also share lots of interesting details, photos, and data on these clever calculators. So let‘s dive in!
What Exactly Was the Curta Calculator?
The Curta calculator was a cylindrical, hand-held device about 10 cm high that could perform a wide range of mathematical operations. Here are some key features that made the Curta special:
Compact size: It was small enough to fit comfortably in one hand. This portable size was achieved through a brilliant internal design.
Ease of use: It was operated entirely with one hand by turning a crank handle and sliding number-setting levers on the side.
Reliability: The mechanical design allowed results to be clearly displayed via numeral wheels and made operations precise and repeatable.
Versatility: It could add, subtract, multiply, divide, calculate powers, roots, and more to impressive levels of precision.
Precision: Models calculated up to 11 or 15 digits of precision, far beyond most calculators then available.
Let‘s look at some key data on the different Curta models produced:
|Model||Type I||Type II|
|Digits of Precision||11||15|
|Maximum Digits – Entry||8||11|
|Maximum Digits – Counter||6||8|
|Maximum Digits – Results||11||15|
|Maximum Digits – Add/Multiply||11||15|
|Maximum Digits – Divide||6||8|
|Diameter||53 mm||65 mm|
|Height||85 mm||90 mm|
|Weight||230 g||360 g|
As you can see, the Curta packed an impressive amount of calculating power into a miniscule package!
The Story Behind the Invention of the Curta
Now let‘s discuss the inventor himself – Curt Herzstark. His incredible personal journey to create the Curta helped shape the history of this device.
Herzstark was born in 1902 in Vienna, Austria. He grew up surrounded by mathematics and mechanical devices, as his family owned a company that produced calculating tools.
In his teenage years, Herzstark began intensively studying subjects like engineering and machining. By 1928, he had already patented his first invention – an innovative calculator called the Multimator.
But Herzstark had even bigger ideas brewing. By the mid-1930s, he started developing a concept for a small, hand-held cylindrical calculator. His real breakthrough was designing a compact "stepped drum" mechanism that allowed the device to achieve remarkable precision through miniaturization.
In 1937, Herzstark filed a patent on this revolutionary design. However, before he could build a working prototype, his progress was suddenly halted by World War 2.
Persevering Through Imprisonment to Create the Curta
After Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Herzstark‘s factory was taken over for military production. Later, in 1943, he was arrested by the Nazis for suspected "intelligence activities" and imprisoned at the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Remarkably, even in the horrific conditions of the camp, Herzstark was able to fully reconstruct his calculator designs from memory. You see, Nazi officials learned he was the inventor of this unique calculating machine. Hoping to present it to Hitler as a gift if they won the war, they provided Herzstark with paper and drawing supplies to recreate his blueprints.
So this focus on the Curta quite literally gave Herzstark hope and motivation to persevere through his unfathomable circumstances. In 1945, Herzstark was freed when the camp was liberated by American forces.
Bringing the Curta to the Masses
After the war, Herzstark finally had the chance to turn his vision into reality. By 1949, he had refined his designs and began manufacturing the Curta Type I calculator. This was followed up in 1954 by the more advanced Type II model.
Herzstark‘s calculating machines soon gained widespread popularity among engineers, scientists, and pilots who needed portable but precise calculating abilities:
Engineers and Surveyors: The Curta‘s accuracy and durability made it highly useful for fieldwork calculations.
Pilots: It became a trusted calculating aid for pilots of both civilian and military aircraft.
Mathematicians: Its high precision intrigued mathematics enthusiasts.
The Curta retailed originally for $125 (Type I) to $175 (Type II) – quite expensive sums at the time! But buyers were willing to pay for these little mechanical marvels.
Approximately 150,000 Curtas were produced in total before manufacturing ceased in 1972 due to the rise of electronic calculators. But the legacy of the Curta was already assured.
Why the Curta Was Such a Game-Changer
The Curta stood out from the crowd of calculators in a number of ways:
All mechanical design: It achieved incredible precision through interlocking mechanical components rather than electronics.
Miniaturization: Its tiny stature was made possible by Herzstark‘s innovative "stepped drum" design. No other mechanical calculator came close to this portability.
User-friendliness: Its operation by a single crank and easy-to-use lever controls set it apart from other complicated, desktop calculators.
Reliability and accuracy: The mechanical design ensured results stayed precise over years of use, unlike early electronic calculators.
So in many ways, the Curta was far ahead of its time, setting new standards for calculators. It showed what creative engineering could achieve.
Legacy as an Enduring Icon
The Curta‘s legacy lives on today thanks to its groundbreaking design. Models remain highly sought after by collectors, with prices for restored Curtas reaching into the $2000-$4000 range.
This little calculator left an outsized impact, demonstrating the power of innovation. Herzstark‘s personal drive to keep developing it even through immense tragedy is also truly inspirational.
So there you have it – the whole story behind this unique calculating wonder. I hope you enjoyed learning about the Curta‘s capabilities, origins, and lasting impact. Let me know if you have any other questions!