Tate Williams

Blue Ant > The Curta

Tate Williams September 14, 2012

In a subplot of Pattern Recognition, Cayce Pollard uses a rare prototype of an early computing device as a bargaining chip for a crucial email address. She makes a straight offer to a menacing, drunken ex-spy — even trade, email address for the Curta.

It’s described as a black, cylindrical hand-grenade, “a precious instrument…performing calculations mechanically, employing neither electricity nor electronic components. The sensation of its operation is best likened to that of winding a fine thirty-five millimeter camera. It is the smallest mechanical calculating machine ever constructed.”mputing device as a bargaining chip for a crucial email address. She makes a straight offer to a menacing, drunken ex-spy — even trade, email address for the Curta.

The Curta is an extremely compact series of cogs and pins packed tightly into an aluminum case that looks like a cross between a fishing reel and a pepper grinder, just a few inches tall to fit perfectly into the palm of the hand. It is a marvel of early computing, and a pricey fetish object for collectors. In fact, it was the first handheld calculator, and remained the only one for nearly a quarter-century, conducting four functions with no wires, no electricity, just a series of whirring parts that purr in the hand.

The casing of the Curta holds a series of sliding pins for entering numbers, and with a few turns of the crank, the answer is revealed in a window at the top of the grinder. Collectors will dissect them into hundreds of tiny oiled parts, and put them back together for fun.

Part of the mystique of the Curta is the story of its conceit. Austrian inventor Curt Herzstark was on the brink of creating a handheld calculator in the 1930s, which would trump the parade of massive devices that had been used during the previous decades. With patents filed on his designs in 1938, the Third Reich invaded Austria and came knocking at his door.

His manufacturing plant was enlisted to create gauges for Panzer tanks, and Herzstark, son of a Jew and a Catholic, was spared. That was until 1943, when he was arrested by the Nazis and eventually placed in Buchenwald concentration camp. He was put to work, but eventually recognized by a former German competitor, who knew of his plans for the calculator. The Nazis made him a deal — design this calculator, offer it as a gift to Hitler, and we let you live.

He had all but perfected his plans for the Curta in 1945, when Allied jeeps pulled up to the concentration camp. The inventor walked out of Buchenwald, and made his invention a reality. And for more than 20 years, the Curta was the only portable computing device.

It remains a sought after idol of computing history, the pinnacle of number crunching before electrical devices would rule, forgotten but for a select group of obsessive collectors. You can buy one on eBay for a couple thousand dollars, or if you’re after an extremely rare (fictional) prototype, it will cost you a Russian email address that may or may not lead to the uncertain future of media.

The Curious History of the First Pocket Calculator

Stunningly Intricate: Curta Mechanical Calculator

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