"QUANTUM SHOT" #406
Antique Digital Calculators: Interview with Andy Aaron
Andy Aaron makes extraordinary "adding machines", digital calculators so massive that some of them should come with their own set of wheels. They are strangely attractive, however, and fully functional. We asked Andy what inspired him to make such a design statement, and here's what he said:
"I grew up visiting New York's Canal Street, an amazing street bazaar of old electronics and junk technology which has long since given over to selling knockoff designer watches and bootleg DVDs. But in its heyday you would see dozens of geeky kids and engineer types who looked like Bernie Goetz poring over outdoor bins full of old tools, motors, radios, 8-track tape players, and the castoffs of the military-industrial complex.
One day as I was looking through a bin full of rusty old aircraft toggle switches I noticed a display of modern electronic calculators. I started thinking about the assumption of today's electronics, that smaller is better. There is a relentless drive to shrink everything, to make it thinner and lighter, but doing so almost always comes at the expense of ruggedness. While tiny plastic buttons have the advantage of fitting in your pocket, they aren't designed to last forever.
But here I was standing in the temple of a completely opposite notion. The aircraft toggle switches I was holding in my hand probably dated back to World War II, they might have been salvaged from a B-17 Flying Fortress for all I knew. Each one of them weighed more than an entire calculator. It was then that the idea for my Aaron Adding Machines was born.
The purpose of a tiny button on a miniature electronic calculator, or any button, is to connect two wires. But that function could just as easily be taken over by a great big, hulking, ancient, steel toggle switch the size of a golf ball. So I scooped up a few dozen of the toggle switches, bought and disassembled a digital calculator, and set about completely re-making it using bulky antique switches mounted in a beat-up old wooden box.
As I took the original calculator apart, I painstakingly followed the thin wires which were attached to each button and noted where they went. For example, the wires from the button labeled "7" button might go to a chip where it connected pin 13 to pin 21. I created a big map of all these connections, and later re-built the whole device using heavy copper wire and the toggle switches I bought on Canal Street, retaining the original chip and LED display. After a few months of work, it was done. I celebrated by using my new creation to balance my checkbook.
In the years since, I have made many more of what I would come to call Aaron Adding Machines. I turn out only about three of them a year because they take a long time to build and I have to scavenge all the components from flea markets, estate sales, and junk shops -- the bins on Canal Street are long gone.
Every "Aaron Adding Machine" functions perfectly and each one is different. I strive to have my pieces look like they were functional, almost mass-produced devices taken from some imaginary office of another era."
When asked if his work can be classified as steampunk, Andy replied: " I love steampunk, but I don't think my work quite falls within that label. Usually steampunk is quite fantastical, Jules-Verne-ish, and artistic. My stuff looks utilitarian, like an off-the-shelf product from a hundred years ago"
If you are interested in buying some of these beauties, you can email Andy for a quote.
More Retro-Tech Goodness:
To complement your "wooden" calculator, stock up on these items (each is a masterpiece of engineering and creativity):
To start you day properly, get the 'Nixie tubes" alarm clock (built by Georg Holderied) -
(image credit: Georg Holderied)
Want to know if there is a PROBLEM? Patrick Kovacich made this one-of-a-kind "problem light" (taking further the idea of a smoke alarm; see his flickr set) -
(image credit: Patrick Kovacich)
iPod with Gears: - (created by Colin Thompson for Gelaskins):
(image credit Gela-Skins)
Webcam, a shiny version - more info:
(image credit: chinavasion)
There are many stylish "Victorian"-looking watches, but this one caught our fancy. It's also quite expensive at $59,000.
(image credit: Zedomax)
These watches are made by Haruo Suekichi - read great interview with him here.
(image credit: Watchismo)
Le Coultre Compass Camera
Some vintage cameras are "steampunk-ish" enough not to require any additional tinkering. This one, for example, was made in the 1930s and manages to fit scores of features in the least possible space:
(image credit: Ignomini)
We already covered some Japanese case mods, and by now you've probably already heard about Richard Nagy (aka Datamancer) who makes probably the best steampunk laptops and keyboards on the planet:
The "writing machine" art, which looks (almost) like vintage laptop technology:
(image credit: Jack/Portal23)
Want some espresso? We really like this "La Pavoni 16 cup Romantica espresso machine" (more info) -
or use these brass coffee siphons:
The ultimate in vintage coffee-making - "Cofe Maquina" from Uruguay - features more polished brass than all the previous devices combined:
(image credit: Raf-Munja)
Can't get enough of Steampunk Gear? Check out this Flickr pool.
Also read: Stunningly Intricate Curta Calculators, Steampunk Art Update
Coolest Retro Devices, Retro Technology Update
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