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What if Babbage's Difference Engine spawned a "laptop"?

It's hard to find more desirable and satisfying (in a tactile sort of way) mechanical fetish item from the age of early computing...

For years Curta calculators enjoyed a cult status among collectors, and as recently as in 2003 they were featured in William Gibson's "Pattern Recognition" book. However, I daresay, not featured enough. This marvel of mechanical engineering should be given more exposure, especially given the bizarre and spooky circumstances of its origin.

(images credit: Larry McElhiney, Jack Christensen)

(images credit: Helmut G. Ayen)

- Entirely mechanical, no electricity or batteries involved.
- Designed by Curt Herzstark in 1938 and perfected inside a concentration camp.
- Considered to be the most efficient portable calculator (until electronic calculators came in the 70s)
- Simply a thing of beauty, stunning piece of engineering art.

(image credit: Dave Hicks)

First, you gotta feel it in your hand... It purrs.

Take this glorified pepper-grinder shape in your hand, set the multiple sliders and turn the computing handle - and this groovy gadget starts to make a wizzing, almost musical sound. There is no electricity, wires, or batteries! Just a sophisticated package of miniature cogs and parts, that is a joy to disassemble and put together again...

(images by Olaf Veenstra, Vintage Calculators from VRML simulator, where you can actually operate a model)

Generally an arithmometer with multiple cogs and stepped drum mechanism, there is however a lot to disassemble. See a poster of all the parts inside, available for purchase on this site (the most comprehensive we could find on the topic):

(image credit: Rick Furr, Vintage Calculators)

Perfected in a concentration camp, as a gift to Hitler!

Probably the weirdest story of invention ever told:

Working on this device saved the life of its inventor, and could've put "the ultimate computing weapon" into the hands of every Nazi army engineer... pretty much the stuff of nightmares.

"Herzstark was a prisoner at Buchenwald but the camp leaders were aware of his work and encouraged it. They apparently wanted to give the invention to the Fuehrer as a victory gift at the end of the war! Herzstark was given a drawing board and worked on the design day and night. The camp was liberated in April, 1945 by the Americans. Herzstark survived as did his revolutionary concept for a miniature calculator." (source: Bruce Flamm)

(images credit: Helmut G. Ayen)

This article speaks at length about the inventor. By the way, it is perhaps the only calculator issued on a post stamp (in Liechtenstein) -

Disassembly of a mechanical marvel: It has 605 individual parts!

It must be very therapeutic and calming experience (you know how in the army they make soldiers to take apart and clean their guns, a repetitive ritual that calms down and reduces the chances of a shooting spree - I am being sarcastic here) Well, the antique calculator collectors are a cool bunch and not easily given to any angst - but they too, gladly, would spend hours taking apart this little calculating device. The best page showing the disassembly and wonderful innards of this device are located here. Here are only a few steps, highlighting the joy of this process:

(image credit: Vintage Calculators)

As you can see, not quite as complicated as the Large Hadron Collider, but pretty close. Another detailed page of Curta's disassembly is here.

This thing can even do square roots!

If you like to play with levers and buttons, then this Curta Simulation page is for you. There is also online manual, "that should've been included in the box". Still unclear on how it works? Here is a good video showing the steps of calculating on Curta:


Meanwhile, Russians engineers were using their own mechanical creations:

"The Iron Felix", Stalin-era Calculator

Check out this Russian model of arithmometer, ominously named "Felix" (after Felix Dzerzhiski, founder of Soviet KGB) It was based on 1914 St.Petersburg's Odner-Hill company device, shown on the bottom, click on image for more -

(images credit: Ogoniok, Sergei Frolov)

The first such device was made in 1931 and provided the Soviet bureaucracy and terror machine with much needed ways to account for things, including facilitating GULAG operations. Thus, they earned the right to be called "The Iron Felix" - haunted and heavy mechanisms:

(image credit: Uri)

The original pre-Revolution Odner:

(images credit: Sergei Frolov)

We will definitely continue the theme of mechanical calculators, so let us know of the "pride and joy" of your collection, if you have it!

To sum it up: If Charles Babbage could hire Curt Herzstark to develop a portable calculating machine... we would have awesome mechanical personal computers - fashioned in brass, or minimalist black, with the label "Designed by Babbage in California, assembled in China".

Also Read: Awesome Antique Calculators

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a museum in Bonn, Germany called Arithmeum full of these types of calculators. Even a few with manuals so you can try them out.

"The Arithmeum was openend in 1999. With over 1,200 objects it has the world's largest collection of historical mechanical calculating machines. The museum is affiliated with the Research Institute for Discrete Mathematics." (Wikipedia article on University of Bonn)

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! They sure dont make them like they used to now do they! LOL.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is a shame that while incarcerated and working on a mechanical calculator, the fellows over at Bletchly Park were working on building programmable computers.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I used one of those calculators... my father was an engineer and had one in his office.

Yes it was a marvel, the only device of it's type that was really portable.

As I dimly recall, it was quite expensive back in the day.

Anonymous Pokoje Zakopane said...

look at this:
Soviet calculators collection

Blogger J.L said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Blogger Fred Kiesche said...

Ah well, first William Gibson wrote about them and I could not longer to buy one. Now you picked up on it, dang it, so I'll still be unable to acquire one!

Almost as fun: slide rules!

Anonymous Paul J said...

These were very popular with car rallyists in the 60's and early 70's to calculate the time you should be at a particular spot. My navigator used one for many years and I have fond memories of its subtle clicks and grinds. It was perfectly adapted to update the time going into a car rallye checkpoint, you simply spun the crank once for every .01 mile and checked this against the clock. Specialized microprocessor based computers eventually obsoleted them, but not until the late 70's.

Blogger dogu said...

Those larger table mounted calc look very familiar. When I started college ('72), only the engineers had electronic calculators - HPs were THE status symbol. Us chemists had to do with mechanical computation machines for the first couple of years. I don't remember much about them except you set up the computation by twirling dials, then hit some switch and the thing went into overdirve; stuff whirred, turned, clicked, and clacked until ...ding...out came an answer. Very cool. I wish I'd had the foresight to snag one once electronic hand calculators took off.

Blogger Retired Geezer said...

I still have my Curta. It's the larger of the two models.
You'll never guess what we used it for. Doing Time/Speed/Distance car rallyes with the Sports Car Club of America.

Blogger Stickmaker said...

I remember an article in _Byte_, back in the Seventies, talking about how portable music boxes - many the size and shape of goose eggs, built as the handles of canes - had greater memory storage density than any electronic memory available at the time the article was written.

Imagine something like that mated to an advanced Curta to provide operating system and non-volatile memory.

Blogger dogu said...

Check out the Wikipedia article on Jacquard looms. Punch card driven Computer Aided Manufacturing waaaay before IBM developed punch cards.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I spent many happy hours as a kid doing some real "number crunching" on my Dad's pepper grinder, Curta.

And like Retired Geezer, I used it for rallying as well. My Dad and I surprised a lot of people at my first rally. They got beat by a driver who missed the driver's meeting and 9 year old boy doing the navigating. :)

Anonymous Anonymous said...

o.o my maths teacher has one of those russian calculator things... its dessign is a little different but its all there... (was playing with it yesterday)

Blogger Peter said...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this the 'Gonkulator' referred to by Hogan's Heroes?

Anonymous asdfman said...

I want one.

Anonymous sunset canvas said...



Anonymous Chris Johnston said...

This is the coolest video I was able to find on it...


Blogger SittingMooseShaman said...

...metal! Beautiful, machined metal parts, frame and housing.
Wonderful metal...so missing in todays' market of
combustible petrol- plastics.
That cloak everything from lap-tops to couches...
Rendering our homes as oil-tanks, just waiting for whenever they catch the flame.
Then, burst into searing, smoking conflagration...
The fire insurance agent shows up with a Curta!
He knows...

Anonymous Vanilla Art Pictures said...

Pretty sure my dad had one of these, must ask him to see if he still has it! Probably buried somewhere in his studio at home.

Anonymous Amanda said...

So Cool. I learned something new about my Curta from your site. I have a mint condition Early 1969 Curta Type 1.


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