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)

Steampunk Watches
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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Blogger Unknown said...


by the way, this is the best post i saw yet. excellent calculators, i'm really fascinated by the amount of work and love.

great job, this is really the most original thing i saw in quite a long time.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

nenad- you've finally accomplished something in life.

Congratulations, your mother will be proud.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I may be jumping to conclusions but the name Andy Aaron and the place where he was brought up, New York, are leading me to one thought. Is this the Andy Aaron who used to contribute to Spy magazine?

Blogger Unknown said...

Aaaarghh! Not another steampunk post!
Nothing against steampunks and other geeks but how about the rest of the universe..?

Blogger Avi Abrams said...

We'll get there... no worries.

Blogger Jo said...

I hate modern design... to be honest I have everything modern.
I'm a Neo-Traditionalist with a 1930s themed lifestyle.
These designers, like me, are fed up with technology always looking the same while things used to look so much nicer in the past.
Keep it up gentlemen, more more more old fasioned design for modern things please!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

To hate modern design and yet have everything modern... that must be exhausting.

Sweet post. I rather like the relatively high, yet not overbearing, steampunk content here.

Blogger Jo said...

But I have have very little modern around me.
In my house this computer is the only post ww2 thing I have.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

These are pretty killer. I actually got obsessed with steampunk a while ago, eventually wrote about some of the big-timers in that niche. That Datamancer guy is out of this world.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is so greate!!!!
I want this Notebook...

Wonderfull stuff.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

In answer to the post from m0le: yes, I used to contribute to Spy Magazine.

Anonymous Anonymous said...


Anonymous Anonymous said...

ort of stuff, those calculators are awesome. Would love to get one or have the creativity to build one.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

i really want one of those calculators or want to make one they are totally awsome. maybe after making a case mod i will work on somthing like that, but a scientific one.

Blogger GMpilot said...

I've finally seen a laptop I'd WANT to buy.

I'm awed by the creative ingenuity shown here.

Blogger CBCD said...

@m0le said...

I may be jumping to conclusions but the name Andy Aaron and the place where he was brought up, New York, are leading me to one thought. Is this the Andy Aaron who used to contribute to Spy magazine?

Yes - he's the same guy.

Blogger Unknown said...

Wow this is soo amazing! I just found out about steampunk and I'm so glad I searched around on Google images; this stuff is amazing. I think I'm going to attempt making one of these myself!

Anonymous Anonymous said...

With regard to the original statement
"I grew up visiting New York's Canal Street, an amazing street bazaar of old electronics and junk technology"

Note that the Canal Street area was demolished during the construction of the World Trade Center.


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