Math Grenade

I just bought a new calculator. New to me, that is, but older than me.

Inspired by the 1600s Gottfried Leibniz stepped cylinder and the 1800s Thomas de Colmar arithmometer, the Curta mechanical calculator design was developed by Curt Herzstark while imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp during World War II. Curta calculators were manufactured between 1947 to 1972 in Liechtenstein until electronic calculators became widely available.

A true number cruncher, the Curta has been nicknamed the pepper grinder because of its crank — or the math grenade due to its resemblance to some hand grenades. My Curta II has about 719 metal parts yet fits comfortably in my hand. I remember seeing advertisements for Curta calculators in Scientific American magazine. Now collector’s items, the one I just bought costs an order of magnitude more.

“The world’s first, last, and only hand-held mechanical calculator”, the Curta is an elegant marvel of mechanical engineering, the culmination of generations of work to mechanize arithmetic. And as I can now attest, it is a joy to hold and use.

After 2 slides and 2 cranks, a Liebniz wheel computes 5 + 3 = 8

A Liebniz wheel at the heart of the Curta computes 5 + 3 = 8 with 2 slides and 2 cranks

Curta ad from my childhood

Curta ad from my childhood

About John F. Lindner

John F. Lindner was born in Sleepy Hollow New York and educated at the University of Vermont and Caltech. He is a professor of physics and astronomy at The College of Wooster. He has enjoyed multiple yearlong sabbaticals at Georgia Tech, University of Portland, and University of Hawai'i. His research interests include nonlinear dynamics, celestial mechanics, and variable stars.
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