The contraption that was born in the barracks of a concentration camp

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For centuries piles of folios with hundreds of scrawled numbers, complex equations, and tedious mathematical calculations camped at ease in the ramshackle offices of the most extraordinary minds in science.

Isaac Newton, Lord Kelvin o Johannes Kepler On more than one occasion, they regretted the time they were wasting on soporific arithmetic operations. What they would have given for having had at their disposal the invention of Curt Herzstark.

From typewriters to calculators

In the late nineteenth century the patriarch of the Herzstark family – named Samuel – traveled to the United States, where he worked at the Remington company, the popular typewriter manufacturer. There he carried out the most diverse tasks, from mechanical to commercial, an occupation in which he proved to have a special ability.

For this reason, he was given the task of returning to his country and marketing typewriters on the Old Continent. It was in this new stage of work when he discovered a sleepy business side, said goodbye to Remington and created his own calculating machine company.

Until then, these types of gadgets were the miniaturized evolution of those that had appeared centuries ago, mechanical models full of devices and complex gears.

It was around 1910 when Samuel, at the head of a multidisciplinary team, commercialized electromechanical calculators, a true innovation, since with them it was not necessary to pull levers to execute the calculations, but simply it was necessary to enter numerical values ​​on a comfortable keyboard.

The following years were of great prosperity for the family and before the Great War they had already developed thirty patents. Unfortunately, the First World War Creative freedom was strangled, calculators were no longer sold, and electromechanical craftsmen went to work for the army in the production of precision gadgets.

Curt takes over from business

In the interwar period, Curt, Samuel’s son, faced the family business. At first, he dedicated himself to fixing and improving old machines and then innovating, he dreamed of creating a pocket calculator that would corner the heavy and voluminous calculators that existed at that time.

World War II again left Europe without light on the horizon. Following the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, companies were forced to collaborate in the German war effort. In 1943 the Gestapo arrested two Curt employees for collaborating with the allies and the employer, on the charge of carrying Jewish blood, was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp.

There, an SS officer, knowledgeable of his mechanical skills, allowed Curt to go out to work for the day at a nearby factory where V1 and V2 flying bomb components were manufactured. In addition, he commissioned Curt to manufacture a pocket calculator for the Führer, a model he never designed.

The SHORT calculator

The sleepless nights in the crowded Buchenwald barracks fanned the embers of his creativity and in 1946, when it was all over, Curt patented a revolutionary calculator, which he named LIKE.

However, his business had gone bankrupt, he couldn’t make new calculators, and finding Austrian investors was a chore that seemed impossible. However, everything changed when commissioners from a tiny country of alpine landscapes and tax havens knocked on his door.

The Prince of Liechtenstein was looking for engineers, scientists and technicians to create an industrial economy base in his country. It was an opportunity that Curt could not refuse.

For more than two decades, CURTA reigned in the world of engineering, science and technology, a small machine made up of a simple black cylinder carefully assembled and equipped with sliding dials. The first version could represent up to eleven digits and the second reached up to fifteen.

CURTA performed the complex mathematical operations required to build highways, power lines, satellites, and even spacecraft. But everything has an end, his reign disappeared in the seventies with the arrival of electronic calculators. But, as Kipling would say, that is another story.

M. Jara

Pedro Gargantilla is an internist at the Hospital de El Escorial (Madrid) and the author of several popular books.

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