The CURTA mechanical calculator literally saved its inventor’s life. [Curt Herzstark] had been working on the calculator in the 1930s until the Nazis forced him to focus on building other tools for the German army. He was taken by the Nazis in 1943 and ended up in Buchenwald concentration camp. There, he told the officers about his plans for the CURTA. They were impressed and interested enough to let him continue work on it so they could present it as a gift to the Führer.
This four-banger pepper mill can also perform square root calculation with some finessing. To add two numbers together, each must be entered on the digit setting sliders and sent to the result counter around the top by moving the crank clockwise for one full rotation. Subtraction is as easy as pulling out the crank until the red indicator appears. The CURTA performs subtraction using nine’s complement arithmetic. Multiplication and division are possible through successive additions and subtractions and use of the powers of ten carriage, which is the top knurled portion.
Operation of the CURTA is based on [Gottfried Leibniz]’s stepped cylinder design. A cylinder with cogs of increasing lengths drives a toothed gear up and down a shaft. [Herzstark]’s design interleaves a normal set of cogs for addition with a nine’s complement set. When the crank is pulled out to reveal the red subtraction indicator, the drum is switching between the two sets.
Several helper mechanisms are in place to enhance the interface. The user is prevented from ever turning the crank counter-clockwise. The crank mechanism provides tactile feedback at the end of each full rotation. There is also a lock that disallows switching between addition and subtraction while turning the crank—switching is only possible with the crank in the home position. There is a turns counter on the top which can be set to increment or decrement.
You may recall seeing Hackaday alum [Jeremy Cook]’s 2012 post about the CURTA which we linked to. A great deal of information about the CURTA and a couple of different simulators are available at curta.org. Make the jump to see an in-depth demonstration of the inner workings of a CURTA Type I using the YACS CURTA simulator.
Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.
[Thanks to Andrew for the tip!]