Last month we carried a piece looking at the development of the 8-bit home computer market through the lens of the British catalogue retailer Argos and their perennial catalogue of dreams. As an aside, we mentioned that the earliest edition from 1975 contained some of the last mechanical calculators on the market, alongside a few early electronic models. This month it’s worth returning to those devices, because though they are largely forgotten now, they were part of the scenery and clutter of a typical office for most of the century.
Somewhere in storage I have one of the models featured in the catalogue, an Olivetti Summa Prima. I happened upon it in a dumpster as a teenager looking for broken TVs to scavenge for parts, cut down a pair of typewriter ribbon reels to fit it, and after playing with it for a while added it to my store of random tech ephemera. It’s a compact and stylish desktop unit from about 1970, on its front is a numerical keypad, top is a printer with a holder for a roll of receipt paper and a typewriter-style rubber roller, while on its side is a spring-loaded handle from which it derives its power. It can do simple addition and subtraction in the old British currency units, and operating it is a simple case of punching in a number, pulling the handle, and watching the result spool out on the paper tape. Its register appears to be a set of rotors advanced or retarded by the handle for either addition or subtraction, and its printing is achieved by a set of print bars sliding up to line the correct number with the inked ribbon. For me in 1987 with my LCD Casio Scientific it was an entertaining mechanical curiosity, but for its operators twenty years earlier it must have represented a significant time saving.
The history of mechanical calculators goes back over several hundred years to Blaise Pascal in the 17th century, and over that time they evolved through a series of inventions into surprisingly sophisticated machines that were capable of handling financial complications surprisingly quickly. The Summa was one of the last machines available in great numbers, and even as it was brought to market in the 1960s its manufacturer was also producing one of the first desktop-sized computers. Its price in that 1975 Argos catalogue is hardly cheap but around the same as an electronic equivalent, itself a minor miracle given how many parts it contains and how complex it must have been to manufacture.
We’ve put two Summa Prima videos below the break. T.the first is a contemporary advert for the machine, and the second is a modern introduction to the machine partially narrated by a Brazilian robot, so consider translated subtitles. In that second video you can see something of its internals as the bare mechanism is cranked over for the camera and some of the mechanical complexity of the device becomes very obvious. It might seem odd to pull a obsolete piece of office machinery from a dumpster and hang onto it for three decades, but I’m very glad indeed that a 1980s teenage me did so. You’re probably unlikely to stumble upon one in 2019, but should you do so it’s a device that’s very much worth adding to your collection.
Earlier this year, [Dan Maloney] went inside mechanical calculators. Being the practical sort, [Dan] jumped right into the Pascaline invented by Blaise Pascal. It couldn’t multiply or divide. He then went into the arithmometer, which is arguably the first commercially successful mechanical calculator with four functions. That was around 1821 or so. But [Dan] mentions it used a Leibniz wheel. I thought, “Leibniz? He’s the calculus guy, right? He died in 1716.” So I knew there had to be at least a century of backstory to get to the arithmometer. Having a rainy day ahead, I decided to find out exactly where the Leibniz wheel came from and what it was doing for 100 years prior to 1821.
If you’ve taken calculus you’ve probably heard of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (who would have been 372 years old on July 1st, by the way). He’s the guy that gave us the notation we use in modern calculus and oddly was one of two people who apparently figured out calculus, the other being Issac Newton. Both men, by the way, accused each other of stealing, although it is more likely they both built on the same prior work. When you are struggling to learn calculus, it is sometimes amazing that not only did someone think it up, but two people thought it up at one time. However, Leibniz also built what might be the first four function calculator in 1694. His “stepped reckoner” used a drum and some cranks and the underlying mechanism found inside of it lived on until the 1970s in other mechanical calculating devices. Oddly, Leibniz didn’t use the term stepped reckoner but called the machine Instrumentum Arithmeticum.
Many of us remember when a four function electronic calculator was a marvel and not even very inexpensive. Nowadays, you’d have to look hard to find one that only had four functions and simple calculators are cheap enough to give away like ink pens. But in 1694, you didn’t have electronics and integrated circuits necessary to pull that off.
It’s funny how creation and understanding interact. Sometimes the urge to create something comes from a new-found deep understanding of a concept, and sometimes the act of creation leads to that understanding. And sometimes creation and understanding are linked together in such a way as to lead in an entirely new direction, which is the story behind this plywood recreation of the Michelson Fourier analysis machine.
For those not familiar with this piece of computing history, it’s worth watching the videos in our article covering [Bill “The Engineer Guy” Hammack]’s discussion of this amazing early 20th-century analog computer. Those videos were shown to [nopvelthuizen] in a math class he took at the outset of degree work in physics education. The beauty of the sinusoids being created by the cam-operated rocker arms and summed to display the output waveforms captured his imagination and lead to an eight-channel copy of the 20-channel original.
Working with plywood and a CNC router, [nopvelthuizen]’s creation is faithful to the original if a bit limited by the smaller number of sinusoids that can be summed. A laser cutter or 3D printer would have allowed for a longer gear train, but we think the replica is great the way it is. What’s more, the real winners are [nopvelthuizen]’s eventual physics students, who will probably look with some awe at their teacher’s skills and enthusiasm.
While necessity is frequently the mother of invention, annoyance often comes into play as well. This was the case with [Blaise Pascal], who as a teenager was tasked with helping his father calculate the taxes owed by the citizens of Rouen, France. [Pascal] tired of moving the beads back and forth on his abacus and was sure that there was some easier way of counting all those livres, sols, and deniers. In the early 1640s, he devised a mechanical calculator that would come to be known by various names: Pascal’s calculator, arithmetic machine, and eventually, Pascaline.
The instrument is made up of input dials that are connected to output drums through a series of gears. Each digit of a number is entered on its own input dial. This is done by inserting a stylus between two spokes and turning the dial clockwise toward a metal stop, a bit like dialing on a rotary phone. The output is shown in a row of small windows across the top of the machine. Pascal made some fifty different prototypes of the Pascaline before he turned his focus toward philosophy. Some have more dials and corresponding output wheels than others, but the operation and mechanics are largely the same throughout the variations.
If you’re into mechanical devices or Fourier series (or both!), you’ve got some serious YouTubing to do.
[The Engineer Guy] has posted up a series of four videos (Introduction, Synthesis, Analysis, and Operation) that demonstrate the operation and theory behind a 100-year-old machine that does Fourier analysis and synthesis with gears, cams, rocker-arms, and springs.
In Synthesis, [The Engineer Guy] explains how the machine creates an arbitrary waveform from its twenty Fourier components. In retrospect, if you’re up on your Fourier synthesis, it’s pretty obvious. Gears turn at precise ratios to each other to create the relative frequencies, and circles turning trace out sine or cosine waves easily enough. But the mechanical spring-weighted summation mechanism blew our mind, and watching the machine do its thing is mesmerizing.
In Analysis everything runs in reverse. [The Engineer Guy] sets some sample points — a square wave — into the machine and it spits out the Fourier coefficients. If you don’t have a good intuitive feel for the duality implied by Fourier analysis and synthesis, go through the video from 1:50 to 2:20 again. For good measure, [The Engineer Guy] then puts the resulting coefficient estimates back into the machine, and you get to watch a bunch of gears and springs churn out a pretty good square wave. Truly amazing.
The fact that the machine was designed by [Albert Michelson], of Michelson-Morley experiment fame, adds some star power. [The Engineer Guy] is selling a book documenting the machine, and his video about the book is probably worth your time as well. And if you still haven’t gotten enough sine-wavey goodness, watch the bonus track where he runs the machine in slow-mo: pure mechano-mathematical hotness!
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.
So you have a CNC machine that you use as a hobby, but would like to do some actual work on the side? Or maybe you have an idea you’d like made. Homecut is a map directory where you can maybe hook up with the right person.
The Curta Mechanical Calculator
As [leehart] mentioned in our comments section, the Curta mechanical calculator is a truly ingenious piece of engineering. A quick Google search should find all kinds of information on it, but this article could be a good place to start for some mechanical hacking inspiration!
Luxman Amplifier DAC Upgrade
[R. Barrios] wasn’t happy with using the sound card for his HTPC setup, so decided to add a DAC module onto his reciever. The resulting audio quality was very good, and the build came out quite clean. Check it out if you’re thinking of a hack-upgrade to your stereo equipment.
3D Printable Tilt-Shift Adapter
A tilt-shift lens a neat piece of equipment that is used to make a large scene look like they were miniatures. It’s a cool effect, but professional lenses to do this can cost thousands of dollars. This Instructable tells you how to go about printing your own. For more info on the technique itself, check out this Wikipedia article.
New 3D Printer on the Block
If you would like to take the plunge into 3D printing, but are looking for somewhere to get a parts kit, the [ORD Bot Hadron 3D Printer] may be worth a look. The build quality looks great, and the price for the mechanical components is quite reasonable at $399. You’ll need to provide the electronics and extruder. Thanks [comptechgeek]!