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A Curta mechanical calculator

The Curta is a small, hand-cranked digital mechanical Curta

calculator introduced by Curt Herzstark in 1948. It can
be used to perform addition, subtraction, multiplication,
division, and (with more diculty) square roots and other
The Curtas design is a descendant of Gottfried Leibniz's Stepped Reckoner and Thomas's Arithmometer, accumulating values on cogs, which are added or complemented by a stepped drum mechanism. It has an extremely compact design: a small cylinder that ts in the
palm of the hand.
Curtas were considered the best portable calculators
available until they were displaced by electronic calculators in the 1970s.[1]


A partially disassembled Curta calculator, showing the digit

slides and the stepped drum behind them

The Curta was conceived by Curt Herzstark (19021988)

in the 1930s in Vienna, Austria. By 1938, he had No. 747073. This single drum replaced the multiple
led a key patent, covering his complemented stepped drums, typically around 10 or so, of contemporary caldrum, Deutsches Reichspatent (German National Patent) culators, and it enabled not only addition, but subtraction


Curta Type I calculator showing view from top

Curta (Type I) mechanical calculator shown in the operational

position (left hand). The crank is turned with the right hand

Curta Type I calculator showing view from bottom

new thing, a small calculating machine. Do you know, I

can give you a tip. We will allow you to make and draw
everything. If it is really worth something, then we will
give it to the Fhrer as a present after we win the war.
Then, surely, you will be made an Aryan.' For me, that
was the rst time I thought to myself, my God, if you do
this, you can extend your life. And then and there I started
to draw the CURTA, the way I had imagined it.[2]

Herzstark worked hard to move his invention from his

knowing how to build the device in principle[2] to conthrough nines complement math, essentially subtracting cise working drawings for a manufacturable device.
by adding. The nines complement math breakthrough The department heads celebration plan did not materieliminated the signicant mechanical complexity created
alize, but Herzstarks construction plans did. Between
when borrowing during subtraction. This drum would April 11, 1945, when Buchenwald was liberated by the
prove to be the key to the small, hand-held mechanical
United States, and the following November, Herzstark
calculator the Curta would become.
was, after making only a few detailed improvements
His work on the pocket calculator stopped in 1938 when
the Nazis forced him and his company to concentrate
on manufacturing measuring instruments and distance
gauges for the German army.

to the design, able to locate a factory in Sommertal, near

Weimar, where machinists were skilled enough to work
at the necessary level of precision, and walk away with
three working models of the calculator.[2]

Herzstark, the son of a Catholic mother and Jewish father,

was taken into custody in 1943, eventually nding himself at the Buchenwald concentration camp. Ironically,
it was in the concentration camp that he was encouraged
to continue his earlier research: While I was imprisoned
inside [Buchenwald] I had, after a few days, told the [people] in the work production scheduling department of my
ideas. The head of the department, Mr. Munich said,
'See, Herzstark, I understand you've been working on a

The forces of the USSR had arrived in July, and Herzstark

feared being sent to Russia, so, later that same month, he
ed to Austria. He began to look for nancial backers,
at the same time ling continuing patents as well as several additional patents to protect his work. The Prince of
Liechtenstein eventually showed interest in the manufacture of the device, and soon a newly formed company,
Contina AG Mauren, (aka Contina Ltd Mauren) began
production in Liechtenstein.



It was not long before the nancial backers, apparently

having gotten from him all they thought they needed, contrived to force him out by reducing the value of all existing stock to zero, including his one-third interest in
the company.[1] These were the same people who, earlier, had elected not to transfer ownership of the Herzstarks patents to the company, so that, should anyone sue,
they would be suing Herzstark, not the company, thereby
protecting themselves at Herzstarks expense. This ploy
now backred: without the patent rights, they could manufacture nothing. Herzstark was able to negotiate a new
agreement, and money continued to ow to him.

3.1 Models

Curtas were considered the best portable calculators

available until they were displaced by electronic calculators in the 1970s.[1] Herzstark continued to make money
from his invention until that time, although, like many inventors before him, he was not among those who proted
the most from his invention. The Curta, however, lives
on, being a highly-popular collectible, with thousands of
machines working just as smoothly as they did 40, 50,
and 60 years ago when they were manufactured.[1][2][3]

An estimated 140,000 Curta calculators were made

(80,000 Type I and 60,000 Type II). According to Curt
Herzstark, the last Curta was produced in 1972.[2]

5 Popular culture

The Type I Curta has eight digits for data entry (known
as setting sliders), a six-digit revolution counter, and an
eleven-digit result counter. According to the advertising
literature, it weighs only 8 ounces (230 g). Serial number
70154, produced in 1969, weighs 245 grams (8.6 oz).
The larger Type II Curta, introduced in 1954, has eleven
digits for data entry, an eight-digit revolution counter, and
a fteen-digit result counter. It weighs 13.15 ounces (373
g), based on weighing serial number 550973, produced in
early 1966.

4 Uses

The Curta was popular among contestants in sports car

rallies during the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s. Even
after the introduction of the electronic calculator for
other purposes, they were used in time-speed-distance
2 Cost
(TSD) rallies to aid in computation of times to checkpoints, distances o-course and so on, since the early
The Curta Type I was sold for $125 in the later years of electronic calculators did not fare well with the bounces
production; the Type II was sold for $175. While only and jolts of rally racing.[1]
3% of Curtas were returned to the factory because of reContestants who used such calculators were often called
pairs under warranty,[2] a small, but signicant number
Curta-crankers by those who were limited to paper and
of buyers returned the Curta in pieces. Many purchasers
pencil, or who used computers linked to the cars wheels.
attempted to disassemble the Curta. Reassembling the
machine was more dicult as assembly required intimate The Curta was also favored by both commercial and
knowledge of the orientation and installation order for general-aviation pilots, before the advent of electronic
each part and sub-assembly, plus special guides designed calculators, because of both its precision and the users
to hold the pieces in place during assembly. Many identi- ability to conrm the accuracy of his or her manipulations
cal looking parts, each with slightly dierent dimensions, via the revolution counter. Because calculations such as
required test tting and selection as well as special tools weight and balance are critical for safe ight, precise results free of pilot error are essential.
to adjust tolerances.


Numbers are entered using slides (one slide per digit)

on the side of the device. The revolution counter and
result counter appear on the top. A single turn of the
crank adds the input number to the result counter, at any
position, and increments the revolution counter accordingly. Pulling the crank upwards slightly before turning
it performs a subtraction instead of an addition. Multiplication, division, and other functions require a series of
crank and carriage-shifting operations.
The Curta was aectionately known as the pepper
grinder or peppermill due to its shape and means of
operation. It was also termed the math grenade, due
to its supercial resemblance to a certain type of hand

The Curta Calculator plays a role in William Gibsons

Pattern Recognition (2003) as an interesting piece of historic computing machinery as well as a crucial trade

6 References
[1] Stoll, Cli (January 2004). The Curious History of the
First Pocket Calculator. Scientic American 290 (1):
929. doi:10.1038/scienticamerican0104-92. PMID
[2] An Interview with Curt Herzstark conducted by Erwin
Tomash, Charles Babbage Institute, University of Min-

nesota, Minneapolis. Herzstark interview in German

[3] Curt Herzstark and his Pocket Calculator, Peter
Kradolfer, backup 6/88 pp. 59
[4] ICES Insight (PDF) 48. International Council for the
Exploration of the Sea. September 2011. p. 13. ISBN
978-87-7482-097-0. Retrieved 2012-08-06.

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