Survival is the Mother of Invention


My dad was an electrical engineer at The Boeing Company. He died when I was growing up, so I actually don’t know exactly what he did, but I believe that he worked on space solar panels.

He was an engineer in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Obviously (or maybe not obviously if you’re young enough), desktop electronic calculators did not exist then. It was all hand calculations and slide rules. I remember that his slide rule was one of his prized possessions. He kept it in a special case and everything.

And his Curta. I don’t know how many people know about these amazing machines. It is, at least on the surface, a very simple device. It has a series of switches on the sides and what appears to be a grinder on top.

With this device, you can do addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, square roots, squares, cubes, percentages, sine/cosine values, and probably many other things that smart engineers have figured out.

It does this via purely mechanical means. You can see images of its internal parts online. It’s truly mindbogglingly complex and precise.

I remember when my dad showed me how to use it (yeah, it’s not really in any shape intuitive). I was able to master addition, subtraction, and multiplication. Remember, this was before electronic calculators, so even though non-intuitive, it was still a remarkably efficient / accurate machine.

Even after the invention of electronic calculators, it was still in use. The original electronic calculators were somewhat unreliable in unstable environments, so pilots and rally car racers were still using it even after the electronic calculators became available. In fact, I remember my mom, who, let’s face facts, does not embrace new technology easily, was still using the Curta to help balance her checkbooks well in to the 1990’s.

All that is very interesting to me, but nowhere near the most interesting part.

The inventor, Curt Herzstark, was working on it during the 1930’s in Austria. He had to stop working on it to support the Nazi war effort. Due to the fact that he had a Jewish father, he was detained by the Nazis and ultimately was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. At some point, one of the department heads heard about Herzstark’s ideas and told him to design it so that it could be presented to Hitler as a gift upon the successful completion of the war.

Herzstark saw it as an opportunity to stay alive, so while at Buchenwald, he diligently worked on finalizing his design. In fact, he was so close to completion that, after the camp was liberated, he only made a few final tweaks to the design before he turned it over to be manufactured.

I still have my dad’s Curta. It’s well over 40 years old. And yes, it still works like a champ. It truly is an amazing machine.

And all because a concentration camp department head wanted one of his prisoners to create a gift to Hitler.


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