Early Calculator: The Sad Story of an Inventor at Buchenwald

By Frank Thadeusz

A Viennese engineer worked meticulously in a concentration camp on the world's first pocket calculator. After the war, others profited from his invention.

Curt Herzstark's fate seemed to be sealed in 1943 when the Nazis sent him to Buchenwald concentration camp. But then Herzstark, the son of a Jewish industrialist, received the unexpected opportunity to become an Aryan.

"Look, Herzstark," one of the camp commandants said to him, "we know that you are working on a calculating machine. We will permit you to make drawings. If the thing is worth its salt, we'll give it to the Führer after the final victory. He'll certainly make you an Aryan for that."

The engineer had made a pact with the devil. Night after night, after daily forced labor in the camp, Herzstark made detailed design plans for the world's smallest mechanical calculating machine. He was given special rations as motivation, and he eventually survived the concentration camp. But there was no final victory, and Hitler was never able to enjoy the invention.

Herzstark's life should have turned to fame and fortune after the end of the war, because the Viennese inventor was something of a Steve Jobs of the mechanical age. His design was revolutionary. At a time when bookkeepers and counting house owners used heavy office machines and pencils to cope with monstrous columns of numbers, he surprised the professional world with a small, elegant device that performed the four basic arithmetic operations and fit into the pocket of every work coat.

In fact, the highly talented man became one of the unluckiest people in the history of technology. Now Herbert Bruderer, an expert on the history of computer science at ETH Zurich, wants to rescue the brilliant Herzstark from oblivion. In the course of his research, Bruderer delved deeply into the story of "this sad life."

A Rising Star

It all began very optimistically. Herzstark achieved what had eluded many engineers before him. He solved the mystery of how to place the various stepped reckoners for the individual arithmetic operations in a tiny case. The inventor resorted to radical simplification.

He achieved a design in which, for example, the reckoner for addition could also compute subtractions when a lever was shifted. In 1938 Herzstark patented his mechanical pocket calculator, which looked like a cross between a pepper mill and a hand grenade.

It could have marked the beginning of a success story, but a few months after Herzstark had gone to the patent office, the Nazis invaded Austria and annexed the Alpine republic. Herzstark was only allowed to keep his Vienna company because his mother was a Catholic. But from then on the company was required to build precision instruments for German tanks. For the time being, the miniature calculator remained nothing but theory.

After a dispute with a senior member of the Gestapo who had two of his employees arrested for alleged espionage, Herzstark ended up at Buchenwald. Astoundingly, it was under the inhuman conditions at the concentration camp that Herzstark managed to turn his concept of a mechanical pocket calculator into concrete reality. But the liberation from the Nazi dictatorship, a godsend for the oppressed inmates, also put an end to Herzstark's efforts.

A Bad Run of Luck

When he returned to Vienna after the war, Herzstark discovered that his brother Ernst had taken over the family business while he was in the concentration camp. In the 1930s, Ernst was known for little more than shooting clay pigeons and owning expensive cars.

"He wasn't particularly knowledgeable," Herzstark said about his younger brother, which is why the gifted engineer didn't want to share his valuable patent with him. Herzstark also had a bad run when it came to choosing his future business partners. The world's smallest mechanical calculator went into series production in 1948 under the name "Curta," but for Herzstark, there was no reason to celebrate.

Businessmen working with Liechtenstein's royal family had used every trick in the book to rip off the unsuspecting Herzstark, who suffered from intermittent bouts of tuberculosis. Instead of becoming an equal co-owner of the calculating machine factory, the engineer was soon essentially forced out of production.

In 1952, after a grueling battle, Herzstark agreed to be paid off with a ridiculously small sum of money. The mechanical pocket calculator remained his opus magnum. He did not produce any other major invention up to his death in 1988.

The "Curta" met an abrupt end with the dawn of a new era. When the first electronic pocket calculators, with their red and green LED letters, came on the market in 1971, the mechanical mini-computer from Vienna was suddenly obsolete.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Article...
  • For reasons of data protection and privacy, your IP address will only be stored if you are a registered user of Facebook and you are currently logged in to the service. For more detailed information, please click on the "i" symbol.
  • Post to other social networks

Comments
Discuss this issue with other readers!
3 total posts
Show all comments
    Page 1    
1. optional
japanreader 07/04/2013
The Curta is a "grail piece" for any collector of mathematical calculating devices such as slide rules. The first mechanical calculators were made by Pascal but the Curta was by far the best of them all.
2. Bad people can destroy great progress!
max21c 07/04/2013
When this kind of stuff happens in contemporary America per the military, NSA, FBI, and CIA going after people to take their property, intellectual property, inventions, medical research, scientific research the situ is that the US intelligence community simply claims its "relevant" to national security. They can steal information from anyone anywhere in the world per civilians, private companies, universities and simply claim its "relevant" to national security. The Washington Regime and its secret police then determine the disposition of the stolen property per whether they’re going to take it for themselves and their benefit, hand it out to their friends and families, turn it over to some hand-picked puppet supporter-collaborator, or redistribute it to one of their favored companies, universities, or puppet scientists. The NAZI’s and Bolsheviks aren’t the only people that have used their secret police to systematically rob people and persecute people. The end result is that fewer diseases are cured, there is less progress in science, and fewer inventions and less innovation. When a state or group robs 1 creative person of their work then all the other things that that person might later create, produce, discover, or invent are lost.
3. claim of max21c
Rainer_Pitthan 07/07/2013
Any examples where the "The Washington Regime and its secret police" take away inventions by declaring it "secret". Just one, please? You do not have any? I thought so. Because I live in the middle of Silicon valley and know many of the main actors here and I would have heard this. It's secret and therefore nobody knows? You got to be kidding. For the hackers here nothing is secret. In fact declaring anything secret focuses the attention. Just like soviet Master Spy Popov describes the joy of the Soviets when the US start classifying stuff. Because before they hauled off waggonloads of paper, which all had to be translated to figure out id there was anything of value. So Mrmax21c, I think you do not know your behind from a hole in the ground!
Show all comments
    Page 1    
Keep track of the news

Stay informed with our free news services:

All news from SPIEGEL International
Twitter | RSS
All news from Germany section
RSS

© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2013
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH



From DER SPIEGEL

Photo Gallery
Photo Gallery: A Field Trip to Nazi Germany
Photo Gallery
Photo Gallery: Teen Life in WWII Berlin


European Partners
Presseurop

Politiken

Corriere della Sera

Anti-Europe Fever

Early Election


Facebook
Twitter