If you’ve ever spent time thumbing through back issues of magazines like Scientific American or New Scientist, you may have seen adverts for the Curta – a strange little device that resembles a pepper mill. It cost a shocking amount of money and was claimed to perform all sorts of arithmetic functions purely mechanically and with incredible precision.
Rather than being a scam in the order of upmarket X-ray specs, the Curta lives up to the claims and the story behind its creation has its roots in a Nazi death camp.
For most people today, a calculator is just another phone app. It’s one of those devices that we take for less than granted, yet for those of us of a certain age it was nothing less than a technological liberator when it arrived, freeing scientists, engineers, and anyone who routinely used math from hours or days of tedious calculations.
Indeed, it’s sobering to think of how many years everyone from Johannes Kepler to unknown bank tellers lost due to number crunching prior to its arrival.
Some relief from tedious manual number crunching came in the 17th century with the invention of logarithms followed by mechanical aids like the slide rule and the first adding machines. Unfortunately, they weren’t that much of a help. Slide rules couldn’t handle numbers to more than two or three decimal places and, for centuries, calculators were little more than curiosities that were about as practical as a toy automaton.