We underestimate the computing power of a device that can fit in the palms of our hands. Nowadays, for many people, a calculator is an application that opens on their smartphones. But before it got that luxurious, calculators went through a series of evolutionary steps that brought us to this point.
The history of the calculator, or what we know of it, began with the hand-operated Abacus in Egypt in 2000 BC.
The Abacus is a rectangular frame with horizontal rods. On each rod, there is a certain number of beads that can slide across. These beads represent tens, hundreds and thousands.
Europe saw the next stage in Mechanical calculators during the 17th Century. The slide rule was an advancement to the abacus as it consisted of a sliding stick that could perform rapid multiplications by using logarithmic scales.
Even though mechanical computing devices were around, the Slide rules were still used all the way up to the 1980’s as they were portable and could fit in one’s pocket.
Mechanical calculators came out around 1642 when Blaise Pascal created a device that could perform arithmetic operations with two numbers. The Arithmometer was then upgraded and improved all the way till 1887 when Dorr. E. Felt’s patented the Comptometer. The Comptometer had push keys similar to our modern day calculators. However, it was much larger than pocket size.
The great leap to pocket size mechanical calculators came in the form of the Curta Calculator in 1948. A compact mechanical arithmetic device that could perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.
Curt Herzstark, an Austrian Engineer born in 1902, invented Curta. During World War II, Herzstark completed his designs for the Curta, but as his father was Jewish, he was sent to Buchenwald Concentration Camp. However, his mechanical know-how saved his life as the Nazi’s treated him as an “Intelligence-slave”.
Herzstark’s intricate design for the Curta was used all the way to the 1960’s in rally cars and cockpits where quick calculations had to be made. See how this intricate device operates in the video below.
Written by Terry Berman