The History of the Curta, The First Portable Calculator

A pocket calculator might be something you pick up for $5 and is almost disposable, but before they were digital they were mechanical. The Curta, the first pocket calculator, and its creator have an incredible story. It actually saved its inventor’s life.

Troubled Beginnings

On July 26, 1902 Curt Herszstark was born in Vienna, Austria. In the 1930s he started designing the Curta, a small mechanical calculator that used a hand crank. In 1938, while working at his father’s company, Rechenmaschinenwerk Austria, Nazi Germany invaded the country and the company was forced to make measuring devices for the German war effort.

In 1943, Herzstark, whose father was a Jew, was arrested by the Nazis for “helping Jews and subversive elements” and “indecent contacts with Aryan women.” He ended up in the Buchenwald concentration camp. While working in the factory connected to the camp, he was ordered to complete his design for the Curta, which the Nazis planned to present to Hitler as a gift after the war. The Nazis planned to make him fully Aryan under their twisted ideology for inventing the device. Fortunately for him and for the rest of the world, things turned out much differently.

In 1945, Buchenwald was liberated by the Allies. Herzstark moved to the tiny country of Lichenstein and the company Contina AG Mauren was set up to manufacture the device.

This Pepper Grinder Does Math

The Curta I Calculator

In 1948, The Curta finally went on sale. It became popular with engineers, auto racers, pilots and anyone else who needed to make accurate calculations quickly. The Curta performed addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. It sold for approximately $125. Because of its appearance, it was nicknamed the “pepper grinder” and the “math grenade.”

In 1954, The Curta II, a slightly modified design, went on sale for about $175.

Of course, lots of people wanted to take the seemingly magical device apart just to see how it worked. But they found it so complicated that they couldn’t put it back together. The cost to reassemble it was $300. “Don’t feel bad. Curtas really cost $400,” one dealer said to someone who brings it in for repair. “Everyone takes it apart.” (That’s over $3000 in today’s money!)

Rise of the Digital Calculators; Cult Status

The Curta went out of production in 1972, just as portable digital calculators were becoming available. Curtas continued to be used in auto races well into the 1980s because digital calculators were still not rugged enough to survive the bumps and jolts of over-the-road racing. Curtas continue to be a prized item, with used ones selling for over $1,000 on Ebay.

Curt Herszstark died in 1988, but his calculator lives on as an amazing feat of design and engineering. You can play with a Flash version here. You’ll probably want to read the manual, though. It’s easy once you get the hang of it.

If you like this, you’ll want to check out the Top 15 Geeky Calculator Designs and the Typewriter Calculator.

Photo Credit: Larry McElhiney