10 years ago, I read a Scientific American story and fell in love with the subject. The article was about the Curta, an amazing little device that was invented by Austrian Curt Herzstark. At the time, I did a little research, trying to locate one of the prized calculators. I found some on eBay, realized that the price wasn’t in my budget, and then lost the magazine clipping. I subsequently forgot about it.
The Curta story is Herzstark’s story. He grew up in an industrial family that produced large mechanical calculators. His mother was Catholic, but his father was Jewish. Cliff Stoll’s magazine article from January 2004 does a better job telling the story in more detail, and it is well worth reading. Herzstark set out to design a much smaller, and therefore more useful, version of a machine to add, subtract, multiply, and divide. The advent of digital calculators put an end to the Curta’s run, but this all mechanical calculator was still an amazing invention.
The Curta story could have ended at the Buchenwald concentration camp, but amazingly, Herzstark survived the war in Germany, despite his incarceration. The German army came to Austria in 1938. Despite his Jewish roots, he avoided major trouble because his family’s factory converted from making calculators to making equipment for the German army. In 1943, things got more complicated for him, when a series of unfortunate circumstances resulted in the Nazis sending him to Buchenwald in Germany. For tens of thousands of others sent to that work camp, it was a one way trip.
Thanks to Herzstark’s ingenuity and technical knowledge, he was valued by the Nazis and he survived. He was liberated on 11 April 1945. During his captivity, he finished his design for the Curta. He walked out of the concentration camp with the plans in his pocket. After the war, he showed his plans to some machinists and his ideas began to fall into place. He had prototypes built within months of his release.
Everything didn’t go smoothly at first, but eventually, Herzstark, found a supporter and set up production in the small country of Liechtenstein. Curta’s were sold all over the world between 1947 and 1972. The Type I was sold for $125 and its successor, Type II, was sold for $175. These little machines look like pepper grinders and are amazing devices. The detail and precision are awesome.
So much about the Curta story resonated with me, but for 10 years, I hadn’t thought about Curta. Then, one day last month, I got two photos in a text from my friend, Arlen Zane Wenzel.
AZW: “Interested? Curta calculator”
SL: “Hell yeah. I want it.”
AZW: “It’s for sale and it’s not mine. So look it up and if you want, make an offer. Call me if needed”
Arlen had a friend who found it in a deceased relatives’ belongings. He asked Arlen to help with the estate sale.
In a rush, it all came back to me. I did some research using Google and eBay. I made a fair offer. The offer was accepted and the Curta became mine. I didn’t have any time to play with it, so it was sitting on my desk at work. It was manufactured in November 1952. It was one of 4,000 produced that year.
Then, last weekend, I was cleaning my home office and to my own amazement, I found that original Scientific American story. I wasn’t looking for it. I figured it was long gone. I had torn it out of the pages of the magazine and it had been in a pile of papers in the corner of the office for the last 10 years. I read it front to back and was so happy!
I realized why the Curta story had such an impact on me when I first read it back in 2004. My grandfather fled Germany in October 1938. He was an engineer and machinist like Curt Herzstark. Like him, I have a Catholic mother and a Jewish father. Our family name is Liebenstein, which sounds like Liechtenstein. My grandfather’s birth name comes from the town of Bad Liebenstein, where he was raised in eastern Germany. After fleeing, my grandfather, also an engineer and inventor, started a manufacturing company in a different country. Horst Engineering was founded in 1946, and we produce precision machined components for aerospace and other high technology industries. I can’t remember if my grandfather had spoken of the Curta with me. I don’t think he ever owned one. He taught me how to use a slide rule.
This is better.
The Curta sits in my office at the shop, next to our own precision machined components, and it fits right in.