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Play with a Curta
May 22, 2008 7:24 AM   Subscribe

I first learned about them when they featured prominently in a Gibson book (Pattern Recognition). When I looked on eBay, I was stunned at the prices they fetch. Now I can at least play with a virtual Curta mechanical calculator.
posted by Dave Faris (35 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
From a previous metafilter post, here's a PDF about the Curta written by Clifford Stoll.
posted by Dave Faris at 7:30 AM on May 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well great, now I feel like a moron, and it's not even lunchtime yet.
(god I love mechanical devices)
posted by aramaic at 7:33 AM on May 22, 2008


Thanks. I almost bought several a few years ago as an investment, but didn't think they'd go up in value. *sigh*
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 7:35 AM on May 22, 2008


Those things peg my geek lust like few other items I'm aware of. Want.
posted by Skorgu at 7:39 AM on May 22, 2008


I don't understand the reason for the "Russian" tag, considering that Curtas were made in Liechtenstein. The story of how it was designed is...quite surprising.
posted by Skeptic at 7:47 AM on May 22, 2008


Curta = Lomo for geeks.

I wonder how long until someone gets a Chinese factory to make a few containerloads of these and starts selling them over the web. They already do this with various fondly remembered retro gadgets, from Stylophones (about £15 in big record shops here, which means you may see them for $30 at Urban Outfitters in the US), Space Hoppers, Atari 2600s/Commodore 64s on a joystick, and, of course, Lomo cameras.
posted by acb at 7:49 AM on May 22, 2008


Shows you what I know, Skeptic. I fixed it.
posted by Dave Faris at 7:51 AM on May 22, 2008


I certainly hope that happens abc. I was just thinking how Think Geek would make an absolute killing on these.
posted by CheshireCat at 7:52 AM on May 22, 2008


Nifty. I had thought mechanical calculators had gone out with the introduction of the slide rule, though of course they aren't so good for addition and subtraction but obviously I was wrong.
posted by sotonohito at 7:52 AM on May 22, 2008


Holy cow that's awesome.
posted by notsnot at 8:11 AM on May 22, 2008


I've never seen one of those. Awesome!

In the 60s, my brother and I had a Magic Brain Calculator. Nowhere near as cool as the Curta, but I have always remembered the Magic Brain.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 8:21 AM on May 22, 2008


New to me. They will probably keep going up in value. Same with Nixie Tubes. All part of that non-digital analog movement, a reaction to a digital life.
posted by stbalbach at 8:29 AM on May 22, 2008


Normally we would now make 9 turns of the handle with the carriage in position 1 and 8 turns with the carriage in position 2, that is altogether 17 turns of the handle. The same calculation can be done, however, with only 3 turns of the handle. 89 = (100-11) or (-11 + 100). We therefore calculate 457 x (-1-10+100).
Error: Brain overflow.

As cool as the Curta is, it's stuff like this that makes me think I'd need to already be a math savant in order to use it effectively. It's kind of the same problem I've had with math my whole life; I love the concepts dearly, and can feel the simple beauty of the complexity, but get insanely frustrated with myself for not seeing these "tricks" as easily as apparently lots of people can.
posted by odinsdream at 8:33 AM on May 22, 2008


Visual demonstration on operating a Curta.
posted by Dave Faris at 8:36 AM on May 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


*Hops in to VW Phaeton, speeds off...*
posted by fixedgear at 9:16 AM on May 22, 2008


fixedgear, are you making a Spook Country reference, or were Phaetons a role in Pattern Recognition as well?
posted by mcstayinskool at 9:22 AM on May 22, 2008


They were a motif in one a dem Gibson books. Maybe it was Spook Country.
posted by fixedgear at 9:24 AM on May 22, 2008


Great vid Dave Faris. It led me to a pretty fascinating site on mechanical calculators (RetroCalculators.com)
posted by samsara at 9:37 AM on May 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


All part of that non-digital analog movement, a reaction to a digital life.

I think Curtas, unlike slide rules, are digital. Just not electronic.
posted by DU at 9:52 AM on May 22, 2008 [4 favorites]


What a beautiful machine. One flaw: the exponent ring should have been labeled starting at 0 instead of 1.
posted by king walnut at 9:55 AM on May 22, 2008


D'oh, wrong thread. Instead: I always think I want a sliderule, or in this case a Curta, but then I have to try to learn how to use it and I'm like....screw this complicated crap. They are the kind of things that are elegant, beautiful and historically interesting but not necessarily something you'd actually want to use.
posted by DU at 10:02 AM on May 22, 2008


But I don't want to sound like I'm bad-mouthing it. From the simulator, it looks like this works very similarly to the Difference Engine. I actually started building my own DE out of Lego (which I know has been done before) at one point. It's such an awesome concept and mechanism.
posted by DU at 10:05 AM on May 22, 2008


Great links Dave. I had never heard of the Curta and feel just a tad smarter today.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 10:09 AM on May 22, 2008


/pulls pin on math grenade, lobs it into mob of advancing nerd-zombies.
posted by Artw at 10:40 AM on May 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


A little manual to get the thing.
posted by zouhair at 10:42 AM on May 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Aargh, now I want one and I'm broke!

Thanks for the manual, Zouhair.
posted by Harald74 at 11:52 AM on May 22, 2008


I've wanted one of these ever since I read about it in Scientific American a few years ago. Dave Faris linked to the PDF of that article in the first comment. It really is a good story.

For anyone who isn't going to read it, Herzstark completed the design of the Curta while in the Buchenwald concentration camp. The Nazis were going to give one to Hitler as a present once they won the war. "Then, surely, you will be made an Aryan," they told him. So he designed it under terrible conditions with the thought that it could save his life.
posted by squarehead at 12:39 PM on May 22, 2008


New to me. They will probably keep going up in value. Same with Nixie Tubes. All part of that non-digital analog movement, a reaction to a digital life.
posted by stbalbach at 11:29 AM on May 22


Called it!
posted by Pastabagel at 12:58 PM on May 22, 2008


My parents have one of those in pristine condition. It's awesome.
posted by backseatpilot at 1:01 PM on May 22, 2008


How is a mechanical calculator the same as a vintage telephone, Pastabagel?

I've been collecting old cameras and mechanical clocks for 10 or more years. And a friend is way into vintage typewriters. And I've noticed an uptick in neovictorian architecture in the last 5 or so years. Blocks of condos built to look like they were built 125 years ago. So I guess maybe Neal Stephenson called it.
posted by Dave Faris at 1:26 PM on May 22, 2008


Nyaah, nyaah, I've got one and you haven't, nyaah!
posted by dansdata at 3:13 PM on May 22, 2008


My dad was collecting slide rules already in the early-to-mid 80s and they were barely out of usage at that point.
posted by DU at 4:09 PM on May 22, 2008


They were a motif in one a dem Gibson books. Maybe it was Spook Country.

I haven't read Spook Country, but there was something like this in Pattern Recognition. In that book the calculator was a Russian design, or the character trying to sell them was Russian...one or the other. I think.
posted by zardoz at 4:29 PM on May 22, 2008


Hmm. It's possibly not that good a sign that I remember this from Pattern Recognition more than I do the plot, or characters, or anything like that.
posted by Artw at 4:41 PM on May 22, 2008


No, the Phaetons were from Spook Country. The calculators were from Pattern Recognition. She was freaked out by Bibendum.
posted by fixedgear at 5:18 PM on May 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


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