Pawn Stars shows Antique Curta Calculator

Last night’s episode of Pawn Stars featured an Antique Curta Calculator.

Introduced in 1948 by Austrian Curt Herzstark, this mechanical device was the world’s first handheld four-function calculator.

Herzstark filed for U.S. patent protection in October 1949 for his “Independent Actuator Tens Transformer” invention.  Patent #2,588,835 issued to Herzstark in 1952.

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As Rick Harrison mentioned on the show, the Curta Calculator has a terribly interesting history. 

From Wikipedia:

His work on the pocket calculator stopped in 1938 when the Nazis forced him and his company to concentrate on manufacturing measuring instruments and distance gauges for the German army.

Herzstark, the son of a Catholic mother but Jewish father, was taken into custody in 1943, eventually finding himself at the Buchenwald concentration camp. Ironically, it was in the concentration camp that he was encouraged to continue his earlier research: "While I was imprisoned inside [Buchenwald] I had, after a few days, told the [people] in the work production scheduling department of my ideas. The head of the department, Mr. Munich said, ‘See, Herzstark, I understand you’ve been working on a new thing, a small calculating machine. Do you know, I can give you a tip. We will allow you to make and draw everything. If it is really worth something, then we will give it to the Führer as a present after we win the war. Then, surely, you will be made an Aryan.’ For me, that was the first time I thought to myself, my God, if you do this, you can extend your life. And then and there I started to draw the CURTA, the way I had imagined it."

More interesting facts about the Curta Calculator:

  • Curtas were widely considered the best portable calculators available until they were displaced by electronic calculators in the 1970s.
  • An estimated 140,000 Curta calculators were produced.
  • The Curta was affectionately known as the "pepper grinder" or "peppermill" due to its shape and means of operation. To arrive at an answer, you’d have to turn a crank atop the Curta.  This is where we get the phrase, “Cranking out an answer.”
  • People couldn’t resist the temptation to crack their Curta open to see how it worked. Because of its many identical looking parts, each with slightly different dimensions, it was nearly impossible for most people to put it back together again. Computer expert Tog relates the following story: “One chagrined owner, on showing up to the dealer to retrieve his $600 Curta, now reassembled for an additional $300, was told, ‘don’t feel bad. Curtas really cost $900. Everyone takes them apart.’”

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