Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Unstructured Fun

Most people have never heard of the Curta although, among those in the know, it's status is legendary. The Curta was the earliest pocket calculator. Unlike modern electronic calculators, however, it was a mechanical device. Although one might suppose that this would imply that it is a primitive device, the Curta had a sophistication of design akin to that of a fine swiss watch. Even though modern technologies are more complex, no electronic calculator can match it for sheer elegance.

I once had the opportunity to, briefly, use a Curta that was owned by a former professor of mine. I would love to own one of my own, but the minimum cost for a unit is around US$500+ with the better models going for closer to US$1,500 and up. Given that they haven't been manufactured since the early 70's, that price is guaranteed to continue to increase over time. Never the less, I'm grateful that I have had the pleasure of actually holding one in my own hands, if only for a moment.

As you can see from the picture to the right, the Curta somewhat resembles a pepper mill, with sliders on the sides and numberical counters arranged along its top. In order to perform a calculation, you would set the numbers using the sliders (which could also be shifted by several orders of magnitude). You could toggle another slider to indicate whether the operation was additive or subtractive. After that you rotated the crank one revolution and the result would be calculated. It also had a ring which could be used to zero out the results.

The description simply doesn't do the device justice. Fortunately, the Curta Calculator Page has a pair of very nice simulations that give you the feel of using the device. What is most striking is how perfectly intuitive and enjoyable it is to use it.

Go ahead and give it a try, and then take a moment to reflect that sometimes progress, although a good thing, can also leave worthwhile things behind.

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