by Trond Ove
Sun Feb 4th, 2007 at 12:19:56 PM EST
I am horribly adept at procrastinating. The assignement for today was supposed to be to read over the literature for a class on "war and conflict" I am supposed to help out in. Instead, I watched a BBC documentary. (58 minutes)
The writer and historian, best known for his work with the surreal comedy troupe, presents The Story of 1, a one-off BBC One documentary on the history of numbers in which he merges slapstick, quirky humour and learning.
This light but entertaining view of the history of numbers, had a fascinating segment about Gottfried Leibniz, how he invented the binary system, and (totally unknown to me) mechanical counting devices built upon the binary system. I had heard about Babbages machine before, but couldn't remember hearing that Leibniz also had constructed anything. So I started surfing for information:
In the 1670s, German Baron Gottfried von Leibniz took mechanical calculation a step beyond his predecessors. Leibniz, who entered university at fifteen years of age and received his bachelor's degree at seventeen, once said: "It is unworthy of excellent men to lose hours like slaves in the labor of calculation, which could be safely relegated to anyone else if machines were used."
Leibniz extended Blaise Pascal's ideas and, in 1671, introduced the Staffelwalze / Step Reckoner (aka the Stepped Reckoner), a device that, as well as performing additions and subtractions, could multiply, divide, and evaluate square roots by a series of stepped additions. Pascal's and Leibniz's devices were the forebears of today's desktop computers, and derivations of these machines, including the Curta calculator, continued to be produced until their electronic equivalents finally became readily available and affordable in the early 1970s.
In a letter of March 26, 1673 to Johann Friedrich Leibniz described its purpose as making calculations "leicht, geschwind, gewiß" (sic), i.e. easy, fast, and reliable. Leibniz also added that theoretically the numbers calculated might be as large as desired, if the size of the machine was adjusted; quote: "eine zahl von einer ganzen Reihe Ziphern, sie sey so lang sie wolle (nach proportion der größe der Machine)".
(Shamelessly stolen from the Wikipedia.
As I was under the misapprehension that slide rules ruled the world until the invention of the electronic calculator, I moved my focus from the Leibniz Staffelwalze to the Curta calculator, supposedly a modern version of this antique computing design.
The Curta was a small, hand-cranked mechanical calculator introduced in 1948. It had a brilliantly compact design, a small cylinder that fit in the palm of the hand. It could be used to perform addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and, with more difficulty square roots, and other operations. The Curta's design is a variant of Gottfried Leibniz's Arithmometer, accumulating values on cogs, which are added or complemented by a stepped drum mechanism.
The Curta was invented by Curt Herzstark while he was a prisoner in the Buchenwald concentration camp, following the end of WWII he completed and perfected the design. They were made in Liechtenstein by Contina AG Mauren. They were widely considered the best portable calculators available, until they were displaced by electronic calculators in the 1970s.
Curta calculators can be found on eBay for around 400, 500$ in abudant numbers, it seems. The pictures of these devices just tickles my brain... Almost as much as the story of their inventor:
Curt Herzstark was born in July 26, 1902 in Vienna, and died October 27, 1988 in Nendeln, Liechtenstein. During World War II, Curt Herzstark's plans for a mechanical pocket calculator (the Curta) literally saved his life.
In 1938, while he was technical manager of his father's company Rechenmaschinenwerk AUSTRIA Herzstark & Co., Herzstark had already completed the design, but could not manufacture it due to the Nazi German annexation of Austria. Instead, the company was ordered to make measuring devices for the German army. In 1943, perhaps influenced by the fact that his father was a liberal Jew, the Nazis arrested him for "helping Jews and subversive elements" and "indecent contacts with Aryan women" and sent him to the Buchenwald concentration camp. However, the reports of the army about the precision-production of the firm AUSTRIA and especially about the technical expertise of Herzstark lead the Nazis to treat him as an "intelligence-slave".
His stay at Buchenwald seriously threatened his health, but his condition improved when he was called to work in the factory linked to the camp, which was named after Wilhelm Gustloff. There he was ordered to make a drawing of the construction of his calculator, so that the Nazis could ultimately give the machine to the Führer as a gift after the successful end of the war. The preferential treatment this allowed him ensured that he survived his stay at Buchenwald until the camp's liberation in 1945, by which time he had redrawn the complete construction from memory.
I wondered if this Wilhelm Gustloff was some kind of Schindler character, saving jews from almost-certain death. It turns out he wasn't:
Wilhelm Gustloff (January 30, 1895 - February 4, 1936) was the German leader of the Swiss NSDAP (Nazi) party; he founded the Swiss branch of the party at Davos in 1932.
Gustloff was responsible for the distribution of the anti-Semitic "Protocols of the Elders of Zion". Gustloff was shot in 1936 by David Frankfurter, a Jewish student. He was born in Schwerin in Mecklenburg and had a state funeral in Schwerin in the presence of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. Hitlerjugend members lined the route.
The German cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff was named after Gustloff by the Nazi regime. The ship was sunk in 1945 with the loss of thousands of lives.
The Wilhelm Gustloff Foundation or Wilhelm-Gustloff-Stiftung was named after this party leader.
During World War II the small arms factory Wilhelm Gustloff Werke was named in his honour. His assassination is an element of the novel Crabwalk (in German: Im Krebsgang) by the German writer Günter Grass with the plot based the fate of KdF Ship Wilhelm Gustloff.
Crabwalk (from the German novel Im Krebsgang) (2002), by Danzig-born German author Günter Grass (who had earlier received the 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature). It is based on the story of the World War II maritime disaster, the sinking of the overloaded Nazi cruise ship turned refugee carrier, the KdF Ship Wilhelm Gustloff, and its effect on three generations of a German family.
Approximately 9000 people perished in the attack on the Wilhelm Gustloff, making it the worst maritime disaster of all time. The vessel was torpedoed by a Russian submarine in the Baltic Sea at the end of January 1945. The narrator commences with the story of Wilhelm Gustloff, the German leader of the Swiss NSDAP (Nazi) party after whom the ship would later be named, and his assassin, David Frankfurter, a Jewish medical student. Simultaneously the Russian submarine commander, Alexander Marinesko, gives the order to attack the ship.
Has anyone read the book?
My main point thought, was how this experience reminds me alot of two other documentaries, the Connections series and a fascinating program with the late Douglas Adams (of Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy fame) called Hyperland.
Hyperland is a 50 minute long documentary film about hypertext and surrounding technologies written by Douglas Adams and produced by BBC Two in 1990. It stars Douglas Adams as a computer user and Tom Baker, with whom Adams already had worked on Doctor Who, as a software agent.
Connections (TV series)
Connections was a ten-episode documentary television series created and narrated by science historian James Burke. The series was produced and directed by Mick Jackson of the BBC Science & Features Department and first aired in 1978. It took an interdisciplinary approach to the history of science and invention and demonstrates how various discoveries, scientific achievements, and historical world events built off one another in an interconnected way to bring about particular aspects of modern technology.
What I was aiming at here was to celebrate Wikipedia for being a shining example of the continued life of many of the idealistic ideas behind the creation of the World Wide Web and related technologies. One problem thought, is that the ease of all this information at our fingertips, turns us all into the sort of gatherers of "shiny nuggets" of information that we fancy. There is not always much debth or substance to the information gathered in this way, as the Connections series are unfortunately an all-too clear example of. It is, however, endlessly fascinating.
But now I should return to reading diplomatic history of pre-WW1 Europe...