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This is why I love Wikipedia

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.

Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/4272538.stm

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:

Stepped Reckoner

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.

Curta Calculator

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 inventor

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

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

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.[1]

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...

Has anyone read the book?

I did. Though the fictional present-time story is a bit forced, a good book.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Sun Feb 4th, 2007 at 01:31:46 PM EST
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.

You say that as if it were a bad thing.  I live for my shiny nuggets.  They are the driving force of my life.  I treasure my little hoard of shiny nuggets.  They are what give my life meaning.

I am reminded of the elementary school I attended as a child.  It was a small, rural school.  Class sizes were very small by today's standards.  Four teachers managed eight grades.  First and second grade in one classroom, third and fourth in another, and so on.  In each classroom one teacher alternated their time and attention to one class and then the other.  That meant the students had a certain amount of free time in class each day.  We could spend it reading, doing our homework, whatever, as long as we didn't disrupt the class or call untoward attention to ourselves.

In each of the upper classrooms the centerpiece of the room was a freestanding bookcase holding a World Book Encyclopedia.  Those World Books drew me like a magnet.  I spent many, many hours of class time just browsing one volume after another.  I was fascinated, then as now, by anything mechanical or scientific.  If the illustrations captured my interest I would read some or all of the articles.  As an added bonus, references in one article sometimes led me to other interesting articles.  I reckon I learned as much from those World Books on my own initiative as I did from the formal classwork.  They were a a great treasure of my childhood.  

Years later, when those World Books were retired from their place of honor in the classrooms, the principal of the school gave me one entire set as a gift.  He had been our seventh and eighth grade teacher when I passed through those grades and he remembered how much pleasure they had given me.  I still have the set to this day.  And I still treasure the many hours of fascination and the many shiny nuggets of information they afforded a lonely and introverted child those many years ago.

They set me on a path toward eclectic generalism that has stood me in good stead my whole life.  Over the years I have held a number of jobs in different fields by learning as I go.  Like those World Books, each new job has served as a learning experience that has left me better able to cope with the next that came along.  And my little hoard of shiny nuggets continues to grow to this day.

Oh, and these days I find myself browsing Wikipedia very much like I did those World Books.  One interesting article often leads to another and another and...  Looking up a simple fact often times turns into a great learning adventure taking up half an afternoon if I'm not careful.  

We all bleed the same color.

by budr on Sun Feb 4th, 2007 at 02:38:02 PM EST
Actually I do not know if it is a bad thing or not. It seems different thought.

I guess I was a bit inspired by this Boingboing post I read a bit back, about the changing patterns of reading, as witnessed by a high school librarian:

I also wonder what will happen to the products of our culture, if nothing is whole, everything is connected, derivative, and a reference to something else. It seems to me that by consuming and creating fragments, we are not putting ourselves into our products any more, only our interaction with other fragments.

Not sure if this makes any sense. And I am not really certain how I feel about it. Generally I see the increased interconnectedness of our world as a great thing, I just felt like exploring the negative aspects a bit.

by Trond Ove on Sun Feb 4th, 2007 at 07:12:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Your concern is very valid I think, as is the librarian's in the Boingboing post.  I was being a little bit facetious in going on about my shiny nuggets.

But not entirely.  I think the concerns expressed by the librarian, and perhaps yours as well, have more to do with the quality and accessibility of general education than with the ready availability of online information.  If all our young people have is an endless stream of trivia online, on TV, and in their classrooms,  it is no wonder that they don't read and don't have any sort of framework to put their shiny nuggets into perspective.

I think the wide spread availability of information online is on balance a good thing.  I think having the educational background to put that information to good use is a much larger and more important issue.

We all bleed the same color.

by budr on Sun Feb 4th, 2007 at 07:47:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
To add to that, there is so much information and so many topics available that although you can chose a few areas to specialise in, there would never be a hope of coming across a fraction of it all, if we didn't have those shiny nuggets in places like wikipedia.

Acknowledging the limitations of wiki, it at the very least introduces you to new things. And should you be inspired enough you have the choice of following it up in depth.

But absolutely, the constant stream of trivia coming at us all makes it far too easy to allow short attention spans and a preference for easy chunks of information to rule how we learn.  The skills to concentrate and critically analyse what we are reading are extremely important and the key issue is around whether or not this is being taught/encouraged properly.

by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Mon Feb 5th, 2007 at 07:34:44 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I also spent my childhood with Encyclopedia. I was asking my mother to bring me volumes of it from her work and she had to carry as many as 3 heavy books in her handbag instead of bread or sausages.

Since I got my first salary I began buying books but given my nomadic lifestyle it was difficult to arrange big library - I had to leave many books in my relatives houses.

That's why I am fascinated by Wikipedia with easy access from my laptop. Now anybody can look up Wiki and other reference works and find everything from medical science and latest political and economical developments to history of obscure Indian castes or South American tribes.

Diffusion of specialist knowledge or how it was called by Alvin Toffler shift from muscle power to knowledge power return us to the age of enlightened gentlemen who developed science as a hobby. It's not yet clear what kind of effects on XXI century society will be. I only hope that old fashioned concepts like 'nation state' will be weakened.


by FarEasterner on Mon Feb 5th, 2007 at 03:57:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As I was under the misapprehension that slide rules ruled the world until the invention of the electronic calculator

Not as portable as the Curta, but very popular, was the Facit calculator:

Facit mets its downfall with the modern calculators:

In 1970, the company had reached the peak of its growth, with more than 14,000 employees worldwide. In 1971, modern Japanese-made calculators was introduced to the market, instantly making the mechanical calculators manufactured by Facit obsolete. As a result, Facit basically went out of business over-night. The general view on this failure is that Facit met its demise as a result of refusing to acknowledge the superiority of modern calculators, as well as an unwillingness to adapt and change accordingly, to meet the new demands from the market.

Also wikipedia (the picture too)

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Mon Feb 5th, 2007 at 12:25:58 PM EST
Cool! Very steampunkish... And it seems to me like the famous buggy whip makers had it easy compared to the mechanical calculator producers.
by Trond Ove on Mon Feb 5th, 2007 at 03:34:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... this is my Facit typewriter.  I'm very proud of it.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Mon Feb 5th, 2007 at 03:47:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It even has swedish characters :) I had a manual typewriter too, when I was a kid. Very fun to play with, but writing anything serious on it made me want to beat myself to death with a herring. Those damn levers would always stick together.
by Trond Ove on Mon Feb 5th, 2007 at 06:18:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
When I was a kid we used to play a game with an old typewriter. The rules were simple, you could strike as many keys as you wanted and the one who got most levers stuck at the same time won...

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Tue Feb 6th, 2007 at 04:01:26 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I actually did that too! I seem to remember that it was possible to get almost all the keys to stick, if one used both hands and some force.
by Trond Ove on Tue Feb 6th, 2007 at 05:43:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh, you guys are breaking my heart... poor typewriters....
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Tue Feb 6th, 2007 at 05:45:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
didn't you know that with  their competition in the environment they have become an endangered species? The poor baby typewriters are just not equipped to compete for food against the foreign creatures that have invaded the office ecosystem.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.
by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Wed Feb 7th, 2007 at 03:24:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Honestly.  I mean, it's like clubbing baby seals.
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Wed Feb 7th, 2007 at 03:38:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I used to play exactly the same way with my parent's old Underwood typewriter:

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

by Melanchthon on Tue Feb 6th, 2007 at 06:54:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
THAT is a beauty!  <swoon>

Honestly, if you guys are just going to abuse your typewriters, please let me give them a good home.  They've suffered enough.  Go beat up some Windows machine, which might actually deserve it.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Wed Feb 7th, 2007 at 03:36:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I have forwarded this abuse to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Mechanical Devices.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Thu Feb 8th, 2007 at 11:23:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
My life has changed with wikipedia. Every day - or at least when I have a few minutes to spare - I wander off into the thickets of connections that you find.

This morning, while contemplating the eerie stillness that descends when it is -20 C outside, I was checking a script which included the name of a Finnish glam-rock artist called Andy McCoy. As usual it was off to wiki wondering where the phrase 'the Real McCoy' originated.


The history is contested but it seems very likely that it connects to a black engineer in the mid-19th C who, despite racial discrimination, perfected an automatic lubricator for locomotives. Such was its reliability - according to the legend - that railway engineers would mount the cab of such a locomotive with peace of mind. Only the 'genuine article' would suffice.

And that lead to an interesting story about Percy Julian - a black chemist, who, again despite racial discrimination, contributed greatly to chemical discoveries, before his death in the 70s.

The problem with meandering in the thickets is, of course, when to stop. Fortunately, a phone call called me back this morning. And then the realization that I still hadn't put on the thicker socks required while working in a lowered heat environment further lowered by what was happening outside.

I always have the guilty feeling that if I turn up the heating on such a day, I might be the straw that breaks the grid. So I have two shirts on and am wearing headphones ;-)

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Tue Feb 6th, 2007 at 04:50:39 AM EST
What is fascinating to me is to see how it is growing. On the field I studied in my masters, I have seen articles grow in both size and accuracy over the last couple of years. It went from being relatively useless to being an ok introductory tool, and lately I have actually started finding links to little-known primary sources and other goodies. It truly is one of the wonders of our age.
by Trond Ove on Tue Feb 6th, 2007 at 05:41:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Here it is :

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

by Melanchthon on Tue Feb 6th, 2007 at 06:48:17 PM EST
I want one.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Thu Feb 8th, 2007 at 11:30:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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