The Surprising Complexity of Old-School Calculators

Courtesy of Wired. BY JORDAN G. TEICHER

Before the electronic calculator, there was the mechanical calculator, a heavy device often about the size of a small computer that cost thousands in today’s dollars. They were indispensable tools used for the most complex business and engineering problems of the time. The machines that have survived are of little value now, and often in need of repairs.

Kevin Twomey captures their mechanical beauty in his series Low Tech. His images are as complex as the machines; Twomey takes several shots at different focus distances, then uses a program called Helicon Focus to stitch them together so every detail is perfectly clear and sharply focused. The photos reveal a crowded cacophony of rods, springs, and even motors.

It takes a specific type of person to appreciate the clunky beauty of these machines, and the community that collects them is small but passionate. Twomey discovered this when he met Mark Glusker, a collector from the listserv Calclist, who lived not far from his San Francisco studio. “Most people’s eyes glaze over” when Glusker starts discussing his passion, so he was thrilled to meet someone who didn’t find his hobby “as crazy as everybody thought.”

Glusker, a mechanical engineer who designs medical devices for Novartis, has one of the most impressive calculator collections around. It began in 1995 with a hand-cranked digital Curta he calls “a beautiful piece of precision machinery.” He inherited it from family friend Dr. A.L. Patterson, the pioneering X-ray crystallographer. He has since accumulated about 100 more. They were made in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Italy and the United States, between 1961, when the first electronic desktop calculator was introduced, and 1971, when manufacturers stopped producing mechanical calculators completely. Most were purchased online for about $30, though some were given to him by people eager to be rid of them.

Through his collection, Glusker wants to tell a story about a different era of technological production. Unlike today’s commodity computers and televisions, mechanical typewriters had highly idiosyncratic designs reflecting the unique approach of individual manufacturers. As the dates of production get closer to 1971, one notices how fabricators tried to match the speed and capability of their electronic competitors—with disastrous results.

“There were some spectacular failures in that period of time,” Glusker said. “Some machines were introduced and they’d jam up so badly in the field, they essentially had to come back to the factory to be rebuilt.”

Today’s electronic calculators are light years ahead of their mechanical counterparts, and so cheap as to be disposable. But Twomey’s photos show there’s something undeniably alluring about antiquated technology. “Everything took so much more time back then, but they lasted way longer than things do today,” Twomey said. “There are some mechanical calculators that still work decades later, whereas your iPhone has to be thrown out after three years.”

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