The Spirit of Tradition Calculator

curta-2If you’re into the kind of boats we do, you’re probably are into the kind of navigating we do: Global positioning and automatic chart plotters are great. But nothing beats working up a good old-fashioned dead reckoning. Sit down, break out the throw-back paper chart, estimate how far you’ve gone, at what speed, and in roughly what direction. And, after some basic calculations, you know where you probably are.

But dead reckonings pose a strange 21st-century challenge: Doing the calculations reliably. In boats, traditional cheap electronic calculators can’t seem to stop dying from the moister and lack of use. Smartphone calculators work, but the phones take forever to boot up, if the stupid things are charged.

And doing the math by pen and paper? We’ve all been there, in the middle of the night, trying to get a good average speed-over-bottom from a bunch of log entries. That’s a disaster waiting to happen. Oh boy.

That’s where this recent numeric nugget comes in: The oh-so-awesome Curta. This strangest and most lovely of hand-cranked portable calculators. The Curta backstory is shrouded in mystery: German prisoners are involved. Prototypes were first made in 1947. Production began in the 1950’s. Units made peaked in the 1960’s. And ever since, a passionate following of Curta Collectors have bought, sold, and renovated the 150,000 total units made. Curtas were slowly replaced by cheap electronic models over the years. But the Curta remained the defacto standard for rally cars well into the 1980’s apparently.

It’s easy to see why these little numeric gems are so loved: Simply slide the small sliders to the numerals to be calculated, set the crank controls to the desired calculations and … start cranking. The sliders move. The gears spin. And after a moment, out comes the answer.  It’s fast. It needs no batteries. It works soaking wet. And you just know the output is correct.

The algos this little pepper grinder of numbers uses are top notch: addition, subtraction, percentages and division all are excellent. Go ahead, try it. This online simulator gives you a feel for the Curta. You can waste your whole morning away.

Like all things, you get what you pay for. Usable Curtas start at about $800 and climb from there. But oh man, are Curtas awesome. If you’ re thinking of getting that special numbers nerd a present this holiday season, the Curta is it.