Ondes Martenot, an early electronic musical instrument

I have just heard, as on so many occasions already, the Turangalîla-Symphonie by Olivier Messiaen. Many will not even have hear the name of this composer, one of the greatest masters of 20th century music, although this word (Turangalîla) will sound familiar to the followers of Futurama. Not for nothing did the writers of the animated series choose that name for the one-eyed heroine (Turanga Leela) in honour of this enigmatic symphony.

In short, the most outstanding aspect of this great symphony for those who listen to it for the first time is the perception of a “strange” sound, far from the conventional in terms of a classic symphony. I am not referring to his peculiar use of oriental-influenced timbres and rhythms. No, what most people are surprised about is the sound of the Ondes Martenot, a curious electric musical device that generates sound waves, initially similar to those of the Theremin, with a “phantasmagorical” air, as used in some movies of the 1950s.

The Ondes Martenot is an endearing musical instrument, created by Maurice Martenot in 1928, back in the “prehistory” of electronic music. Little by little it evolved to differentiate itself from the Theremin, with a wide range of registers that make this device a surprising invention, capable of achieving warm and attractive sounds, arising directly from its guts, populated by thermionic valves. I think it hasn’t been fully exploited yet, it’s not very well known, despite having been used in compositions by great masters, such as Messiaen, Boulez, Varèse, Honegger…

The best way to know a musical instrument is to listen to its sound. In the following videos, to finish this little note about the Ondes Martenot, I present you several examples with which you can check how it sounds… 😉

The strange case of the Porsche running in reverse

You look at it and at first it looks like a normal Porsche 924, a classic’ 70s and’ 80s car with nothing out of the ordinary. But, when you look at a little more, there are things that don’t add up and you start to think that there is something wrong with this vehicle….

Porsche 924 al revés
A truly unique Porsche 924 (Source).

Why are the mirrors placed like this? Are the rear wheels directional? Wait… why are the seats looking backwards?

Even the MythBusters decided to modify a Porsche 928 in this way…

Porsche fans had been listening for many years that the aerodynamics of some models, such as the 924 or 928, were “wrong”. Come on, they could run faster and more efficiently if you turn them around.

Better backwards? Image of Oskar de Kiefte.

Back in 1992, the Dutch designer Oskar de Kiefte, known for his strange conversions of all kinds of vehicles, discovered that the Porsche house itself had already seen the problem in its wind tunnel tests (the myth claimed it was, indeed, the results of the test in the tunnel with the car “upside down” had been surprising, something that the American designer Norman Bell Geddes had already studied many years ago in some vehicles of his time). The fact is that Oskar de Kiefte decided to go beyond the wind tunnel and create a work of art on this idea of the “reverse car”. Thus, starting from a crazy idea, the two inverted Porsches of the Dutchman, a Porsche 924 and a 928, were born, which were the attraction of various exhibitions on automobile design.

Source Peter Cox / Oskar de Kiefte.

Further information and sources:

Dr. Atanasoff’s computer

The history of computer science has already made John Atanasoff the inventor of the first electronic digital computer*. Electronic computers differed from their mechanical predecessors in that they operated on the basis of electricity, valves and circuits, not on toothed wheels. It used to be considered that the first computer of this type was Colossus, built by mathematicians Turing and Newman in 1943, to help the British admiralty decipher the codes of the, theoretically infallible, Enigma machine of the Germans, with which the Nazis communicated to their troops the combat strategy in World War II. But before that, between 1937 and 1942, Atanasoff built two electronic computers. Between him and his disciple, Clifford E. Berry fine-tuned those forgotten machines, calling the largest of them ABC: Atanasoff Berry Computer.

The recognition did not come from scientists or engineers, but through a court ruling that, in principle, had nothing to do with the mathematician-inventor. In 1967, a lawsuit arose between two large companies, the Sperry Rand Corporation and Honeywell. Sperry had acquired the patent on the primitive ENIAC computer, charging royalties for its circuits to other companies. By refusing Honeywell to pay, the conflict broke out, and this company was sued by Sperry. As a counter-attack Honeywell claimed that Sperry was acting monopolistically and that, to top it all, he was using an invalid patent because, in preparing his defense, Sperry found references to an certain Atanasoff as a true inventor of the product in dispute.

The judge ordered the search for the unknown Atanasoff, who declared surprised that it had nothing to do with the design of the ENIAC, which was completely true. What came later surprised the inventor even more. In the trial they showed him the plans of ENIAC, discovering with amazement that many of his circuits were too much like the ones he had designed for his ABC machine. After many years of litigation between the two companies, the winner was Atanasoff, who had not sued anyone and had no interest in the matter and turned out to be the one that had been really harmed by the big companies. Judge Earl R. Larson of Minneapolis ruled on October 19,1973 that the ENIAC patent was invalid. The verdict makes it very clear that the “inventors” of ENIAC had relied, not to say copied, on the designs of the forgotten Atanasoff. But this did not bring immediate fame to the obscure inventor, the press was at that time heavily involved with other less intellectual subjects, namely, something called Watergate.

Over the years, the admiration for the true inventor of the computer has grown in the field of computing, and he has already been recognized as such. How did Atanasoff come up with an electronic computer? At the end of the 1920s he was doing his doctorate in theoretical physics at Madison University with a thesis on the electronic structure of helium. The calculations needed for this work took many very laborious months, which led him to imagine a machine to facilitate the task. After obtaining his doctorate in 1930 and a job as a university professor, Atanasoff did not forget his idea and began to work seriously on it. Seven years later he had already designed the schematics of his machine, separating the memory from the calculation functions and determining that the computation would be digital and not analogue. But his attempts to create a truly functional calculation system for his machine went nowhere. One day, totally blocked mentally, he decided to leave his laboratory and take the car to clear himself, circulated for about 300 kilometers. In the middle of a dreadful cold, he stopped to have a few drinks in a very illuminated bar. Curiously in that place, maybe because of the alcohol, his brain lit up. He decided not to use mechanical switches, as the calculators did then, but electronic switches, never before used for computing. It also decided to use the binary numbers, operated according to logic laws, to program the machine. The two decisions were geniusly successful.

The ideas that arose in the middle of a road bar during an uncomfortable night, inside a restless mind, are still alive in our computers, which continue to function through electronic circuits and binary numbers.

Atanasoff and Berry had almost entirely built their ABC computer when World War II broke out. This set them apart from computer science, moving the inventor to work in a laboratory for the United States Navy. Atanasoff had no time in the middle of complex world events to present his computer, which would have brought him support and public funding. The ABC was completely forgotten and its trail was lost, its designer devoted to other matters, until the Rand v. Honeywell trial came up. But if the machine was lost in time, why did Atanasoff have a decisive influence on the development of modern computers?

The answer is very simple and is found in one man and one machine: Mauchly and ENIAC. This computer was the first general-purpose computer designed by engineers Eckert and Mauchly. It was a monster much bigger than the ABC and much faster, with many advantages over the “home” computer of Atanasoff. But under its imposing aspect it turned out that the circuits were based on the ideas extracted from the small ABC. In May 1941 Atanasoff wrote to Mauchly, then at MIT. Shortly afterwards they met in person and the inventor taught the engineer the intricacies of ABC, as MIT was designing a new computer for the army. Atanasoff contacted MIT in the hope of working with them to develop the new machine. Instead they forgot about him, illuminating ENIAC four years later, not even mentioning the man who provided the basic ideas for his conception. Atanasoff was led to believe that ENIAC was based on concepts prior of his ABC computer. In the middle of the war, with his ideas to create an engineering company, which he carried out after the war, and the success of ENIAC, Atanasoff did not even think of patenting his circuits. It would have been one of the most important and lucrative patents in the history of mankind.

*This is now attributed to Konrad Zuse’s Z1 completed in 1938. I wrote this article in 2005.

From golems to mechanical duck

Small notes about a history of automatons…. (Work in progress). It is often thought that the empire of machines is modern, but its predecessors come from far away in the fog of time. Kircher has already tried to develop a curious telephone, anticipated by Galileo, with which to communicate faraway places and allow musical transmission. But, at that time, other restless scientists wanted to go further, into a territory forbidden by religion. Under danger of heresy, they wanted to imitate God and designed, and even built, the first humans and artificial animals.

They were the ancestors of our robots. The ancient legends said that living beings could be created from clay or other raw materials to be used as slaves. These are stories of alchemical homunculi and golems. A golem could be created using magic from elemental forces. The stories tell adventures of golems made with lots of corpses, robot movements and superhuman strength. What animated the golems was the spirit of the elemental matter with which they were molded, their “construction” required weeks of hard work for the magician. Those imaginary stories were like horror stories. The golems were so popular that “secret manuals” were written for their construction. Those made of meat were the easiest to bring to life. Their pieces were sewn together and obtained in cemeteries, their intelligence was very scarce. The clay golems were sculpted in a single block and, in order to infuse them with soul, the presence of a priest was necessary. The most powerful and intelligent golems were those of iron or stone. History after history, the adventures of those fantastic inert beings were told, some even had names.

Imagination gives way to reality to build animated machines. The golems were nothing more than a desire, a longing that humans carry in their interior, driving the manufacture of machines capable of doing things proper to people. From ancient Greece, automatons have been created, devices that, as their name says, can move by themselves. In Egypt there were “robotic” statues that served political and religious ends, it is not difficult to imagine the terror of the people before such apparitions. These statues were almost always animated by compressed air. Many automatons used as toys were manufactured in Greece and Rome, a trend that the Arabs inherited and exported to other fields, such as automatic water dispensers. Roger Bacon is said to have built a talking head, although no reliable data about the device is preserved.

The oldest surviving automaton is the Strasbourg Rooster, built in 1352, an astronomical clock located in the cathedral of that city, capable to move its beak and wings to mark the passage of time. In Spain, automatons such as the “Hombre de Palo”, made by Juanelo Turriano in the 16th century for the king Carlos V, were also built. He had the outward appearance of a monk, was able to walk and move his arms, head, eyes and mouth. The most impressive automatons date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when the public was enthusiastic about them and the Church considered them little less than demonic artifacts. Some museums are now exhibiting the few surviving examples in perfect condition. Undoubtedly the most admired of the automatons of that time was the mechanical duck due to Jacques de Vaucanson.

The artificial animal travelled all over Europe, arousing the curiosity of the people invited to witness it. The duck was able to lengthen the neck to eat grain from the hand, then swallowed it and digested it to evacuate it later. He also drank, swam and squawked. From the same author are other jewels such as an automatic flutist, or an artificial heart that could not be finished when the artisan died during its construction. That was the beginning of another mechanized goal: industry. The looms were automated and the sewing machine was designed. Those inventions were despised and feared by many. Vaucanson himself produced many useful devices in the industry, such as a weaver’s chair, which brought the anger of silk tycoons in France, who threatened to kill the craftsman.

Curta, a mechanical wonder before the era of digital calculators

Imagine a small black cylinder, made of high quality materials, looking like a high-tech pepper mill, about 10 centimetres high by 5 centimetres in diameter. Now, dream that by moving several dials and turning a wheel with a crank, you can perform various calculations with extreme precision, the result of which will be presented to us through an analogical numerical table. That wonder fit in the palm of his hand. With it one could add, subtract, multiply, divide and, with a little more practice, perform more complex mathematical operations.

It was the Curta, a truly amazing portable mechanical calculator. Well, it was surprising for its precision and mechanism but, of course, today it may not attract too much attention. After all, we have electronic calculators everywhere, even on mobile phones. Why bother looking back at a jalopy like the Curta? For the simple reason that, behind the little contraption, there is an astonishing story and technology that, when electronic calculators did not yet exist, took us very far. Engineers, architects, scientists and economists used the Curta calculators from their appearance in 1948 until they were forgotten in the 1970s, when electronics banished their use from the usual practice, turning these jewels from mechanical calculators into objects of collecting.


Curta Calculator. Image of Larry McElhiney. CC-BY-SA-2.5.

There were two basic models of Curta mechanical calculator. The second of these models was introduced in the mid-fifties and could represent up to 15 digits in the result window (in the first model were 11 digits), something that surpasses in precision many current electronic calculators. The mechanics of use were somewhat complicated, but once you took some confidence in the machine, its use became virtually addictive. The digits were entered, one by one through sliding dials, then a set of turns was executed with the crank handle to add numbers or to select operating and result modes. A simple hoop trigger made it possible to erase the memory and start again with another operation. With practice, a person could perform complex calculations at high speed, all with mechanical interface, without any electronics.

In certain applications, this calculator even came to be used in the eighties, as happened in the field of calculations carried out in motor racing. Curta calculators were manufactured for about three decades by Contina AG Mauren, Liechtenstein, and are considered to be the most perfect hand-held mechanical calculators ever built.

Now, there is something in the Curta that makes them very special objects. Behind their intricate mechanics, on the other side of the engineering that animates them, is the story of a lonely man who managed to survive one of the most terrible places ever seen in human history. And precisely because of his calculator, he was able to overcome that. It’s the story of Curt Herzstark, father of the Curta calculator.

Curt Herzstark. Source: Museum Mura.

Herzstark’s calculator reigned unrivalled for many years, but while engineers, technicians and scientists were using them, they were unaware that they had in their hands a device stemming from the most terrible of despair. It seems incredible that a machine that stood out for its amazing precision would have emerged precisely in the mind of a tormented man who had been confined to a Nazi concentration camp: Buchenwald. Before Herzstark there were many different models of calculation machines, some very precise, whether mechanical or electromechanical, but no real portable precision calculator had been manufactured, which could be carried in hand. Curt Herzstark was born in Vienna in 1902 and died in Liechtenstein in 1988. All his life he was surrounded by machines and clockwork mechanisms. His father was the owner of an office machinery distribution company which, over time, became the owner of its own calculator manufacturing workshop. It was a business with great competence, especially in post-World War I Europe, when many manufacturers of war materials tried to survive by converting themselves into manufacturers of machinery for industries and offices. But, there was something that all calculator users were looking for and that no company, however many they proliferated at the time, was able to offer: A portable calculator was needed! Actually, carrying a heavy load of equipment in a backpack cannot be considered very practical (there were some “portable” models but they were very cumbersome and impractical). So Curt Herzstark put a lot of effort into achieving his goal: to build a simple, elegant and precise calculator that could fit in one hand. By the end of the 1930s he had already designed the basic aspects of what was to be a revolution, but another terrible war was set in the middle to ruin his plans.

The annexation of Austria by Hitler’s Germany changed all plans of Herzstark who belonged to a family of Jewish origin. From then on, the entire production of his company was to be used for precision machinery for war vehicles, the portable calculators and other “nonsense” had to be forgotten on Hitler’s orders. Bad enough, it wasn’t terrible either, at least they were allowed to continue working, but an incident with several workers in 1943, accused of spying on behalf of the allies, led to his arrest and imprisonment without trial. After passing through a terrible cell, Herzstark was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where his fate was sealed. But all of a sudden everything changed when an SS officer offered to continue living in exchange for working on the creation of precision parts for warplanes and missiles like the V2. Herzstark was put in charge of the machinery manufacturing operations in Buchenwald, which made it easier for him to “hire” other prisoners, thus saving their lives. It was all terror and fear, any day could be the last. However, fate smiled upon Herzstark. The Nazis learned of the pre-war engineering efforts to bring a portable calculator to life. They offered him a deal, namely, to be able to live in exchange for building one of those machines as a “gift of victory” for Hitler.


Chart of one of Herzstark’s patents.

Herzstark continued to work as a forced prisoner, but was allowed time to devote to the task of designing the portable calculator. Little by little he was giving shape to the plans, in detail, while the war continued its course and his companions in captivity were falling. He believed that he would never get out of that hell alive, but when spring 1945 arrived the camp was liberated by the Allies. Free, at last, he travelled with primitive prototypes to Vienna, where he found that his factory no longer existed. He patented the machine in hopes of attracting some manufacturer’s attention, but no one listened until the news about a brilliant engineer and a calculator fascinated the prince of Liechtenstein. And there in the mountains, lost in that alpine corner, he found all the support he needed. This is how Contina was born, which in 1948 marketed the first Curta model. The success was immediate and, although there were certain conflicts with investors, Buchenwald’s survivor maintained his position and lived surrounded by successes until the end of his days. Highways, industries, power lines and even satellites and spacecraft were built with the help of Curta portable calculation machines. It can be said, without exaggerating, that an important part of the technology of the mid-20th century saw the light of day thanks to the dream turned into reality in one of the darkest hells created by the Nazis. Herzstark’s mathematical and mechanical dexterity saved him from death.

More information: The CURTA Calculator Page