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The little pocket calculator that could

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

It looks like a chunky pepper grinder, but the world’s first pocket calculator—mechanical, not electronic— came into this world only through utter persistence.

Its inventor, Curt Herzstark, grew up in Austria amid his family’s calculator business, which was booming by the 1930s. Traveling around, Herzstark met foremen, architects and customs officers who’d tell him that they didn’t want a big machine back at the office. They needed a handy calculator that fit in their pockets.

Herzstark started designing one. He planned it so that people could hold it in one hand and enter numbers with the other. Then, in 1937, the Nazis locked him up.

Next to the concentration camp stood a machine shop run on slave labor. There, Herzstark’s project came to the attention of the manager, who told Herzstark that he could complete it for Hitler “as a present after we win the war.”

With little choice, Herzstark worked on his invention nights and Sunday mornings. If he’d been a lawyer or laborer, he would have been killed. The drawings were almost finished in 1945 when American soldiers arrived and, plans folded in his pocket, Herzstark walked to a factory in Weimar, where machinists built three prototypes.

Then, the Russians arrived. Herzstark grabbed the prototypes and lit out for Vienna, where he filed for patents and looked for an investor. Only Liechtenstein was interested, so the tiny country between Austria and Switzerland created a company, floated loans and issued stock, promising Herzstark 35 percent of the stock along with a job as technical director. The first Curta calculators rolled out in 1948.

Strange as it seems, another blow struck: Reorganizing the firm, the financiers annulled Herzstark’s stock. He owned the patents, however, and forced them to come to terms, wresting away more than a half million in today’s dollars, plus royalties.

Lesson: If you didn’t believe it before, believe it now: Even in the face of horrendous odds, persistence pays.

— Adapted from “Crunching Numbers,” Cliff Stoll, Reader’s Digest.

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