Gustav Tauschek

He was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody.
Joseph Heller

Gustav Tauschek (1899-1945)
Gustav Tauschek, Vienna, 1932

Gustav Tauschek (1899-1945) was a genius self-taught Viennese engineer, with more than 100 patents in Austria, Germany, the USA, and France, mainly in the computing field (from 1922 to 1945) to his credit, who used to work for IBM and who besides the first OCR device, invented also many devices and systems for the punch-card machinery, as well as the magnetic drum-memory.

The Reading Machine (first OCR device) of Gustav Tauschek
Many people dreamed of a machine that could read characters and numerals, but it seems the first OCR (Optical Character Recognition) device was developed in the late 1920s by the Austrian engineer Gustav Tauschek, who on 30 May 1928 applied for a patent in Austria (Nr. 116799) for so-called Reading Machine, then in 1929 obtained a patent in Germany and applied for a US patent, followed by Paul Handel who obtained a US patent on OCR (so-called Statistical Machine) in the USA in 1933 (U.S. Patent Nr. 1915993). In 1935 Tauschek also received a US patent on his machine (U.S. Patent Nr. 2026329).

The patent drawing of Reading Machine of Tauschek
The patent drawing of Reading Machine of Gustav Tauschek

The Reading Machine of Tauschek was a mechanical device, using a template matching with a photodetector (photoelectric cell, marked with 5 on the patent drawing). A picture containing a text passed in front of the reading machine’s window (marked with 1). The comparison device was a disk (or a wheel, marked with 6) (which had holes in the form of letters) rotating from the interior side of the objective lens (3). When images and letter-shaped holes coincided in form, the clockwork rotated the printing drum to the required letter, and this letter is printed on paper.

The Magnetic Drum of Gustav Tauschek
First magnetic drum memory, a magnetic data storage device and an early form of computer memory, which plays an important role in the computer memory development and was widely used in the 1950s and into the 1960s, was invented by Gustav Tauschek in the late 1920s. In October 1929 Tauschek applied for US patent, and received it in 1932 (see US patent 1880523 and the lower patent drawing).

During the years 1926–1930 Tauschek worked for Rheinmetall in Sömmerda, Germany, where he developed a complete punched card-based accounting system (which however was never mass-produced), as well as the above-mentioned OCR device and magnetic drum.

Tauschek patent drawing from 1929 of magnetic drum memory device
Tauschek patent drawing of magnetic drum memory device (1929)

In its most basic form, magnetic drum memory is simply a metal drum or cylinder, coated with a ferromagnetic recording material. Stationary write heads emit an electrical pulse, changing the magnetic orientation of a particle at a given position on the drum. The read heads, which are also stationary, recognize a particle’s orientation as either a binary 1 or 0. Tauschek’s prototype could store 500000 bits across the drum’s total surface for a capacity of about 62.5 KB.

A magnetic digital storage drum memory from 1950s
A magnetic digital storage drum memory from 1950s

The principal difference between a drum as described and a modern disk is that on a drum the heads do not have to move to the track to access, as the controller simply waits for the data to appear under the relevant head as the drum turns. In a disk drive, the head takes a certain time, called seek time, to move into place, while the performance of a drum with fixed heads is determined almost entirely by the rotational speed.

As late as 1980, the PDP-11/45 machines that used drums for swapping were still in use at many of the original UNIX sites. In modern-day BSD Unix and its descendants, /dev/drum is the name of the default swap device, deriving from the use of drum secondary-storage devices as a backing store for pages in virtual memory.

The principles at work in magnetic drum memory helped to lead researchers to create another and even more important innovation: the hard disk drive.

Biography of Gustav Tauschek

Gustav Tauschek (1899-1945)
Gustav Tauschek (1899-1945)

Gustav Tauschek, a self-taught genius engineer and prolific inventor, was born on 29 April 1899, in Fünfhaus, a western district of Vienna, Austria, where his father Adam Tauschek, owned a small draper’s shop. Gustav had two sisters—Anna and Helene.

Gustav was a clever child and in 1913 entered a secondary school (Realschule) in Vienna, but was called up for military service only at the age of 16 in 1915, nevertheless, he was able to complete his school education with the “War Matura” in 1917. After serving at the southern front (Serbia, then in Tyrol), he was taken prisoner of war in Italy in late 1917, and returned to his hometown in August 1919. While in Italy he had the opportunity to attend technical lectures by university professors who were also captured. Returning in Vienna, Tauschek had to give up his plan to start studying technology at Technische Universität Wien for financial reasons, so he continued his self-education.

Luckily, in 1921 Tauschek found a job as a messenger at the Austrian National Bank (Oesterreichische Nationalbank) in Vienna. Here he saw punch card machines and a printing machine for guilloches, the fine patterns on banknotes and securities, which served as an ornament and should make counterfeiting more difficult. Soon Tauschek came up with a whole series of improvements—using parts of a stable construction kit, he built a new guilloche machine. He applied for a patent for it in September 1922 and received it in July 1923 (Austrian patent Nr. 95332). The National Bank acquired the patent and he got some money. It was the first of his many inventions.

At the same time, Tauschek also worked on other patents—improvements to punched card machines, which the bank leased from the International Business Machine Corporation (IBM). Before leaving the Austrian National Bank in 1929, Tauschek received more than 30 patents in the field of punched card technology and its application in the area of ​​office and calculating machines.

In 1925 Rheinmetall company became aware of Tauschek’s patents and hired him to create a series of calculating machines. So, during the years 1925–1930 Tauschek worked also for the Rheinische Metallwaren- und Maschinenfabrik (Rheinmetall) in Sömmerda, Germany, for which he developed a complete punched card-based accounting system. The world economic crisis had broken out, so the system was never mass-produced, but the prototype of that system is currently stored in the archives of the Vienna Technical Museum.

In the spring of 1928, Rheinmetall created a subsidiary company that was assigned to develop new punched card-based machines. In the fall of the same year, the subsidiary was bought by Dehomag, IBM’s German subsidiary, thereby assuring its monopoly on the market. All of Tauschek’s patents went to IBM, as Tauschek himself received the amount of 250000 dollars (the equivalent of almost 4 million today) and a five-year contract for further collaboration. Tauschek sold 169 patents to IBM in his lifetime.

In the mid-1930s Tauschek worked for IBM in New York for five years, but kept silent about his specific work there. His last patent for IBM is a tabulating machine (1940). Initially, Tauschek traveled back and forth between Vienna and New York, but took up residence in Switzerland in 1934.

Tauschek also invented numerous other devices, including an electric typewriter (1927), a motor mower (1927), a payout machine (1928), a machine with visual sensory effect (1930), a machine for handwriting simulation (1935), a snowmobile (1942/43), etc.

Gustav Tauschek married in 1932 Maria Dobris, and they had a son—Gustav.

Tauschek’s initial contract with IBM ran until the end of 1935, and he then set up a private workshop in Weidling, near Vienna, but eventually signed a new contract with IBM. He is said to have lived in Slovakia, where his wife had relatives, during the Second World War. His last patent applications from October 1943 indicate his place of residence in Zürich, Switzerland, where the remarkable engineer and technical wizard Gustav Tauschek died of a pulmonary embolism on 14 February 1945.