Alexander Rechnitzer

The man who asks a question is a fool for a minute, the man who does not ask is a fool for life.

Alexander Rechnitzer (1880-1922) in 1905
Alexander Rechnitzer (1880-1922) in 1905

Alexander Rechnitzer (1880-1922) is an Austrian Jew, a holder of numerous patents for calculating devices in Austria (4 patents), Germany (10), Switzerland (2), USA (6, see his first US patent), France (4), Great Britain (7), Canada (1), and Sweden (2). Rechnitzer appeared to be an extremely talented mechanic and versatile inventor, who built his first experimental model at the age of 19. One of his later patents is for a talking calculating machine.

Rechnitzer spent his youth in Vienna and studied at the Technical College. His first patent application, describing a stepped-drum motor-driven calculating machine, he filed on 30 November 1900. The patent was granted in 1904 (Austrian patent Nr. AT15514). Several years later this patent will be implemented in the world’s first motor-driven calculating machine, put in serial production, made by his company Autarit GmbH, of Vienna, under the name Autarith (from AUTomatic and ARITHmetic). It was the third calculator with electromagnetic operation, after the devices of Charles Pidgin and Charles Weiss, but it was much more sophisticated and was put in serial production, even though in small quantities and without market success. It was also the first machine to embody fully automatic multiplication and division. In fact, in his first patent Rechnitzer used as the driving force a spring motor, as it was then used as a power source in the watches (a weight drive as in the large clocks was also proposed), but in his later patents, Rechnitzer used an electric motor.

Autarith, Alexander Rechnitzer‘s first calculating machine
The Autarith, Alexander Rechnitzer‘s first calculating machine

Based on and similar to the Thomas de Colmar machine (stepped drums and two rows of setting sliders, one in the lower part and second on the movable cartridge beneath the result windows), this calculator also used an automatic multiplication and division mechanism patented by Rechnitzer, which will be used later successfully in machines like Mercedes of Christel Hamann, and Madas of Hans Egli.

For addition, the first number is entered in the lower slots, the machine is set to addition by means of a button, the start key for the motor (of about 1/16 horsepower) is pressed and the number is thus transferred into the result mechanism.

For subtraction, the greater number is entered into the result mechanism (numerical wheels), the machine is set to subtraction by means of a button, the start key for the motor is pressed and the remainder can be seen in the result mechanism.

For multiplication, the multiplicand is entered in the numerical wheels, the machine is set to multiplication by moving the control lever, the multiplier is entered by means of the setting sliders, and the motor is started, causing the machine to complete the calculation automatically. With each revolution of the shaft, the settings slide, at the first place from the right, moves one digit towards zero. When it arrives at zero, the carriage is automatically shifted by one place, and now the slide set in this place commences to move automatically towards the zero position, and so on, until multiplication is complete and the result is displayed on the result windows.

The division was done by setting the dividend in the numerical wheels, the divisor in the lower setting slides, then moving the control lever to the divide position, whereupon the machine would automatically complete the calculation.

The capacity of the machine is 16 figures in the product, though a more extended result is possible by resetting the indicators for the handling of the remainder, which is shown in connection with an incomplete operation. The machine only needed from 12 to 20 seconds to produce 16-digit results.

In January 1905 Rechnitzer traveled to the USA invited by Keuffel & Esser Co., New York, the leading US manufacturer of scientific instruments, which distributed calculating machines also (e.g. machine of Burkhardt), to present Autarith. Keuffel & Esser approved his machine and financed the production of a small series (some 10 devices). In 1906 the machine was included in the catalog of the company and was presented at the “New York Business Show”. It made calculations without objection and was perfectly suitable for everyday use. However, Rechnitzer and Keuffel & Esser were unable to come to an agreement despite initial success.

Rechnitzer‘s last machine
Rechnitzer‘s last machine

The nearby picture shows Rechnitzer‘s final effort to produce a salable automatic four-rules calculating machine. He started the construction of this model in 1912. The pulley on the left end provided for a belt drive. This machine can do automatic shortcut multiplication and full automatic division, and it contains a memory mechanism. The memory makes it possible to install a second multiplicand and multiplier while the machine is making the last preceding multiplication and to install a new dividend during the computation of the last preceding division.

Rechnitzer worked on his Autarith for over 20 years, completely redesigned and developed it several times, and in the process made great inventions that are still surprising today. The only surviving to present time Rechnitzer’s machine was left in his last apartment in Vienna and was given to the Technisches Museum Wien in 1933 as a gift from his sister Paula. His machine was described in several articles in magazines and newspapers, including the US magazines Business World, Volume 25, November 1905 (see the article for Autarith in Business World), and American Machinist, 16. Dec. 1905 (see the article in American Machinist: page 1, page 2).

Biography of Alexander Rechnitzer

Alexander Rechnitzer (1880-1922) in 1915
Alexander Rechnitzer in 1915

Alexander (Sándor) Rechnitzer was born on 5 May 1879 probably in Preßburg (now Bratislava), Austria-Hungary Empire, in the German-speaking Jewish family of Franz Rechnitzer (b. 1849 in Körmend, a town in Transdanubia, the part of Hungary west of the Danube river) and Karoline Rechnitzer (Stern) (b. in 1849 in Győr-died 1938 in Vienna). Rechnitz is a municipality in Burgenland in the Oberwart district in Austria, some 40 km north of Körmend, and the local Jewish community was under the jurisdiction of Rechnitz, so Rechnitzer was a popular surname among local Jews.

Franz was the son of Sándor (Alexander) Rechnitzer and Katharina (Catarin) Rechnitzer (died 1858), and Karoline was the daughter of Heinrich Stern and Fanny Stern (Strasser) (1817-1910). The family lived in Körmend (in the 19th century a significant part of the town’s population was Jewish, some 15%), but it seems at the end of the 1870s the family moved to Preßburg with his just-born daughter Katerina (1878-1943), and after the birth of Alexander, in early 1880s they moved again to Vienna, where they had two more daughters: Paula (b. 1883), and Hilda (b. 1885).

It seems Franz Rechnitzer died young (or the family parted because, in the late 1890s, we found one Franz Rechnitzer, engaged in shipping, in Körmend), while at the same time, Alexander Rechnitzer lived in Vienna only with his mother Karoline Rechnitzer (Glockengasse 1), and studied mechanical engineering at the local Technische Hochschule (Technical College of Vienna, now Technical University).

Between 1905 and 1909 Rechnitzer lived, with interruptions, in Berlin (Bergmannstraße 1). In September 1909 he returned to Vienna and founded Autarit-Gesellschaft m.b.H. with a share capital of 220000 kroner ( a lot for a company that never really produced in series and hardly bought any machine tools), as the main investor was the US company The Rex Co. Rechnitzer share was 20000, together with all his patents. A small workshop with two or three good mechanics was founded, in which new trial and patent models for the offices and for interested industrialists were created. Rechnitzer was the managing director and also a partner of Autarit GmbH (the company existed until 1931). In the years after World War I he lived in Frankfurt am Main where the company opened a branch in 1912.

Starting from 1902, Rechnitzer traveled several times to the USA (at least four voyages are registered—in 1902, 1905, 1912, and 1921), and usually stayed in New York for about a year, trying to establish the production of his Autarith in the USA. However, his last travel ended tragically.

In February 1921 Rechnitzer traveled for the last time to the USA, carrying his fourth version of a fully automatic machine, and in New York, he again proved to be a brilliant engineer, but a poor businessman and didn’t manage to organize the production of his remarkable calculator. Financial conditions preyed on his mind to the extent that he became mentally unbalanced and died in despondency in April 1922. His body was found in New York’s East River and finally found a resting place in Potter’s Field. But his life was not a failure, as his inventions have been widely commercialized by others. Looking at his patents, featuring an extremely well-illustrated and detailed description of every single part (look for example one of Rechnitzer’s patents for calculating and printing machine), it is evident that he was not only a remarkable engineer, but also a neurotic perfectionist, and that is probably the main reason for his life of a hermit and failure to realize his great potential.