Wim Klein: the last human calculator

Wim Klein at work. Photo courtesy of CERN
The multi-national science research project that is CERN is best know in non-specialist circles for helping to give us the world wide web and intermittently being talked up as bringing about the end of the world.

However, it has another – more obscure – claim to technological fame as it was the employer of Willem (known as Wim) Klein, a Dutch mental arithmetic genius who was also in his role at CERN probably the very last person to have been employed as a human calculator.

Before the rise of pocket calculators, mental arithmetic geniuses were often employed to do the sums that other people in an organisation required doing. It was a simple division of labour: those best at doing the sums freed up other people to spend more of their time on what they were best at. People such as Wim often did not do “pure” mental arithmetic in that they looked at the calculation (rather than having to memorise it) and often made notes on the way. But that made their speed of calculation all the faster and hence all the more useful.

Klein also used his skills to win a place in the record books (calculating in record speed the 73rd root of a 500 digit number) and to earn a living as an entertainer, using the stage names of Willy Wortel and Pascal. Klein’s skill meant that even as computers and pocket calculators spread, he often could do better than them – in part because he was able to use short cuts to race to a solution whilst electronic devices stepped methodically through calculations step by step.

Watch Wim Klein at work

He retired from CERN in 1976 and its website preserves a final show he gave to there to amaze and entertain. It is not in English, which also applies to this short YouTube clip, though it give a good idea of what he did in his job at CERN:

Klein was murdered in 1986.