"Under the microscope" series: Calculus’s workshop

Nathalie Vidal invites you to examine the scientific, technical and natural content in "The Adventures of Tintin" books.
It was in 1943 – 80 years ago this year – that Professor Calculus first appeared in The Adventures of Tintin. It was a remarkable and landmark debut, because from then on he remained in the series and even occupied a prominent place alongside Tintin, Snowy and Captain Haddock.
Readers of the Belgian daily newspaper Le Soir were the first to discover this puny and singular character, dressed all in green, in the story being published at that time, namely: Red Rackham’s Treasure
© Hergé / Tintinimaginatio - 2024

A place to live and work

Whilst Tintin and Captain Haddock were preparing their future maritime expedition in search of Red Rackham’s Treasure, a certain Professor Calculus spontaneously introduced himself to them and even managed, against all odds, to take them to his home to present them with an invention of which he alone had the secret – well, almost, because it was inspired by Professor Auguste Picard’s ingenious bathyscaphe: "a manned submersible vessel for exploring the bottom of the sea".
The man is therefore an inventor. A jack-of-all-trades. This is confirmed by his "lair" as soon as he opens the door. Although astonishing, there is nothing surprising about this living space. It is simply a reflection of its occupant. It is indeed the result of a clever mix between a residential flat and a mechanical workshop, with a touch of a scientific laboratory.
This particular interior immediately reveals a little-known aspect of his personality: he’s a bit of an amateur handyman, in the 'Gyro Gearloose' style, because his improbable inventions work well, more or less. Except for the one – and that's a good thing – that Tintin and his friends have come to see.
© Hergé / Tintinimaginatio - 2024

A brief tour of the laboratory

Particularly well-equipped, the apartment-workshop is full of tools – the latest and brand new – for shaping, making, creating. In a word: to invent. By the way, Calculus's lair is a mine and it is even the handyman’s Ali Baba's cave. Who would have thought it?
© Hergé / Tintinimaginatio - 2024
Naturally, one of the first tools the reader comes across is a vice, since it occupies the foreground (on the right) of the vignette. This mechanical system makes it possible to position and hold any object firmly in place. Calculus seems to be using it to cut out a piece of metal, the shape of which is already well advanced but which surely still needs some finishing touches. The size, dimension, thickness of the jaws as well as the robustness of the T-handle indicate – without any doubt – that this is a professional model.
Logically positioned nearby and therefore within easy reach: are some flat files. These hand tools – which are sure to be found in the toolboxes of experienced DIY enthusiasts – are used to remove fine amounts of material from a workpiece, to plane the surface of an object or to deburr its corners, for example. Its action is mechanical and works by progressively tearing away the material until a flat surface is obtained. Their flat, rectangular and elongated shapes allow them to work on large, straight surfaces.
© Hergé / Tintinimaginatio - 2024
In addition to manufacturing tools, Calculus also has materials to maintain them, such as the blue hexagonal sharpening stone on the right-hand workbench. This stone can be used to sharpen metal or wood cutting tools. A Japanese proverb says that it takes three years to learn how to dig a hole, five years to saw properly, but a lifetime to master the whetstone... proof that Calculus is far from being a novice. Next to it, is a small oil can, which he probably used to lubricate the mechanical workings of his equipment and his inventions.
© Hergé / Tintinimaginatio - 2024
As for a coping saw – or a cutting saw – it sits proudly and prominently on the wall. Depending on the type of blade, it is used to cut either metal or wood. Butterfly screws at the ends of the U-shape – very practical for sawing in all directions and making rounded shapes directly in the material – make it very easy to change the blade according to the material to be worked.
© Hergé / Tintinimaginatio - 2024
Also attached to the wall and hanging above the second work surface is a meticulously organised set of tools. From left to right: a double open-end spanner, a hammer, a half-round file, a fine rat-tail file, pliers, a cutter and another hammer identical to the first. Finally, from the box underneath, there is also a precision hammer, the size of which – much smaller – is reminiscent of a jeweller's hammer.
In the Professor's kit, there is even the indispensable soldering set, recognisable by its stove, because in 1943, iron was not yet electric. The latter was connected to the town's gas supply via a wall tap. This installation gave rise – at the end of the 19th century – to the expression "gaz à tous les étages" (in France) or "gaz aux étages" (in Belgium). (gas on all floors”). Generally in the form of a plaque, this term was affixed to one of the external facades of the buildings equipped with gas, in order to indicate ostensibly that these – very modern – buildings had direct access to this source of energy in all the dwellings or premises they housed. Finally, to prevent it from burning and damaging the surface of the workbench, the iron – which appears to have a bevelled or flared tip – rests safely on the support provided for this purpose.
© Hergé / Tintinimaginatio - 2024
To conclude this quick overview, the attentive reader will also note the presence of a large oil cruet and a double spanner. Both of these are lying on the floor, ready to be used, next to one of the Professor's inventions: a gasifier, a device for putting bubbles into soda water. This new unique model – will also deserve a closer look in a future article...
© Hergé / Tintinimaginatio - 2024
In Red Rackham’s Treasure, Calculus is both an engineer and a technician. He designs his inventions from A to Z, from the plan to the object. He has the techniques for cutting metal, machining, assembling and all the tools needed to produce, manufacture and perfect his inventions. He is not afraid to roll up his sleeves and get his hands dirty, which contrasts with his impeccable and elegant attire, he’s always smartly dressed.
Calculus lives and breathes it, so much so that his living quarters are reduced to a collapsible wall-bed – another invention of his to keep as much space as possible for his work and projects in progress. Finally, it should be noted that his studio flat is particularly clean and, above all, meticulously tidy. Each tool is in its place and ready to be used, which completely counterbalances the distracted – not to say lunar – character. Calculus hides his game well because he is indeed a rigorous and efficient handyman who will later become a scientist... but not so crazy after all that.
About the author:
Nathalie Vidal has a Doctorate in Earth Science, a Master's degree in the History of Science and Technology and is an Associate Member of the Philosophies and Rationalities laboratory at Clermont Auvergne University. She has a great passion for instruments, and particularly the prototypes, evidence of public and private research.
Nathalie Vidal
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