Who was Jakow Trachtenberg? His story would probably make for a good movie. He was a Russian, born in Odessa on June 17, 1888.

Early Years in Russia


He graduated with high honors from the Mining Engineering Institute of St. Petersburg before joining the Obuschoff shipyards as a student-engineer. He became Chief Engineer while still in his early twenties. During World War I he organised the Society of Good Samaritans which trained Russian students to care for the wounded. After the murder of the Russian Royal Family in 1918, he spoke out against the Communists taking over the country. In 1919 he learnt he was about to be killed so he fled into Germany.

Germany


In Berlin he became the editor of a magazine and urged Germany towards a future if peace. He married Countess Alice an aristocrat and wrote the first reference book on Russian industry. He was seen as Europe’s foremost expert on Russian affairs. He spoke out against fascism and soon Hitler ordered him to be silenced. In 1934 he once again had to flee for his life to Vienna where he became editor of an international scientific periodical.

A Prisoner of War


Jakow was taken prisoner when the German’s invaded Austria but managed to escape briefly to Yugoslavia. Caught by the Gestapo they shipped him in a cattle car to a concentration camp. It was here that, to escape the pestilence and death around him, he took refuge in his mind and invented a simple method that could add thousands of numbers together, without actually ever adding higher than eleven. During the seven years he was in the concentration camp he continued to work on his simplified system of mathematics. Then in 1944 he learned he was going to be executed but he continued to work on his system to get it finished. He entrusted his work to a fellow prisoner. Jakow’s wife, who had stayed near the concentration camp, learning of her husbands death sentence. She managed through bribery to get her husband transferred quietly to another camp before the sentence was carried out.

Escape


He went to Leipzig which had been heavily bombed. He took a chance and escaped one night but was later again taken into custody and sent to a labor camp in Trieste. In early 1945 he managed to escape from the camp and made his way, with his wife, across the border to Switzerland. As he convalesced in a Swiss camp for refugees he perfected his mathematical system.

After World War II


He first taught his system to children. In 1950, Jakow founded the Mathematical Institute in Zurich which during the day taught children and in the evenings held classes for adults who were also keen to learn this new system. Jakob Trachtenberg died in 1953.

Reference

  • The Trachtenberg Speed System of Basic Mathematics. Jakow Trachtenberg, adapted by Ann Cutler and Rudolph McShane