When I was in school, the calculator was a necessary gadget. So necessary, in fact, that we were allowed to use them during math tests. Some of us depended on it more than others, but at the end of the day, we all have used it to either help fast track the 20 or so math problems our teachers gave out every class. Don’t like seeing your answers as improper fractions such as 35/6 or irrational numbers, like the square root of 11? Just divide or simplify and you’ll get an answer-make sure to round off to two digits, though.
The calculator is probably one of the most essential gadgets you’ll ever have in your arsenal. Nowadays, the calculator has been integrated into the smartphone, tablet, and laptop-but there are still some calculators that serve just that purpose only, specifically graphing calculators. I owned a Tl-89 Titanium, which pretty much carried me through calculusand even provided some side entertainment as I constructed patterns by graphing out multiple equations.
The calculator is by no means a recent invention; the abacus, which is widely known as the first calculator, was invented in 2000 BC. However, the mechanical calculator came into use around the 17th century. It was the brainchild of French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and philosopher Blaise Pascal. Pascal is regarded as one of the most brilliant minds in history-he is widely known for his study on fluids and clarified the concepts of pressure and vacuum, and also helped develop one of the fundamentals that we learn ever so often in science classes, the scientific method. He is also known as the originator of the philosophical debate of Pascal’s Wager, and lends his name to the unit of pressure, the pascal. Pascal started working on inventing the mechanical calculator in 1642, while he was still a teenager. He went through fifty prototypes before he was able to find one that worked, and built an additional twenty Pascal’s calculators, or pascalines. In fact, the very reason he invented the mechanical calculator was to assist his father, who was a tax collector, in expediting the process of calculating and recalculating taxes owed and paid, which his father did by hand. However, the pascaline was very expensive and therefore only the rich could buy one, and it was seen as a status symbol for the European elite.
Charles Xavier Thomas de Colmar, a French inventor, invented the arithmometer in 1820, the first commercially successful mechanical calculator. However, before he could put it to market, another mechanical calculator, the difference engine, was being worked on by English inventor Charles Babbage. On paper, the device was far superior to the arithmometer, as it was intended to do something no mechanical calculator could ever do: tabulate polynomial functions. However, a project of Babbage’s magnitude was extremely expensive and technologically impossible at the time, and the government killed the project off in 1842. De Colmar’s simple yet effective arithmometer won out.
After a few changes to the initial design, de Colmar debuted the arithmometer at The Great Exhibition of 1851 and production started the same year. The machines were constantly being used, exposing some minor design flaws which were quickly corrected. Banks, government offices, observatories and businesses started to use the arithmometer. However, before de Colmar could enjoy the fruits of his labor, he died in 1870, leaving Louis Payen to continue his work. By 1872, 1,000 of these devices were made. Under Payen, the arithmometer was radically re-designed, and by 1890 it was the most produced mechanical calculator in the world.
A lot of companies began to make clones of the arithmometer, and the calculator’s development began to shift towards American inventors. Dorr E. Felt’s comptometer, the first commercially successful key-driven mechanical calculator, was invented in 1887, and William Seward Burroughs’ adding machine came in 1888. de Colmar’s arithmometer ceased production in 1915. For a while, American companies dominated the mechanical calculator industry.
The Curta calculator was invented by Austrian inventor Curt Herzstark in 1948, and it was known as the first portable mechnaical calculator. It could add, subtract, multiply and divide, and advanced users could even do square roots and other operations. It was a descendant of leibniz’s stepped reckoner and de Colmar’s arithmometer. It served as a stepping stone to the electronic calculators we use today.
The electronic calculator owes its invention to the development of mainframe computers, which used vacuum tubes and then transistors in its logic circuits. The Casio Computer Company released the Modei14-A calculator in 1957, which was built into a desk and based on relay technology. By 1961, the British Bell Punch/Sum lock Comptometer ANITA (A New Inspiration To Arithmetic/Accounting) was invented. It had a full keyboard, but still used vacuum tube technology. The Friden EC-130 was invented in 1963 and had an all-transistor design and displayed four 13-digit numbers on a 5-inch cathode ray tube (CRT). However, unlike most electromechanical calculators at the time, it cost USD 2200. Sharp then released their own offering in 1964, the CS-1 OA, which was 25 kg (55 lbs) and cost USD 2500. Industria Macchlne Elettroniche of Italy invented a calculator with multiple keyboards and display units, the IME 84, but they could not be used at the same time. A handheld calculator, Cal Tech, was developed by Texas Instruments in 1967. Eventually, Texas Instruments was granted master patents on the portable calculator.
With the advent of the integrated circuit, the calculator was able to now fit on a single chip by 1971: the MK601 0 by Mostek. Texas Instruments also followed with their own offering later in the year. The early handheld calculator was extremely expensive, as most new technologies are. By 1971, the Busicom LE-120A, or”HANDY~ was the first pocket-sized electronic calculator. It used the Mostek MK601 0, ran on replacable batteries, and measured 124x72x24mm. Although the first pocket calculators ran around USD$240, by the end of the 1970s, they only cost a mere USD$1 0. Eventually, calculators grew from only being capable of doing arithmetic to also being able to solve more complex equations. The first graphing calculator was the Casio FX-7000G, which came out in 1985, and by the turn ofthe 21st century, calculators could differentiate and integrate functions, solve differential equations, serve as word processors, and even connect to computers and other calculators.
The calculator is a device that has vaulted technology into the classroom and has possibly saved you time on having to do complex equations by hand. If there’s anyone you need to thank for getting you through math class other than your teacher, you should thank your calculator.
First published in Gadgets Magazine, June 2013
Words by Jose Alvarez | Illustration by JP Pining