The Fascinating History of the Modern Calculator | Herald Community Newspapers

Emilie Ruzicka

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Even if we don’t think about it, mathematics and calculations permeate our daily lives. We calculate tips at restaurants, figure out how much money a grocery coupon will save us, and calculate the cost of our online purchases, including taxes and shipping. Some do these calculations in their head or by hand, but many of us have the instinct to seek out a calculator, whether online or on our phone.

Long before people walked around with supercomputers in their pockets, humans struggled with the problem of calculating values ​​quickly and accurately. Before any devices developed for this purpose, people used their fingers and toes to count. When that wasn’t enough, they started counting with small objects like shells, seeds or pebbles. Eventually these methods also became too tedious or unsustainable, especially for trading, so inventors and mathematicians began to develop new ways of counting and calculating.

To explore the historical development of counting devices, Gigacalculator has compiled a list of significant events throughout the history of the modern calculator using historical and current sources. Read on to see how many of these scientific and mathematical breakthroughs you recognize.

2500 BC. AD: The abacus was invented in ancient Sumer

Engraving depicting a merchant and his clerk using a calculating table drawn in the shape of an abacus.

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Many different civilizations invented their own versions of the abacus, but the oldest was discovered in ancient Sumer. Researchers believe that the Sumerian abacus used a sexagesimal number system, which is base 60 instead of our base 10 number system today. Other ancient abacuses have been discovered in ancient Rome, Greece, China, Japan, Russia and India.

1617: “Napier’s Bones” are invented by a mathematician in Scotland

A sketch of the computing device,

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John Napier, a Renaissance scholar, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. His life’s work covered many subjects, but he is best known for his advances in mathematics that made calculations more efficient. He developed both the concept of logarithms as well as a calculating tool that used vertical “bones” or “rods” to allow the user to multiply and divide numbers and was particularly useful for repetitive calculations .

1623: The first adding machine is invented

A portrait of Wilhelm Schickard.

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The “calculating clock” was developed by German astronomer Wilhelm Schickard and first described in detail to his colleague Johannes Kepler in a 1623 letter. The letter reveals that the prototype and original machine were built , but tragically destroyed in a fire. This setback meant that the “calculating clock” was not publicly presented until 1628.

1643: The “Pascaline” becomes the first real calculator

A replica of Pascal

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Blaise Pascal was considered a child prodigy in France and grew up in a mathematically inclined family as the son of a tax calculator. Pascal’s father often spent long days performing tedious and repetitive calculations. Pascal therefore invented Pascaline to speed up the process of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing numbers. The machine was made of metal and consisted of a series of spoked wheels, which were turned with a stylus, similar to a rotary telephone, to perform calculations.

1773: Philipp Matthäus Hahn builds the first working calculator

A round calculating machine with a crank in the middle.

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Although his main profession was that of a clergyman, Hahn spent his time outside the church building various clocks and astrological machines. The machines required many precise calculations to ensure that they measured and kept time correctly; however, Hahn was error-prone and often had to start projects over again due to an error. After being too often frustrated with his projects, he decided to create a “calculating machine”, which worked by entering numbers and turning a single crank.

1820: Mechanical calculators begin commercial production

A rectangular wooden box with metal mechanisms.

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The arithrometer began production in the 17th century after being developed by Charles Xavier Thomas of Colmar and was so popular that it was made until the 20th century. Thomas was almost immediately recognized for the significance of his invention, and gained fame and fortune in response. A wooden box with metal mechanisms inside, the arithrometer could perform all four basic calculations and was even used during World War I.

1954: IBM launches the first all-transistor computer

Two young boys brainstorm an equation while playing on a giant electronic calculator at IBM.

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Prior to the IBM 608 calculator, calculators could fill multiple rooms because they were built using a vacuum tube system. The 608 halved the space needed to house a calculator and reduced power consumption by 90%. Although the 608 has more than doubled the computational speed of its predecessor (the 607), it costs a pretty penny to buy at $83,210, or monthly rents of $1,760.

1961: The first fully electronic desktop calculator hits the market

The Anita electronic desktop calculating machine with a full 10-column keyboard with separate multiplication column and 12-digit result display.

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The Bell Punch Company was originally founded in Britain to produce ticket punching mechanisms for train conductors in the mid-17th century. Eventually, the company began adding machines to accompany its ticket punching and help transit workers calculate fares. This effort led him to produce ANITA (an abbreviation for “A New Inspiration To Accounting” or “A New Inspiration To Arithmetic”), which worked through the use of over 800 compact vacuum tubes.

1967: Texas Instruments begins selling the first portable calculator

The exterior of the Texas Instruments headquarters in Dallas, TX.

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Texas Instruments debuted in the calculator market with the TI-2500 Datamath single-chip calculator. The device could display up to eight digits and was intended for the regular consumer, as opposed to many powerful but expensive calculators at the time intended for professional or scientific use. The TI-2500, which sold for between $120 and $150, quickly became a home product.

1971: The “HANDY” becomes the first pocket calculator with LED display

A collection of vintage pocket calculators from different generations.

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Although calculators have been getting smaller for years, the Busicom LE-120A, or “HANDY”, was the first to be truly pocket-sized, as it fits in a standard shirt pocket. This was made possible by the “on-chip calculator” developed by Mostek, which used a p-channel semiconductor process to replace 22 individual electronic chips with one that fits in the palm of a hand. With its LED display and die-cast aluminum housing, the HANDY was outside of a typical consumer’s budget, priced at $395.

1975: Hewlett-Packard launches the first portable programmable calculator

An HP-65 calculator.

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The HP-65 could not only add and subtract, but was a fully featured scientific calculator, capable of performing logarithms, trigonometry, and non-base 10 calculations. In addition, every key on the calculator could be programmed to have up to four different functions. To do this, the HP-65 had a magnetic card reader/writer and was nicknamed “the personal computer”, although today this term is used for personal laptops and desktops.

1985: The first graphing calculator is launched by Casio

Close-up of the screen of a graphing calculator.

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Casio’s fx-7000G represented a huge leap forward in calculator technology due to the speed at which it could calculate functions and its enlarged screen. To plot a function, the calculator must not only calculate the output of a formula, but hundreds or thousands. The fx-7000G was so successful that modern graphing calculators still use the same portable layout with a screen on top and input buttons on the bottom.

1995: Launch of the first smartphone with an integrated calculator

A long rectangular black phone with a thin screen in the middle.

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The IBM Simon was the first smartphone on the market and included a few built-in apps, like a sketchbook and a calculator. Simon did not do particularly well in the consumer market, partly because battery life could be as short as an hour. Shortly after the launch of Simon, Nokia announced the advent of the flip phone, throwing IBM’s smartphone even further into the dust.

2003: Sharp launches the first touchscreen graphing calculator

A student and a teacher discuss a problem on a calculator.

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Despite the novelty of a touchscreen graphing calculator, complete with stylus, the EL-9650 was not successful as a product. Sharp primarily aimed the device at education professionals, offering slideshow functionality. This allowed teachers to use predefined lessons to teach students directly from their calculators.

2010: The Casio PRIZM becomes the first color graphing calculator

Casio calculators on display in a store.

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In the age of smartphones, smartwatches, and even smart refrigerators, it’s hard to impress the typical user with a calculator; however, the Casio PRIZM’s color screen was a useful addition to already useful technology. Beyond flashy colors, the PRIZM could also graph functions and provide their formulas based on images downloaded to its memory card, making the fun upgrade to a color screen much more interesting for mapping photographs and other color images. Taking after Sharp, Casio also provides a variety of educational materials that teachers can use in classrooms.

This story originally appeared on Gigacalculator and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.

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