A History in Calculators

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Justin Zobel

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Pocket calculator; Staedtler slide rule; GE Genius 62

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While packing for a house move, I found calculators in drawers, boxes, cupboards. Almost every calculator (or organiser) I'd ever owned. All of these were machines I'd had since they were new, carefully hoarded away over my entire lifetime ... just in case. These calculators reflect the evolution of the technology, from first emergence as a mass-market product to near-terminal decline; the calculator is almost obsolete now, but once was essential. So many calculators. Here they are.

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My first calculator was mechanical, a 1970 summer holiday present when I was between Grades 2 and 3; or between infant school, as the English called it, and junior school.

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A machine for adding up! The stylus racked up digits by sliding bars up and down, white for addition and red for subtracting, and a U-turn at top or bottom for carry. (That's the original stylus.) It was much too precious to take to school, but I hoped that it would prove to be a secret weapon in my homework, yielding a power to do sums my schoolfriends did not possess.

The first portable electronic calculators were being made that year, and cost hundreds of pounds. I doubt that I knew they existed.

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In Year 8, then known as Form 2 in Australia (we had migrated from England a year or so earlier), my parents got me a slide rule. The maths teacher kept some for the class to use, but I wanted my own one. It was fun figuring out how to use it for square roots and error correction, but I didn't use it much, and in practice it was less helpful than a book of tables of calculations.

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Another teacher told us that we should take the time to learn to use a slide-rule well because we might end up in a job where we have to use one every day. Hmm. This slide rule went to a drawer some time that year and didn't see daylight again until I displayed it in my office a few years ago.

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When I was in Form 3, in 1976, Saturday mornings could be spent visiting the city, and specifically Space Age Books, where paperbacks cost 50c to $1 ‐ a good slice of $2 of pocket-money, but affordable. The walk to Space Age up Swanston St went past the Calculator Supermarket on the corner of Little Bourke St, with displays of calculators spread out in glass cabinets as if they were jewellery. It looked so important that for weeks I wasn't brave enough to go in, until I saw an ad for a “new generation” of affordable calculator that cost only $35. Limited stock that would soon be sold out. Saving that $35, four months of pocket money if I went completely without books and lollies, took so long that it was driving me mad, and also my mother, who eventually took pity on me and advanced the last $15 or so.

And I bought it, a General Electric model. That calculator died some years later, and was thrown away, not by me of course; the only one I've ever purchased that has since been lost. Happily, though, in the 1980s I discovered that a friend had a similar model (also not working), which she gave to me and I kept as a reminder of my original purchase. Mine had been all black but was otherwise much the same. Like the model I had had, this Genius 62 could do 8 digits of basic arithmetic, and also square roots ‐ genius! My one also had brackets.

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It was appalling inaccurate. Multiplying two four-digit numbers A and B, then dividing again by B, did not yield A; for example, 1234 x 5678 / 5678 might produce, say, 1231.654. My pedantic self was stunned and disappointed by this gross arithmetic incompetence, and I tried to return it, but without success. I still don't know if it was faulty or if this was a straightforward limitation of the architecture. It was also slow, taking many seconds to compute a square root, and would flatten batteries out of pure spite. It was not a happy purchase, and I wasn't sad to learn that it had been binned.

A friend, it developed, had a calculator with a memory function, a lack in the GE that immediately became deeply painful to me. This machine, an Adler I believe, also had a π key. Around this time we had a houseguest who brought with him a calculator, I have no idea why, that he showed to me with great pride. The display was a series of 10 miniscule capsules, each containing a pile of neon digits. (These capsules were called Nixie tubes.) It seemed so much more futuristic than the fluorescent display in the GE, another strike against it.

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Next: Page 2.

Last updated July 2018.

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This webpage was created by Justin Zobel. All images are Copyright© University of Melbourne. Photography by Lee McRae.