A History in Calculators

[zobel]

Justin Zobel

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Sanyo CZ-0125L; Focal SL-1005; Casio College fx-100B; TI Business Analyst-II

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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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On the day I enrolled in university at the start of 1980, we were offered a special student deal: a pocketable mini calculator for just $35, with a battery that would last for years. I was sure I would need a calculator for the subjects I was enrolled in, and bought it without much reflection, though it took a good fraction of my savings. It had a new kind of display, in liquid crystal; I'd never seen one before. And it was miraculously small, only twice the size of a credit card and the thickness of a pencil.

[small Sanyo]

Friends who knew more than me about calculators and technology said that I had thrown my money away. Liquid crystal, they said, is unstable; the display would turn black over time. This view was supported by a rumour that the display on this Sanyo was designed to be easy to replace, that is, it was expected to fail.

[small Sanyo]

These friends were right: it did start to turn black, but not until more than thirty years later. After a while I rarely took it to university because most of my subjects didn't require calculations, but it was used around the home for bills, budgeting, and so on right into the 2010s. Over that time, it consumed a total of about three batteries. It is solidly built too, shiny and relatively unworn despite ongoing use over such a long time. It was an extraordinary advance over the earlier Sanyo, from just three years earlier.

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Around this time, in 1981 or 1982, the early GE died (and was thrown away), and my mother decided she needed a new calculator. When I found this metric-conversion model at K-Mart for just a few dollars, it seemed perfect for her. She had never gotten comfortable with the new system of units, introduced in the mid-1970s, and often had to consult the conversion tables on the back page of her pocket diary.

[focal]

The Focal (a K-Mart brand) seemed cheap and disposable, now that LCD displays were commonplace. With a band of solar cells, and presumably an internal capacitor, it didn't require a battery ‐ which she thought was more or less magical. Indeed! How could these tiny solar cells possibly generate enough power to drive a whole calculator?

[focal]

Yet it worked. And still works. I found it in my stepfather's desk after he died in the 2000s, still with its instruction book, and put it on a shelf at work. Usually the screen is blank, but it always turns on at a touch and stays on for hours. Remarkable.

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Employed in a computer science department, I didn't often need a calculator at work; I could use (or write) programs on the department's computer. At home, the little Sanyo was sufficient, and I still occasionally used the TI-58, but it could only be used when plugged in and the power switch had gotten unreliable.

During a house move in 1986 or 1987, though, the Sanyo went missing, and I impulsively bought a new calculator that I saw on sale at the university bookshop. The Sanyo turned up that evening, and ‐ irritated for wasting money with my impatience ‐ put this Casio away unopened, still in its box. The first and possibly only time it was used, as far as I can remember, was in the early 2000s, when I was doing maths homework with one of my children. While we were at the table, another of my children tore the box up.

[casio]

It is now in the collection along with the others, unremarkable and rather unloved, but still part of the story of the ridiculous number of calculators that I've had.

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When my stepfather retired in 1986, he decided that he was going to learn how to manage his superannuation. At his university bookshop we found a TI business calculator packaged with a book on home finance. Once home, though, he realised that it was not something that he was going to master, and he found the calculator confusing ‐ it seemed to him to be poor design that it was intolerant of human error.

[ti business]

The next time I saw this calculator was in a drawer with the Focal, twenty years later. Perhaps it had been used; perhaps it had been in that same drawer since the day he bought it. It too has joined the collection.

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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.