A History in Calculators

[zobel]

Justin Zobel

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HP iPAQ 1940

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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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The functionality of the touch screen had been gradually developing, after early devices such as the Apple Newton and Palm Pilot, but my experience of these was that they were too frustrating to be used in practice. By 2003, though, I had a lightweight laptop and a screen-only organiser felt like a natural replacement for the Jornada. The Pocket PC operating system was mature by then, and I bought an iPAQ 1940 after watching a colleague use an earlier model.

[iPAQ]

The iPAQ had a rich calendar function, could access email, had enough storage for a couple of hours of mid-fidelity music, had numerous games and other apps available (though not by that name), and could record meetings. Slightly later models had wifi and a browser, and had much of the (non-phone) functionality of the first smartphones. The battery could last for weeks, and the build was solid.

Not that I used it to listen to music; iPods served that purpose far better, and I had a phone for phone calls.

[iPAQ]

Another feature was Office, in which Pocket Excel was an excellent substitute for a calculator. A keyboard could be connected via Bluetooth, and I bought one in the expectation that I could the iPAQ for simple documents. Sadly, this was a failure. This keyboard ‐ so light, so compact ‐ was a nuisance to connect, sometimes requiring minutes of fiddling include re-starts of the iPAQ, and drained the batteries. I almost never used it, for these reasons and also because the iPAQ screen was too small. Writing at the iPAQ involved putting it down between my wrists, with the keyboard behind it, so that I had to look straight down. This was the only way to bring the screen close enough to see.

[iPAQ]

The iPAQ itself stayed in use for about eight years. Like the Jornada, it became unusable due to software obsolence rather than hardware failure: it had built-in tables for daylight saving and time zones that were not maintained, and during 2010 it became incompatible with Outlook, corrupting my diary when it was connected. With its main function gone, it was effectively useless.

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I first bought a mobile (cell) phone in early 1998; I still have this phone but its successors are all gone, either recycled or handed on to friends or my children. A 2007 Nokia model, the N95, was the first I owned that had some of the characteristics of a 2018 smartphone, though the iPAQ was far superior, and it still lacked a touchscreen ‐ it was described as a smartphone at the time, and indeed as a technology leader.

Around the same time I bought an early iPod touch, primarily to play music; the fact that it could also be used as an organiser was a surprise to me. Compared to the iPAQ, the iPod calendar was limited, and all the functions seemed more basic, despite the iPAQ's age. (After writing this, I added the iPod to my collection; I doubt that it would photograph well because it is an undistinguished black lump. I also added an iPod Classic, not that they were called that at the time.) When I finally bought a smartphone, as we would now define them, in 2010, it was primarily to replace the iPAQ; and aside from the fact that I could use the phone for calls the functionality was not so different.

This sequence of devices, which should (but doesn't) include an early iPod and should (but isn't) capped by an early smartphone, is a history of convergence. There's a path from the early calculators to organisers, and from there to smartphones. That isn't the consumer experience, for whom organisers were always a niche, relatively speaking, but it is a key part of the evolution. For calculators and organisers, though, for now the history is over.

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Previous: Page 6.

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.