Sunday, 22 December 2013

The History Of The Calculator

Once upon a time, far, far away, a man found he didn't have enough fingers on which to count his bean crop. So he invented the abacus.

Ok, I've been a little creative with my 'historical facts'. The first mechanism widely recognised as a calculator, the abacus, appeared in Greece.

Invented long before numbers were actually invented, the abacus was used in various forms in order to keep track of the cost of goods. The earliest surviving example of this technological leap dates back to about 300 B.C.

Now, considering the pace at which mankind evolves and fashions new tools to solve new problems you'd be forgiven for thinking the abacus followed a meteoric path to improving the dark art of mathematical calculations. In fact, the next stride forward in calculator technology didn't take place for another 1900 years.

The Pascal

The next giant leap forward came in 1642. The Pascaline adding and subtracting machine was built by French inventor Blaise Pascal. Ironically, Pascal created the machine in order to help his father deal with the tax affairs of Haute-Normandie!

Fast forward another 350 years and we enter an age of evolutionary leaps and bounds for the calculator. The rapidly advancing technological capabilities and reliable, mass production helped drive the development of the calculator to ever greater heights.

Between 1820 and 1914, a mere 94 years, the calculator went from being a curiosity available to only the rich to being heavily used in commercial environments. In fact, it was only as recently as 1885 that the calculator started to feature the push button keys that we're all accustomed to today. The early 1900's saw a smaller, yet no less significant, number of enhancements. The standard two rows of five buttons layout arrived in 1901. 10 years later, the United States imported the Swedish 10 digit layout that we're familiar with into the design.

It was at this point that the calculator's development was hindered by the limits of technology. The 1960's was the decade that saw the calculator move from being a cumbersome, lever operated device to something truly portable.

The process of miniaturising components such as transistors took development into overdrive. Between 1961 and 1964, calculator development leapt from the 170 vacuum tube-based Anita Mk8 to the very first transistor commercial calculator, the Sharp Compet CS 10A. Only four years later, Sharp unleashed the first commercial electronic calculator designed exclusively for the desk top market: the Compet 22.

In 1969, Sharp launched the first battery powered calculator, the QT-8D. One of the most impressive

aspects of the QT-8D was its size: only 5.2 inches by 9.6 inches by 2.75 inches (WxHxD). One year later, Texas Instruments launched an even smaller calculator, the Pocketronic.
The Sharp QT-8D
As technology improved, calculators became ever smaller yet more complex and capable. The one major drawback to its adoption by the consumer market was the high price. The HP-35, launched by HP in 1972, retailed for $395 - a price most ordinary families simply couldn't justify.

Following a brief, yet bloody, bout of technological warfare in the 1970's, only four manufacturers were left standing. Amongst this group of survivors were well known names such as Sharp and HP.

The 1990's saw an explosion of new devices hitting the market. The basic model spawned a whole new range of calculators designed to meet the ever growing needs of the consumer. From scientific to graphing; the list went on and on and then went online.

The age of the internet saw webmasters creating calculating tools for just about every conceivable use possible. Personal finance sites created compound interest calculators, frugal webmasters created calculators to work out power usage for home utilities... the list goes on and on.

There you have it, over 2,000 years old and still going strong. Where do you think the calculator will be in 2,000 years time?

Written by James Redden


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