The History of Calculators

by LanaKatz
Last updated 6 years ago


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The History of Calculators

The first half of the 20th century saw the gradual development of the mechanical calculator mechanism. From the early 1900s through the 1960s, mechanical calculators dominated the desktop computing market Major suppliers in the USA included Friden, Monroe, andSCM/Marchant. (Some comments about European calculators follow below.) These devices were motor-driven, and had movable carriages where results of calculations were displayed by dials. In these machines, addition and subtraction were performed in a single operation, as on a conventional adding machine, but multiplication and division were accomplished by repeated mechanical additions and subtractions. Handheld mechanical calculators such as the 1948 Curta continued to be used until they were displaced by electronic calculators in the 1970s.

Blaise Pascal invented a mechanical calculator with a sophisticated carry mechanism in 1642. After three years of effort and 50 prototypes he introduced his calculator to the public. He built twenty of these machines in the following ten years. This machine could add and subtract two numbers directly and multiply and divide by repetition.

Modern Calculator

By Lana V. Katz


The desire to economize time and mental effort in arithmetical computations, and to eliminate human liability to error, is probably as old as the science of arithmetic itself. This desire has led to the design and construction of a variety of aids to calculation, beginning with groups of small objects, such as pebbles, first used loosely, later as counters on ruled boards, and later still as beads mounted on wires fixed in a frame, as in the abacus.

Through the 1970s the hand-held electronic calculator underwent rapid development. The red LED and blue/green vacuum fluorescent displays consumed a lot of power and the calculators either had a short battery life (often mere hours) or were large so that they could take larger, higher capacity batteries. In the early 1970s liquid-crystal displays (LCDs) were in their infancy and there was a great deal of concern that they only had a short operating lifetime. Busicom introduced the Busicom LE-120A "HANDY" calculator, the first pocket-sized calculator and the first with an LED display. However, there were problems with this display and the calculator never went on sale. The first successful calculators with LCDs were manufactured by Rockwell International and sold from 1972 by other companies.

It was not until 1642 that Blaise Pascal gave us the first mechanical calculating machine in the sense that the term is used today.

Pascal's Calculator


In most countries, students use calculators for schoolwork.

A modern electronic calculator is a small, portable device used to perform both basic operations of arithmetic and complex mathematical operations. Modern electronic calculators vary from cheap, give-away, credit-card-sized models to sturdy desktop models with built-in printers. In addition to general purpose calculators, there are those designed for specific markets; for example, there are scientific calculators which include trigonometric and statistical calculations. Some calculators even have the ability to do computer algebra. Graphing calculators can be used to graph functions defined on the real line, or higher-dimensional Euclidean space. Currently, basic calculators are inexpensive, but the scientific and graphing models tend to be higher priced. In 1986, calculators still represented an estimated 41% of the world's general-purpose hardware capacity to compute information. This diminished to less than 0.05% by 2007.


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