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What Were the First Pocket Calculators Like?

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  • Written By: Phil Shepley
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 28 November 2016
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There is much technology that we now simply take for granted, and the pocket calculator is no different. It is one of those modern conveniences that we use all the time and simply do not even think about it, whether we are calculating a twenty percent tip at a local restaurant or doing comparative grocery shopping with our cell phone’s calculator. Before the first pocket calculators, machines designed to do mathematical computations were much larger and slower. Things have certainly come a long way since the first pocket calculators were invented.

If you wanted to be technical, you could claim that the first handheld calculator was the abacus. Used across a wide variety of ancient cultures and still in use today in various parts of the world, the abacus is a simple counting device made of beads or stones that slide along wires or grooves. This device was used before the modern numeral system was even adopted, and is still used in many cultures today.

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After years of scientific, mathematical and technological advances, the first machines were finally invented that could do simple math. There were many different machines that operated in a variety of ways, but they all lacked a common feature - portability. Mechanical calculators, for instance, used hand cranks and could weigh twenty or thirty pounds. IBM introduced the first all-transistor commercial electronic calculator in 1954. It was housed in several large cabinets and could have been yours for the low price of about $80,000 (USD).

Finally in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the first pocket calculators began to appear. Texas Instruments introduced the first of many in 1967, which weighed in at just under three pounds. Rather than using an LCD screen, the results of its calculations – multiplication, subtraction and division – were printed on paper tape. The user could input as many as six digits and the printed results were as large as twelve. Another one of the first pocket calculators was designed by the brand Sharp and introduced in 1971. This one used a fluorescent display as well as rechargeable batteries and weighed about one pound. This was still not exactly something you could tote around in your pocket with great ease, but marked a significant decrease in size and power usage compared to some of the other first pocket calculators.

Other technological advances at this time led to the first pocket calculators that used integrated circuits. The first of these was introduced in Japan and also happened to be the first one that used an LED display as well as replaceable batteries. The use of integrated circuit “chips” once again greatly reduced the size of the calculators. By 1972, some of the first pocket calculators that were being introduced weighed as little as 2.5 ounces and were less than a third of an inch in width. Finally these calculators were a size that could truly fit in someone’s pocket. Further advances allowed for the prices of pocket calculators to become affordable to just about everyone within a few more years.

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