Cool Calculation: The First Electronic Calculator

Emily Suzuki Emily Suzuki March 7, 2023

3 min read

Despite their simplicity, electronic calculators are an enormous landmark for design. Learn about the first electronic calculator.

electronic-calculator

While you may think of it as a simple machine, a calculator is so important that your smartphone has one already installed. Sure, you may not use it daily, but the calculator remains invaluable. From calculating tips to advancing humankind, the electronic calculator is here to stay. If you’ve ever flipped your calculator upside down to write hello to a friend, this one’s for you.

A look at early machines

In the 40s and 50s, mainframe computers used vacuum tubes and then transistors in their logic circuits. In 1957, the Casio Model 14-A came onto the scene. It was a mostly electric calculator that utilized relay technology and was built into a desk. The first solid-state electronic calculator became available in the early 1960s. However, pocket-size calculators were not available to the public until the 1970s. The Intel 4004, developed by Intel for Busicom, helped propel such development.

The first all-electronic desktop calculator was the British Bell Punch/Sumlock Comptometer ANITA. It used vacuum tubes, cold-cathode tubes, and Dekatrons in its circuits. ANITA weighed 33 pounds but was quiet and quick, which made it an instant success. In 1963, Friden EC-130 overtook ANITA with an all-transistor design. It could stack 13-digit numbers on a 5-inch cathode ray tube. At $2,200, the machine introduced Reverse Polish Notation.

1964 saw the introduction of more all-transistor calculators, including one from Sharp, Industria Macchine Elettroniche, Canon, Mathatronics, Olivetti, SCM, Sony, Toshiba, and Wang. 1965 brought with it the creation of the Olivetti Programma 101, which was a stored program machine that read and wrote magnetic cards. It also displayed results on a built-in printer. The design won a variety of awards and is considered the first personal computer thanks to its ability to partition memory between program steps, constants, and data registers.

The ELKA 6521, by the Central Institute for Calculation Technologies, was also introduced that year. It was the first to include a square root function. Later that year, newer versions of the ELKA included a luminescent display and a built-in printer. However, the company did not release a pocket version until 1974.

In 1967, the Monroe Epic was unveiled. The desktop unit with the attached logic tower functioned much like a computer but lacked a conditional branch, which, at that time, distinguished programmable calculators from computers.

Texas Instruments seeks to change the market

Initially, calculators relied upon germanium transistors, which remained less expensive than silicon transistors, on many circuit boards. They had CRT displays, filament lamps, and cold-cathode Nixie tubes. Their memory technology was based on either magnetic core memory or delay line memory. But the market demanded smaller and more efficient machines.

The electronic calculator began with the integrated circuit, a relatively new idea in the 1960s — and thus a relatively expensive one. There weren’t a lot of companies using the technology then. This left a great opening for companies like Texas Instruments, tech giants eager to showcase useful consumer devices with the resources to explore.

Then-president Pat Haggerty and an engineering team comprising Jack Kilby, Jerry Merryman, James Van Tassel, and a variety of others got to work on a handheld calculator. They hoped to produce a calculator that had an integrated circuit and was battery-powered but still performed all necessary calculator functions. In 1967, they emerged victorious. Their machine accepted numbers up to six digits, added, subtracted, multiplied, and divided, and could print 12-digit numbers on a thermal printer. Called Cal-Tech (a code name), the calculator components were integrated into four ICs.

From prototype to production

Prototype in hand, TI showed the calculator to a variety of companies in the industry. Canon liked what they saw and began work with TI, selling the Pocketronic three years later. The calculator looked and functioned in a noticeably similar way, and in a short time, a market for palm-sized calculating devices was established.

The Canon Pocketronic Printing Calculator released in Japan and then abroad, and it could perform 12-digit calculations. It sold for less than $400, though sales were delayed in the United States because of Texas Instrument’s delay in thermal print head production. TI attributed the delay to the fast turnaround time initially scheduled for the project.

Design a part of history

And the rest is history. From then on, students complained about having to do math without the small machine that changed the way we look at numbers. Want to design the next tool that will change the way students interact with something like numbers? Download Fusion 360 and push your prototype to the next level.

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