Facts That Figure: Calculators

Facts That Figure: Calculators

By C.G. Hoffman

When I was growing up, our local grocery man would calculate your total on the back of a brown paper bag (used). Today, even schools allow calculators to be used during tests, showing just how dependent we have become on calculators.

The earliest calculations were done using stones, bones, or shells. After all, if you want to expand your ancient business, counting your fingers and toes could only get you so far!

The nickname “bean counters,” used for penny-pinching accountants, is because once upon a time, accountants used beans, or whatever little uniform items that were handy to make their calculations.

The abacus, in use for thousands of years, was used by the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians. Different discs were used to represent different digits, and ancient accounting was born. It is still in use in some third-world countries.

The oldest known mechanical calculator was found on a sunken Roman ship. With a complicated system of gears, the device still has archaeologists scratching their heads and puzzling over how it worked. Researchers believe the Antikythera mechanism was used to calculate the movements of the sun, moon, and planets and could also compute mathematical equations.

Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician, and inventor, wanted to help his father, a tax collector, with his exhaustive calculations and recalculations. Not yet quite 19, in 1642, he invented an ingenious mechanical calculator that was capable of addition and subtraction.

The first commercial calculator to calculate addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division was manufactured in 1851. It was called the Arithmometer and was still in use up to World War I.

IBM produced a computer-driven calculator in 1955. It was housed in several large cabinets and could be yours for the cool price of $83,210. (Or you could rent it for $1,760 per month.)

The first handheld calculator was produced by Texas Instruments in 1968. It was called handheld, but it weighed almost 3 pounds!

In 1971, the first truly pocket-sized calculator using an LED display was released. It cost $395 and came with a wrist strap at its base to protect the expensive machinery from being dropped.

By 1985, Sharp was selling their solar-powered calculator for just $5.95, and today’s models are even cheaper.

Today’s calculators can be powered with batteries, solar energy, or electrical energy, using a single computer chip, making them “pocket-sized.” However, the calculator is quickly becoming obsolete, as most people today use the calculator on their phones.

Have some fun with your calculator: Type in the number 0.7734 and turn your calculator over. It spells hello! (Or get your kids or students to do the following sum: 77.34 ÷ 100)

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