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Electronic Calculators

Electronic calculators were new when I was in high school.  I first read about them in Scientific American and Fortune when the HP 35 was advertised.  I wanted one badly, but at $400 it was simply out of the question. I had to use a slide rule up until my senior year of HS when the price point fell to $100 for a simple 4-banger!  (See the Commodore  Minuteman 2.)

It may be hard, nowadays, to understand what a marvel a handheld, battery operated calculator was in the early '70s.  Larger, powered desk calculators were available, but even they were not ubiquitous, and they didn't do things like trig, roots, logs, etc.  For the most part, if you wanted to do "complex" computation you used a slide rule.  My HS offered a slide rule class, and required it of students who wanted to take science classes.

The introduction of the HP 35 was simply astonishing and awe inspiring.  Powerful, fast, portable - it was a geek's dream machine.  It created a new vision of doing science.  And it was followed by a veritable explosion of devices from an ever expanding set of companies competing to add features, reduce size and increase battery life.  Advances in all areas came really fast as the field of electrical engineering, and particularly the technology for building integrated circuits, accelerated faster than anything previously experienced.

Four function portable calculators were available in the first couple years of the decade, but they were hundreds of dollars.  Who needed portable power to do simple math so badly that they'd pay $300 for it?  Seems to me it just wasn't a big market. But the price point was coming down until it reached a special level: 4-function hand-held units dropped below $100, and scientific models came out at $300-$400.  Then the handheld electronic calculator had both consumer and professional appeal and sales exploded.  It made an impression on an impressionable teenager.

But it wasn't just calculators.  It was a whole new kind of electrical engineering - with silicone - and calculators were the shock troops of the silicone army.  Not only calculators, but all electronics - radios, TVs, clocks, cameras... they all rapidly absorbed integrated circuitry, logic on a chip.  It was the cheapest and most competitive thing to do.  

And it changed the pace of progress.  It has become more or less possible to build a thing as fast as you can write down an idea.  Building in silicone is essentially just a very specialized form of printing, so there's a short line from design to production.  The useful lifetime of electronic devices is now measured in months, with people getting new, genuinely more useful, smaller, and faster cell phones 2 or 3 times a year.  Imagine buying a new radio every 4 months in the 1950s - you'd have to be a millionaire (which meant something then.)  

I'm sure this accelerating rate of change changes our expectations of the world and its future.  Maybe it undermines our sense of value as the value of objects decreases dramatically and rapidly.  But also maybe it raises our expectations as to what is possible.  I know the advent of handheld electronic calculators in the early '70s changed mine.

Great Sites for Electronic Calculators

So many calculators, so much history.

But not only HPs.

Joerg Woerner also sells lots of calculators on eBay as datamath-calculator-museum.  

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