Nowadays, being able to use a device to crunch numbers is taken for granted. And yet, only a generation ago, personal electronic calculators were THE hot item with hundreds of manufacturers selling thousands of different models. During the 1970s there was an all-out war for industry domination among manufacturers. But today, you’ve only got a handful of them today making dedicated calculators. What happened? This is LGR Tech Tales, where we take a look at noteworthy stories of technological inspiration, failure, and everything in between. This episode tells the tale of the 20th century calculator wars and how it shaped the tech world today. Humans have been using objects to assist in solving mathematical equations for millenia, from counting boards to the abacus, to the slide rule. But this story really begins in the mid-20th century where mechanical calculators were the norm, and anything electronic used thousands of vacuum tubes and took up the space of an entire room. By the 1960s, though, progress in vacuum tube miniaturization allowed for powerful electronic computation in a much smaller form factor. A landmark device that took advantage of this was the Sumlock ANITA Mark VII in 1961, the first all-electronic desktop calculator. It cost nearly $1000 (or around $8000 today adjusting for inflation), putting it well out of the reach of the average consumer and ensuring that only larger businesses could afford it. Around the same time other calculator manufacturers started using transistors instead of tubes inside of their desktop calculators, such as Sharp Corporation with their Compet CS10. These were even more expensive than the ANITA, at around $2500 in 1964, and wasn’t any more powerful, but their use of transistors laid the foundation for a revolution. Enter the Cal-Tech by Texas Instruments in 1967: A transistor-based calculator that could add, subtract, multiply, and divide, and even print results to a paper tape yet remain small enough to hold in your hand. Granted, it was only a prototype and still had to be plugged into a power outlet to work, so it wasn’t truly portable, but it paved the way for the future. One of the first companies to capitalize on this idea of a legit handheld calculator was Sharp once again, in partnership with Rockwell Semiconductor. They introduced the QT-8D in Japan in 1969 which was the first mass-produced calculator to rely entirely on integrated circuits (or ICs) based on metal oxide semiconductor technology. Likewise, Texas Instruments, in partnership with Canon, released the Canon Pocketronic in 1970, based on the earlier Cal-Tech prototype. But Sharp’s machine had to be plugged into a wall for power and cost a couple grand, and while Canon’s did run on a special battery, it didn’t have a display and could only print results to paper. Both companies addressed this drawbacks eventually, but it was Busicom that got their first. In 1970, Business Computer Corporation, or Busicom, introduced the LE-120 HANDY, using the cutting-edge Mostek MK6010 inside. This combined all four functions with decimal points and the ability to drive an LED display, all on a single 4.6 mm square chip. This made things smaller and required less power than ever, resulting in its ability to run on just four AA batteries. This was the dawn of the pocket calculator. Think about it: never before had humanity possessed that kind of convenient computational ability on the go. No more being tied to a desktop or power source, now you could just whip out this little device and have it quickly and precisely figure out complex problems. The benefits were obvious to anyone who used math in their work, but the problem was that these early pocket calculators were still bulky and expensive. The former issue was addressed by Sinclair Radionics and their Executive in 1973, measuring less than half an inch thick and weighing just 70 grams. However, the price was still way up there at the equivalent of $1100 today. Sinclair addressed this second problem in a matter of months, introducing the Cambridge calculator at half the price of the Executive. This, combined with decreasing costs of components, prompted a race to the bottom in terms of pricing, with one of the biggest shots fired coming from National Semiconductor in 1973 with the Model 600. While most companies were still selling calculators for around $100, the Model 600 cost only $29.95, an unbelievable price for the time. 15 million pocket calculators were sold in 1973 alone, and the calculator wars were in full swing. Commodore Business Machines was one of those that really entered the fray with a good punch to the gut to everyone else with their 776M calculator at only $20, and then Texas Instruments went even lower with the TI-2550 costing only $10 in 1974. The number of companies creating calculators during this time was staggering. Hundreds of manufacturers worldwide creating thousands of models of calculators, all competing for the same increasingly saturated market. Pocket calculators went from being a luxury status symbol of sorts to an everyday bargain bin device available anywhere, anytime. But while the profits were dwindling in the mainstream space, another battle was just beginning thanks to Hewlett-Packard. Pocket calculators were nifty little toys, but they couldn’t do any real mathematics. Where were the trigonometric, logarithmic, and exponential functions? You still had to use a slide rule if you wanted to perform this kind of stuff or get an expensive desktop calculator like the HP 9100A, and the engineers at Hewlett-Packard saw an opening here. In 1972, they released the HP-35, the first scientific pocket calculator. Texas Instruments struck back with the less expensive SR-10, which wasn’t a true scientific calculator but cost less than HP’s. Now, a couple years later TI released the SR-50 to match the HP 35, prompting HP to crank it up a notch with the HP-65, which had a magnetic card storage solution with room for 100 keystroke instructions. This prompted another little battle between manufacturers for the programmable calculator market, out of the reach of most people just because of the cost, but nonetheless companies like Commodore followed suit with the SR-1400 and relative newcomer Casio with the fx-10. While the consumer market was busy driving prices into the ground and coming up with gimmicks like wrist calculators to keep people interested, scientific calculators became the final battlefield for the war. By the time the late ’70s were rolling around the calculator wars were coming to a close. The big three companies stayed big, mostly fighting among themselves over the new world of graphing calculators, starting in 1985 thanks to Casio. And hundreds of smaller companies left the pocket calculator industry entirely due to meager profits, with some going into making digital watches instead, or even taking a gamble on the next big tech war: microcomputers. In fact, the calculator wars led so directly to personal computers coming about that you can’t have one without the other. The development of ICs and calculators on a chip in the 1960s allowed for the development of the backbone of the personal computer revolution, the microprocessor. Without all of that money funneling into building smaller and cheaper calculators, you can effectively say “goodbye” to the 8-bit computer uprising. In fact, many of those calculator manufacturers went straight into making personal computers since many of those components were shared between the types of systems, and business were replacing desktop calculators with computers anyway. The modern information age got such a jump-start from the calculator wars that it’s bizarre that it isn’t discussed in any more depth than it is. But hey, that’s the point of LGR Tech Tales, and I hope you enjoyed this look back into the history of tech. I’ve got many other episodes in this series on my channel, two of which are linked to right here, and there are other videos every Monday and Friday coming out here on LGR so subscribe if you care. Also, feel free to get in touch on Twitter and Facebook to suggest future episode topics or just discuss others that I’ve already done or whatever. And there’s also Patreon if you would like to help the show grow even more and catch a glimpse of videos before they go public. And as always, thank you very much for watching. Don’t divide by zero. B00BS.