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LGR Tech Tales – The Pocket Calculator Wars

LGR Tech Tales – The Pocket Calculator Wars


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.


Reader Comments

  1. You should totally do a Tech Tales on those old PDAs! I'd watch it. Especially if the Gizmondo/N-Gage disasters of "OH GOD WHY DID WE THINK TO COMBINE A PDA WITH A GAME CONSOLE" get mentioned too.

  2. I had friends in high school at the time, who had HP and TI calculators costing $300 or so (scientifics). (TI lived in the neighborhood– Dallas.) When I graduated, I asked for a $125 HP 25 for my graduation present. It was sweeeet.

  3. I have that Casio FX-7000G. My dad used it at university (engeneering) and I inherited it fot school. My dad had lots of small programs written for it and I used to play with it whenever I was bored.
    Ah, times before smartphones….

  4. the first calculator i had was a Casio digital watch , digital watches are the future , look i can write 80085 on it

  5. I have nothing but the Purest, Most Absolute, Black Hearted HATRED for those EFFING Graphing Calculators. When I graduated High School in 1988, calculators were nothing more than what you used at home for your homework. If you had one at school, especially in Math Class, your assignments were taken and you got a ZERO for CHEATING!!!!!

    Then, in 2000, after getting out of the military, I sign up for classes. College Math. Calculator required(TI83 Not PLUS). I failed the class miserably because I'd never used one before and had no idea how to program the EFFING THING.

    Sign up the following semester for the Basic Math, figuring I needed a refresher. Wasted my time in that class with a completion of 100%, using pencil and paper but, after talking to the teacher, he took me aside and taught me how to use the TI83. Returned back to the class I failed with a 15% average in and completed the course missing only ONE!!!!!! math question because my fat fingers hit a wrong key.

    Thankfully, the teacher who taught me to use the TI83, also taught me how to install video games and such on there so I had something to do in class after I completed the assignments before everyone else in the class.

    The only comfort I found with this demon device was that it used the same microprocessor that was in my TRS-80 Model 4 sitting under my desk that I use as a foot rest.

  6. I remember seeing a mechanic calculator into my high school's library. They used it for decades, maybe heavy but not that big and no need for power.

  7. Then, cellphones came into the picture and starting with digital flip-phones, calculators became less relevant and everyone with a phone had a calculator. The end.

  8. My grandparents had a realllllllly ancient calculator that, while portable with the ability to run on batteries, also had a jack for a wall adapter. That thing lasted for over thirty five years.

  9. Had a TI-89 (non-Titanium) all through high school, great calculator. You could program in TI Basic, C, or 68k Assembler and there were tons of games for it 🙂

  10. I have casio fx-991es. Love using it every day at work. Classic feel and functionality is not a common thing these days 🙂

  11. I absolutely love your Tech Tales videos. I realise these probably take the most work in terms of research and production, but I hope that you are able to keep putting out more videos of this nature and quality. Thank you so much!

  12. My grandparents had a TI-59, and the PC-100C thermal printer it could dock to… That was a hell of a piece of kit back in the day. With the magnetic card reader and all. I remember the vinyl pocket folio with pages upon pages of those magnetic program strips… Cool stuff.

  13. 0:29 I've been packing to move and I have that exact calculator in a box no more than ten feet away. I know it's a coincidence but… freaky…

  14. I am a wee bit dissapointed that you didn't mention a type of calculator which got me through my apprenticeship in the eighties. Sharp came out with a calculator which was in landscape format, could store and display formula, but wasn't considered a programmable calculator (My guess is that because it couldn't loop or repeat calculations, just store formula and use variables). I t was the EL5101 and EL5100. They looked like those pocket computers with a long alpha numeric display along the top with a wide keyboard underneath. I still have a working EL5100 (At least it was last time I put batteries in it!
    PS anyone know how to get the one row of dots that has died to come back to life? in a 1 row by 80 lcd calculator display?

  15. +phreakindee HEWLETT PACKARD® landed the serious computer men with their scientific calculators, which used a reverse Polish data entry method common to the assemblers for the MOTOROLA® MC6800, intel® D8080, MOS Technologies 6502/6507/6510, Zilog® Z-80, and other microprocessors; the Enter key executed a Load instruction to start a calculation. I could see Intel engineers cross-checking figures from the D8087, P80187, N80287, A80387DX, N80387SX, &c. against the hp® 65 during development.

  16. My school's Mechanical Engineering Club has an HP-35 lying around the club room. The battery is shot but it still works great.

  17. Good review. I'd like to see more about programmable calculators. Those were the ones I used in the 90 at University.

  18. My dad used a slide rule in his work for 30 years before acquiring an HP65 Programmable in the 70s. In 1982 I bought an HP41CX with a "Math Pac" for $300 to get my lazy ass through engineering school. I still have it and dad's HP65 and they are both doing great. I also have just about every other HP Scientific and peripheral ever made. I even have an HP emulator on my phone so I don't have to wear my calculator on my belt anymore. You never know when you'll need to evaluate a hyperbolic cotangent.

  19. Dont you hate when you are doing some useless math problems and you want to use a calculator and the teacher gets angry?

    I get that they want us to be capable, but there is a point where it becomes absurd

  20. Very interesting. I was not aware that there was so much competition for that market back then. Thanks for covering that!

  21. remember hearing that sort of "you wont have calculators on you"crap throughout elementary and middle school, then i got to trigonometry in my junior or senior year of highschool where a graphing calculator was required becuz imaginary numbers, unfortnately my graphing calculator was apparently a different but similar looking model so i could never follow the lessons, which combined with my sudden and uncontrollable urge to sleep in that class meant i never did that well nor retained much of it. scientific calculator was invaluable for both algebra 1 and physics class in my freshman year tho.

  22. My dad and uncle who were tech minded always told me how lucky I was to have a pocket calculator when I was a kid and I was like yeah whatever I have a goddamn game boy but I guess it makes sense considering how expensive and prestige they were during the 70s

  23. remind me of digital watch war…hey LGR,much appreciated if u do a review about evolution of digital watch war…i still remember pulsar…

  24. There's a Unisonic XL-101 in very good condition sitting on my desk. Got it for $6 at a local thrift store. Thanks to modern computer operating systems, I don't use it much…but man, it does look good sitting there.

  25. I can't thank you enough for this video. This is one of my favourite topics in the entire universe!

  26. My dad uses a mid 80s TI-30 SLR+ everyday.It still has the little equation sheet that hides behind it. As a machinist who knows how many times it has been dropped/spilled on… very impressed with that calculator.

  27. I really enjoyed this video as digital watches and calculators have long fascinated me. This video even helped me ironically. At work we were cleaning out an old area of stuff (I work at a law firm) and in a drawer was a Texas Instrument Scientific / Financial Calculator. It isn't in perfect shape since I had to rip out the special battery module and modify it (I kept the back part of the battery case for cosmetic purposes.) Nonetheless, with a normal 9 volt battery, it still works in all its Red LED splendor! After watching this video, I have identified it as an original TI – Business Analyst from 1976. An online museum even has a digital pdf of the manual which is the neatest thing to me: http://www.datamath.org/Sci/MAJESTIC/Business-Analyst.htm

  28. I remember the first handheld that retailed for less than $100. A TI. Can’t remember the exact model. This was at a college bookstore in like 1973-4.

  29. My grandma had so many calculators from these periods. They were so fun to play with to me for some reason. Which says a lot considering my severe dyscalculia.

  30. I got in my posession is a toshiba pocket calculator with a vfd display. Always joke that it uses 2 AA batteries and the ability to plug into the wall. With a price of ten dollars back in '78. I love it as it does what i ask for and is a conversation piece XD

  31. In about 1980, a woman I worked with said her boss had the first Ti calculator in his company ( the hand-held model with the little red numbers) She said it cost $600 and everybody went over to his house to look at it!

  32. No mention of solar or other types of calcs?
    I found an "Overhead Calculator" in my wife's new classroom. It looked like it was vintage early 80's, solar, and translucent for use on an overhead projector. Was in a guncase-grade plastic box to keep this cutting-edge tech from falling into the hands of students.

  33. Wow. Judging by this everyone must have been a math fetishist back then.
    Or a major show-off.
    "Look at me! I have a magical slab that spits out numbers! WoOoOoOoH!"

  34. I'm the operator
    With my pocket calculator
    I'm the operator
    With my pocket calculator
    I am adding
    And subtracting
    I'm controlling
    And composing
    I'm the operator
    With my pocket calculator
    I'm the operator
    With my pocket calculator
    I am adding
    And subtracting
    I'm controlling
    And composing
    By pressing down a special key
    It plays a little melody
    By pressing down a special key
    It plays a little melody
    I'm the operator
    With my pocket calculator
    I'm the operator
    With my pocket calculator

  35. Awesome tale, sir! Agree with that the calculators don't get enough 'credit'.. I see them as the ancestors to the Micros. And agree with you on the last second: Boobs.

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