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We don't think of pocket calculators as being all that special these days, but in reality their rise coincided with many of the innovations we take for granted today.

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We don’t think of pocket calculators as being all that special these days. They’re cheap, easy to lose, and your phone can do all that stuff anyway, right? But the development of the pocket calculator mirrors the electronics revolution that brought us smartphones and modern computers.

In fact, some technologies we now take for granted found their first widespread use in electronic calculators in the 1960s and 70s. The first sort of compact electronic calculators couldn’t fit in your pocket. They were the size of a typewriter, and demanded so much power they needed a wall outlet.

For example, the Anita Mark VIII was available in the early 1960s, and cost as much as a car at the time. It performed basic arithmetic functions by using vacuum tubes — basically airtight chambers with filaments inside, which could shuttle electrons in precise ways to generate currents or act as switches. The name was short for either A New Inspiration To Arithmetic or A New Inspiration To Accounting — which gives you a clue as to who bought these expensive machines.

But soon, there were a couple major technological leaps that revolutionized calculators… and the rest of electronics. First, for calculators to become cheaper, more portable, and less fragile, vacuum tubes were replaced with transistors and integrated circuits. A transistor functions like a gate for electrons.

Basically, by applying electrical power, it can be either open or closed. These binary states are still the basic idea behind all electronics. And typically, transistors are made from a material called a semiconductor, which sometimes conducts electricity, and sometimes doesn’t.

Early transistor electronics, like the super popular transistor radio for consumers, would string individual transistors together in series. Transistors were way smaller and sturdier than vacuum tubes, but more complex devices like computers were still fairly big. In the late 1950s, though, engineers invented the integrated circuit: a single semiconductor chip that had all parts of a circuit on it — including many transistors.

One of those engineers worked at Texas Instruments. The company knew it had something good on its hands, but struggled to find a good consumer outlet for these compact chips. That is, until 1965, with the design of the first prototype electronic pocket calculator.

It was code-named Cal-Tech, measured about ten by fifteen centimeters, and could perform the four basic arithmetic functions: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Its chip required the equivalent of thousands of transistors. They even built a version for testing without integrated circuits, which, according to one designer, took up an entire two-tiered, two-meter-tall desk.

So integrated circuits really packed a punch. These days we call them microchips, and we put them in, everything. The Cal-Tech also printed out results on a roll of tape using a thermal printer.

This was also pretty new at the time and worked by basically melting text into a special type of paper, like the receipts you get at the grocery store. The TI team actually wanted an electronic display, but that technology wasn’t great yet. LEDs at the time had poor visibility.

LEDs work based on passing an electric current or field through a semiconductor, which causes electrons to shift around and emit light. The color of the light can be altered by introducing different elements, which is easier said than done. It’s taken decades to make LEDs in every color of the rainbow.

Early on, gallium and arsenic-based LEDs were only capable of emitting infrared and very dim red light because of the way electrons move through those particular elements. Lots pocket calculators after the Cal-Tech did feature red LED displays. But they demanded a ton of battery power, because those early systems still weren’t very energy-efficient.

The next revolution in calculators was the liquid crystal display, or LCD. Liquid crystals have molecules that are free to move like a liquid, but can settle into an ordered state like a crystalline solid. This dual identity means they can block or transmit light, and switch between states rapidly when there’s an input like electricity.

That’s why we use them in electronic displays. The first LCDs were fragile and only functioned at high temperatures. But a breakthrough came in perfecting a mix of chemicals that behave as liquid crystals at room temperature.

Other developments made them quicker and more durable, as well. LCD’s used less power than LED’s so calculators could run off of watch batteries instead of large battery packs. Alongside digital watches, pocket calculators were the first widespread consumer use of the LCD display.

Nowadays, we have full-color LED and LCD displays, and these technologies factor into things like researching what kind of TV you might want to buy. Over the next few decades, calculators became slimmer, cheaper, and more powerful. They evolved from specialized tools for business, to a status symbol, to a basic tool you could find in an office supply store.

But all this development eventually slowed to a crawl. Like, you probably don’t carry a separate PDA, digital camera, or pager, because cell phones do all that. So you wouldn’t carry a separate calculator either, unless you’re still in school and you need it for the SAT or something.

They’ve stayed basic machines to help with learning, not flashy, Internet-enabled devices. And that’s how the golden age fizzled. But calculators did play a big part in the consumer electronics revolution, popularizing display technology and the computer chip itself.

Nothing to sneeze at. All this talk about old school calculators takes me back to my mathlete days. [talk about this if it’s true, or talk about what is actually true]. offers courses and quizzes in all kinds of subjects, but they also have a course on how to improve your competitive math skills.

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