Devices of Dreams: A Look at Powerful Calculators of the Past

I have an odd passion. Well, maybe it’s not so odd, but I don’t think it’s commonplace, and I’ve talked about it on my tech podcast Sovryn Tech before. I like to push devices, cars, products, etc., to their absolute limits. Upgrading, modifying, or just plain finding new uses for certain features is what allows me to take anything I own to the next level. I suppose it’s the reason I don’t really buy Apple products anymore, because I can’t really get into them and “bend them to my will”.

Probably the first thing I ever tried to take beyond its designed capabilities is…the calculator. I’m actually rather obsessed with calculators. I wear one on my wrist, and have done so for most of my life. The present calculator watch model that I wear is the Casio DBC-32 watch, and it’s in black (of course).

A history of calculators is in many ways the history of computers. They’re part in parcel, and largely one in the same. Over the decades, some companies have actually tried very hard to turn their pocket calculators into pocket PC’s, and I thought it would be interesting to highlight some of these “machines” and how they pushed the limits of what we thought a calculator could do.

Even then, the use of a calculator goes beyond what companies like Texas Instruments and HP had in mind. You can use a pocket calculator to create highly encrypted (perhaps even the best encrypted) messages to send. Or you can do something as simple is typing out my favorite number: “58,008”…and then flip the calculator upside down and cause the person in front of you to read the word “BOOBS” (get it?). Boy, that one never gets old.

Ironically, the smartphone/tablet is the ultimate dream of the “pocket PC” that calculators were in many ways trying to become…and smartphones make incredible calculators. History has reversed. On Android, I specifically use “NeoCal”, which can more into a scientific calculator, a programming calculator (very helpful to me), or fractional calculator, and more. I dare say I’d buy an Android device solely to use it as a calculator (if I didn’t already have one).

Make no mistake, I do my best to do as many things as I can “in my head”, but sometimes the number crunching just needs to go the next level, and that’s where solid and feature-rich calculators have near-literally saved the modern world (in the abstract, not that I’m doing any world saving math). Most people don’t realize that nearly every school in the USA still uses a Texas Instruments TI-84 or TI-83 graphing calculators and they cost more than many smartphones (granted, this is due to a “standardized testing” monopoly in schools). These calculators are sturdy, perfected, and still incredibly useful.

But let’s take a walk down memory lane with calculators (and a calculator watch) that show the history of the ever-versatile…calculator…

Hewlett-Packard HP-35 (1972)414091-hewlett-packard-hp-35-1972

The HP-35 made huge waves upon its release as the world’s first scientific pocket calculator — and as HP’s first pocket calculator in general. It caused engineers everywhere to drool with anticipation — the thought of performing complex instantaneous calculations at their fingertips seemed almost too good to be true — and it set the standard for scientific calculators for the next decade.

Texas Instruments Datamath 2500 (1972)

414090-texas-instruments-datamath-2500-1972The Datamath 2500 was Texas Instruments’s first pocket calculator, and one of the smallest calculators on the market at the time of its release. It was about the size of a pack of 100s cigarettes in length and about 1.5 packs in thickness. It sold for $119.95 at launch — about $640 today when adjusted for inflation — which was actually relatively inexpensive for a calculator at the time. It sold well and set the stage for TI’s successful future in the calculator market.

Hewlett-Packard HP-65 (1974)

414087-hewlett-packard-hp-65-1974In 1974, the HP-65 continued HP’s tradition of innovative scientific calculators by being the first programmable pocket calculator that could read and write programs to removable magnetic strips. As a result, it was as close as any company came to a “pocket computer” at that time, and astronauts during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project even carried an HP-65 to space as a backup in case the ship’s guidance computer malfunctioned.

Casio CM-80 (1980)

414086-casio-cm-80-1980The first calculator watches appeared in the mid-1970s, but Casio popularized the gadget in the 1980s with the C-80 — which cost significantly less than predecessors due to its plastic construction. Unlike earlier calculator watches, Casio’s models included buttons big enough for fingers to push without need for a stylus. These watches soon became trendy fashion items, and Casio still produces models similar to the C-80 today.

Hewlett-Packard HP-12C (1981)

414089-hewlett-packard-hp-12c-1981With the HP-12C, the company hit upon a winning combination of form and function that has kept this model — the most successful calculator HP ever released — in near-constant production since 1981. Its built-in shortcuts for common financial calculations has made it a near-standard in the banking and finance management industries. Its sister products, the HP-11C (scientific), HP-15C (high-end scientific), and HP-16C (for programmers) inspire similar cult followings, but none have sold nearly as well as the 12C.

Texas Instruments TI-81 (1990)

414088-texas-instruments-ti-81-1990The TI-81 may not have been the first graphing calculator (that honor goes to a model made by Casio), but it was the first graphing calculator to made a big splash in American schools, where it was commonly seen (and even required) for middle- and high-school math classes during the 1990s. Successors of this device (such as the popular TI-83) picked up where the TI-81 left off, and many TI graphic calculators can still be found in schools to this day.

Texas Instruments TI-92 (1995)

414092-texas-instruments-ti-92-1995During a time when TI unquestionably ruled American math classrooms with its graphing calculator products, the company decided to go all-out and create a whopper of a device, the TI-92, which contained a PC-class Motorola 68000 CPU, a large screen, a full QWERTY keyboard, and, of course, advanced programmability features. The resulting calculator was quite expensive — and the keyboard disqualified it from use during quite a few tests — but the TI-92 still turns heads as an iconic flagship calculator from that era.
I can barely remember all the things that I thought I could do as a kid whenever I held a calculator (admittedly, some of these calculators can play actual games), but I know I would dream big when holding one…rationally or not. For many my age (34 years old) it was the first electronic device they ever touched. And impressively, the history of the calculator–even outside of smartphones–may not be over yet…
Carpe lucem!
donate_svtDISCLAIMER: The ZOG Blog is the part of this site where Dr. Brian Sovryn can talk about anything. From pop culture, to philosophy, to just sharing updates with what’s going on at Zomia Offline Games and with other projects.