Story of Calculator

There was a time when written numbers did not exist.

by Masoureh Mosheni

Masoureh Mosheni is a PhD candidate at Polytechnique School of Montreal in Biomedical Engineering

Masoureh Mosheni is a PhD candidate at Polytechnique School of Montreal in Biomedical Engineering

It is difficult to imagine counting without numbers, but there was a time when written numbers did not exist. Merchants who traded goods needed a way to keep inventory of the goods they bought and sold. Various portable counting devices were invented to keep tallies. The abacus is one of many counting devices invented to help count large numbers. When the Hindu-Arabic number system came into use, abacuses were adapted to use place-value counting.

The Abacus developed in the 9th century by the Chinese and was used by the Iranians, Mesopotamians, Greeks and many more cultures. It can do addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, square root and cube root.

The abacus is still in use today by shopkeepers in Asia and "Chinatowns" in North America. The abacus is still taught in Asian schools, and a few schools in the West. Blind children are taught to use the abacus where their sighted counterparts would be taught to use paper and pencil to perform calculations.

One particular use for the abacus is teaching children simple mathematics and especially multiplication; the abacus is an excellent substitute for rote memorization of multiplication tables, a particularly detestable task for young children. The abacus is also an excellent tool for teaching other base numbering systems since it easily adapts itself to any base.

William Schickard (1592 - 1635) succeeded in designing and building the first mechanical calculating device. Schickard’s accomplishment went unknown and unheralded for 300 years, until his notes were discovered and publicized, so it was not until Blaise Pascal’s invention gained widespread notice that mechanical calculation came to the public’s attention.
In 1645, 19-year old Blaise Pascal (1623 - 1662) invented one of the first calculator, called the Pascaline, to help his father with his work collecting taxes. An improvement on Schickard’s design, it nevertheless suffered from mechanical shortcomings and higher functions required repetitive entries.

William Seward Burroughs (1857 – 1898) filed his first patent for a calculating machine. However, his 1892 patent was for an improved calculating machine with an added printer.  The Burroughs Adding Machine Company, which he founded in St. Louis, Missouri, went on to great success popularizing the inventor’s creation.

The hand-held pocket calculator was invented at Texas Instruments, Incorporated (TI) in 1966 by a development team which included Jerry D. Merryman, James H. Van Tassel and Jack St. Clair Kilby. In 1974 a basic patent for miniature electronic calculators has been issued to Texas Instruments Incorporated. The patent is for personal-sized, battery-operated calculators which have their main electronic circuitry in a single integrated semiconductor circuit array, such as the popular "one-chip" calculators.

Since the invention of this first miniature calculator, semiconductor technology has had a dramatic impact on the electronic calculator industry with ever-decreasing prices characteristic of this new breed of computational machines. These price reductions have been a result of advances in solid-state technology and economies of large-scale calculator manufacturing.

In 1968, integrated circuits (ICs) began finding their niche in business calculators. Integrated circuit application, therefore, reduced the cost of parts as well as having a substantial impact on parts handling and assembling.

And, a new chapter in the calculator story was opening...

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John Lewis, “The Pocket Calculator Book”.
“The World’s Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information", Martin Hilbert and Priscila López (2011), Science (journal), 332(6025), 60–65.