Pioneering Calculator Companies
By Guy Ball and Bruce Flamm
To many, the "Bowmar Brain" is synonymous with the early pocket electronic calculator. Originally an LED (light emitting diode) display manufacturer, Bowmar/Ali, Inc. (USA), found they could not sell their displays to Japanese electronic calculator makers. Reviewing their business plan in 1970-71 and examining the new trends in the marketplace, Bowmar decided to design and manufacture portable calculators which would be sold by other marketing companies.
In September 1971 they modified their plans and began shipping their first model, a hand-held unit, under their own nameplate. This model (the 901B) was also produced for other companies including Craig (model 4501) and Commodore (C110). Bowmar soon became one of the world's largest producers of electronic calculators, mainly pocket models, for sale by themselves and by other companies such as Sears, Radio Shack, etc. (under their own nameplates). Early Bowmar calculators were made in the USA. In later years some were also made or assembled in Mexico.
In the mid-1970s, as the calculator "boom" was in full swing, Bowmar could not get enough integrated circuit chips from their suppliers and could not keep pace with the marketplace in low cost and new features. By 1976 the company had gone bankrupt, leaving a legacy of technical and marketing innovations.
(Key - 4-funct=basic 4 arithmatic functions, sealed batt=rechargeable batteries sealed in the case, dimensions in inches.)
Footnote - The end for Bowmar:
In Feb. 1975 the journal "New Scientist" reported:
"Even those closest to the pocket calculator business have been overwhelmed by the pace of developments and the nose dive in prices. Indeed, so bloody has been the price war at the cheap end in particular that many a proud name has fallen by the wayside. Last week the second largest calculator manufacturer in the United States, Bowmar Instrument Corp, became the latest casualty. The company may yet survive—as an acquired or merged operation—but it will have to be slimmed down considerably.
Bowmar's problems are typical of the times. Envious of the handsome profits being made by the assembly houses who put calculators together from other suppliers' components and sell them at substantial profit [such as Bowmar], the giant US semiconductor manufacturers started to integrate their own companies vertically and moved heavily into the calculator assembly business. Texas instruments was followed by Rockwell and, more recently, National Semiconductor. They brought with them a price advantage on the vital integrated circuits, plus greater technological ability and superior financial resources—and, above all, control over the supply of microcircuits to competitive manufacturers.
Texas Instruments quickly moved into the number one position in the United States— which is by far the largest calculator market in the world, accounting for 40 per cent of all machines sold. It became clear that the only survivors in the big league would be those that were vertically integrated. And so Bowmar as an assembly house took the necessary plunge—investing $7 million in a large semiconductor plant in Chandler, Arizona. Their timing, however, couldn't have been worse: by then, many manufacturers had developed overcapacity, the shops and warehouses were stocked to overflowing, and everybody was strapped for cash. By mid-February, Bowmar reckoned its after-tax loss had soared to $20 million on a year's sales of $80 million. The company filed for protection under the federal bankruptcy law."
Footnote - Bowmar Renaissance:
In February 2012 the Fort Wayne Daily News & the local newspaper Aboite & About reported that the Fort Wayne-based Bowmar LLC was now in business again after being bought by investors in the Main Street Venture Fund.
As reported above, in 1976 the company had filed for bankruptcy protection. However, it managed to continue by withdrawing from the consumer market and producing precision mechanical devices, including some used in the Apollo Lunar Excursion Module and F-4 Phantom fighter planes. Through a series of acquisitions and mergers it ultimately became part of White Electronic Designs.
Now Main Street investors have purchased the Fort Wayne facility, restored the Bowmar name, and have bought back the founder of Bowmar, Edward White.
So the proud Bowmar name is alive once again.
Thanks to Max Stone and Adam Hunt for providing this interesting information and the link to it.
© Text & photographs copyright Nigel Tout 2000-2021 except where noted otherwise.