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The Birth of the Electronic Age

Copyright 1996 by Guy Ball.

What was the first battery-powered calculator you ever had? If you're over forty, you might just remember it. That's likely because of the excitement over "pocket" calculators in the early 1970s: when, unlike today, having one was not the norm. For most of us, they were new, they were expensive, and, while we couldn't see it at the time, they marked the beginning of a new era in technology.

Those early pocket calculators were actually the harbinger of the modern computerized world we have today. If you dig deep enough, you find that the first use of electronic microprocessors was for basic 4-function, general purpose calculators -- not military computer behemoths, not business super computers, not even for video games.

Intel's 4004 IC chip, generally acknowledged as the world's first "microcomputer on a chip," was originally designed in 1969-70 for the Busicom (Japan) 141-PF desktop calculator. Competitor Texas Instruments had their own microprocessor (the TMS 1000) in 1971 but used it as their mainstay calculator IC, initially ignoring any use beyond the calculator.

The power of those first microprocessors was incredible. Twenty five years before this (in 1946) engineers and scientists developed the ENIAC computer -- a 3000-cubic foot mass of vacuum tubes and wires. In 1971 engineers placed the same amount of computing power on a piece of silicon no larger than 1/4" square. And they did so at a price that was now affordable.

For those old enough, you might recollect when solutions to simple scientific equations were either a product of working through an elaborate calculation written on paper or a chalkboard (hoping you didn't run out of space before you were finished) or pulling out a slide rule (knowing your solution's resolution and accuracy was only as good as your eyesight and the quality of the rule).

That effort is exactly why the calculator market took off. You didn't have to "grunt through" calculations on your way to the more important solutions. When Hewlett Packard came out with the world's first scientific model (the HP-35) in January of 1972, it was backordered for 4 to 5 months because of the demand. And it wasn't cheap. The HP-35 cost $395 -- at the time, 2 to 3 weeks pay for most engineers!

Calculating tough sets of numbers was now easy and accurate. Trigonometric tables were unnecessary and quickly forgotten. The resolution of your answer was as fine as you wanted it to be. And best of all, your solution was quick -- what may have taken minutes (or hours if exceedingly complex) would only take seconds.

The genie was out of the bottle. True computing power was starting to reach the masses. While the first 4 function calculators (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) sold for $200-$400 in 1971, prices dropped to under $100 less than 2 years later. And with the reductions came an increase in features (memory, square root, trigonometric functions -- all on consumer-oriented calculators!). In 1974, students could buy a fully scientific model for under $100. Sadly for those of us with fond remembrances, slide rules were on their deathbed.

Calculators weren't the end of the evolutionary process, just a catalyst. Their tremendous consumer demand drove manufacturers to improve the integrated circuit process with greater performance, better production yields, and lower prices. This piggy-backed the way for ICs to be used in many other applications impacting our everyday life. Yet the greatest initial growth was in microprocessors -- which got more powerful and much faster. Intel worked hard to develop the next generations of their 4004 including the 8008, 8080, and then the 8086/8088 (the original IBM PC chip). Innovators at other companies were developing the 6800 (Motorola), 6502 (MOS Technology), and the Z80 (Zilog).

All of a sudden we had personal computers -- rudimentary as they seem by today's standards. Just as the printing press revolutionized the distribution of information, affordable microprocessors gave the power of technology to the common man and woman. Few of us could envision the computing power of today -- the informational CDs that take us to other planets, the Internet that connects us to other lands, the power of 100 MHz Pentiums in the palm of our hands.

So as I "fire up" my 1971 vintage Bowmar Brain model 901B ($245 original price), I take great joy in watching the red digits dance across the LED display. I can remember the magic and mystery of the first calculators I saw. I didn't care then that I could do little more than add up some numbers. There was something so indescribably special about these boxes of "high-tech" electronics with their colored lights and gawky keypads.

I didn't know it at the time, but I was feeling the power of a new age. And it felt good.

Vintage Calculators

© Text & photographs copyright Nigel Tout   2000-2017  except where noted otherwise.