Recovered Writing: Undergraduate Technology & American Society Paper on Handheld Calculators, Nov 26, 2003

This is the fifteenth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

This essay was my term paper in Professor Steven W. Usselman’s HTS 3083, Technology and American Society course at Georgia Tech in Fall 2003. I wrote this essay in the second class that I took from Professor Usselman (with the first being HTS 2082, Science and Technology of the Industrial Age). Professor Usselman gave his lectures as engaging stories full of detail and context. As a lecturer, he knows how to guide and support his students on their way to understanding. It is a credit to Professor Usselman that I remember enjoying his lectures, but I do not remember writing my essay below (which alarmingly is true for much of my early writing). However, I thought that this essay would share some correspondence with the object-oriented essays in my previously posted essays from Professor Kenneth J. Knoespel’s Technologies of Representation class. These kinds of interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary connections are what excited me the most about my Georgia Tech undergraduate education.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Steven W. Usselman


November 26, 2003

Introduction of Electronic Handheld Calculators

The story of the electronic handheld calculator is about making one product to sell to consumers while proving a piece of that product to industry.  Eventually the electronic handheld calculator would probably have come along, but its introduction in America by Texas Instruments was done not to fill a void or need in the marketplace for electronic handheld calculators.  It was introduced to push the idea of the “heart” of the calculator–the integrated circuit.  The story of the calculator is tightly woven with that of the integrated circuit, or microchip.

Before the handheld calculator debuted there was the desktop electronic calculator which “had to be plugged in (120 v), were the size of typewriters, and cost as much as an automobile” (Hamrick 633).  After WWII scientists, engineers, bankers, actuaries, and others found greater need of computational power.  With the advent of transistors to replace the much larger vacuum tube, electronic computation machines were able to be reduced in size.  The story of the integrated circuit and the transistor are almost a case of history repeating itself.  In 1954, Texas Instruments was one of the world leaders in mass producing transistors.  The public and industry, however, were not as ready to jump on the transistor bandwagon yet.  Pat Haggerty, VP of Texas Instruments, had his engineers develop a pocket sized radio using transistors.  TI had limited experience with consumer products so TI teamed up with Regency Company of Indiana to market the pocket radio.  The radio was introduced just before Christmas of 1954 and over 100,000 radios were sold in the first year.  The salability of the transistor pocket radio impressed companies like IBM who began to buy transistors from TI.

TI had trouble selling the integrated circuit to big companies for introduction into their products.  Also, the nature of the integrated circuit was not good as a business model as it stood when it was first developed.  It was difficult to built a good integrated circuit, but once a good one was built, it rarely went bad.  Without a need of replacing integrated circuits like with vacuum tubes, TI wanted to find new applications for the integrated circuit so that they could be sold for use in many other products not currently using electronics such as transistors or tubes.

Haggerty thought that this “invention technique” would work for introducing the world to the integrated circuit (Hamrick 634).  Haggerty ran the idea by the inventor of the integrated circuit, Jack Kilby while on a flight back to Dallas.  What was to be invented was up in the air at this point.  Haggerty suggested to Kilby, “invent a calculator that would fit in a shirt pocket like the radio, or invent a lipstick-size dictaphone machine, or invent something else that used the microchip” (Hamrick 634).  Kilby liked the idea of inventing a calculator so that is what he went with.  Kilby was allowed to choose his own team back at TI’s headquarters in Dallas.  He choose Jerry Merryman _  and James Van Tassel.   Kilby made his pitch to his assembled team.  He described to them that they would build a “our own personal computer of sorts which would be portable, and would replace the slide rule” (Hamrick 634).  At this time the invention was not yet called a “calculator,” but a “slide rule computer” (Hamrick 634).  It was code named CAL-TECH.  Tasks were divided among the team members:  Kilby worked on the power supply, Van Tassel worked mostly on the keyboard, and Merryman worked on the logic and the output.

The CAL-TECH prototype was completed in November 1966, almost one year after it was first discussed by Haggerty and Kilby.  This first handheld electronic calculator was about 4” by 6” by 1.5” and it was a heavy 45 oz. because it was constructed from a block of aluminum.  What is interesting about the display of the CAL-TECH is that it doesn’t have one.  Its output is handled by a newly designed “integrated heater element array and drive matrix” which was invented by Merryman for this project.  This allowed for the output to be burned onto a paper roll and it was designed to use little power.  The CAL-TECH had 18 keys:  0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, ., X, +, -, , C, E, and P (Hamrick 635).  This early calculator could actually only add and subtract.  For multiplication it would add repeatedly and for division it would subtract repeatedly.  The patent was first filed for the CAL-TECH on September 29, 1967_ .

As with the transistor radio, TI did not want to make the first handheld electronic calculators themselves.  TI partnered with Canon of Japan to market the consumer version of the CAL-TECH, the Pocketronic.  The Pocketronic was first offered to the market on April 14, 1970, the day before income tax returns were due (Hamrick 636).  The Pocketronic was lauded in Business Week magazine as “the portable, pocketable, all electronic consumer calculator that the electronics industry had long dreamed about” (Hamrick 636).  It was small and it only weighed 1.8 pounds.  Initially it cost $400 ($1500 in 1995 dollars).  This is compared to the bulky, desktop calculators which cost more than $2000 (over $7,500 in 1995 dollars) (Hamrick 636).  Production costs of the parts to build electronic handheld calculators decreased the cost of production compared to the electronic desktop calculators of the day.  For example, “the 1966 business calculator version retailing for $2000 contained over a thousand discrete semiconductors such as transistors and resistors with a cost of $170” (Ament).  Ament goes on to show that “in 1968, integrated circuits (ICs) began finding their niche in business calculators with a typical selling price of $1000…[which] had 90 ICs at a cost of $125.”  The Pocketronic used a MOS/LSI_  IC which put all the functions of the calculator on one IC chip.  This further reduced the cost of parts and it reduced the number of parts involved in production.  This better economy of production helped fuel the boom in electronic handheld calculators that took place in the early 1970s.

Compared to today’s calculators, the Pocketronic was outrageously expensive and it could only do basic arithmetic.  At that time, however, it was doing something that only specialized and much more expensive machines could do.  It was the first step in democratizing computational machines.  It would start the move of computation from academia and big business to K-12 schools and the home.

The instruction manual for the Pocketronic features a picture of a man dressed in a suit holding the Pocketronic performing a calculation for a woman wearing a coat, tie, and fashionable hat watches while she is standing in the open door of a car (Canon).  She is probably looking at the car at a dealership and the man is a car salesman.  Initially this higher cost item was probably marketed to professionals who could bear the cost of the new technology.  As with much technology it was suggested as primarily as a man’s tool.  Hamrick takes some excerpts from early articles and advertisements of calculators in the 1970s.  Here are a few examples:

1.  “Calculators are being sold to engineers, college students, and women to use for shopping.”

2.  “Every housewife will have one (calculator) when she goes shopping.”

3.  “Salesmen use them to compute estimates and prices for carpeting and fences.  A professional pilot carries one for navigational calculations.  A housewife with skeet-shooting sons checks shooting record cards.”

4.  “At the supermarket, the new calculator will help your wife find the best unit price bargains.  At the lumberyard, they’ll help you decide which combination of plywood, lumber and hardboard would be least expensive for your project” (Hamrick 639).

These excerpts reveal a sexism regarding how calculators will be used by men and by women.  Men are shown as using the calculator in a professional sphere.  The calculator is a tool that helps a man in his daily work.  Women are shown as using the calculator in the home sphere.  The calculator can be a tool for the woman to perform household duties much as she should use a sewing machine or some other appliance.  The calculator was marketed to both men and women, but the attitudes shown in the advertising shows a sexist bent regarding how the two sexes will use their respective calculators.

Demand was great enough however that other manufacturers quickly began making their own electronic handheld calculators.  By “October of 1974, the JS&A Company, which sold calculators through mail and magazine advertisement, offered the Texas Instrument TI-2550 for an incredible $9.95.  For this period, a calculator under $10 was incredible cheap!” (King).  It would follow that in order to justify such a ramp-up in production there must have been a lot of people wanting to buy these electronic handheld calculators.  Robert King writes that there were “seven such ‘milestones’ leading to today’s commonly-used calculator” (King).  He lists them as portability, small size, replaceable batteries, increased functions, liquid crystal display, solar power, and cheapness (King).  These stages of calculator evolution were each mastered or integrated into products increasing the market demand for the calculator while decreasing the cost of the calculator.

Slide rule manufacturers began to fall to the wayside because of the demand for calculators instead of slide rules.  For instance, “Keuffel & Esser, the oldest slide rule manufacturer…made its last slide rule in 1975,” only five years after the introduction of the Pocketronic (Hamrick 638).  Slide rules had been the primary portable computation device used by students, scientists, and engineers before the calculator came along.  The electronic desktop calculators also began to be phased out when more advanced and powerful calculators began to come out such as Hewlett-Packard’s HP-35 in 1972_ .  HP’s website describes the HP-35 as, “the world’s first scientific handheld calculator. Small enough to fit into a shirt pocket, the powerful HP-35 makes the engineer’s slide rule obsolete. In 2000, Forbes ASAP names it one of 20 “all time products” that have changed the world” (HP).  The first handheld calculator makes inroads into markets where people need to make basic arithmetic computations.  These newer, more advanced calculators move into the markets where the more specialized desktop calculators and early computer systems were the mainstay.  The explosion of the handheld calculator market muscles in quietly and quickly usurping the dominant position of calculation technology in many different arenas where people need to make calculations.

In the home and business market, the calculator was swiftly adopted and integrated into a standard tool.  A source of some controversy involved the introduction of the calculator into schools.  There was not a loud outcry about students using calculators in college level classes.  In one example, the University of Ohio redesigned its remedial college math class so that calculators were required for the curriculum.  Leitzel and Waits describe the situation at the University of Ohio in the autumn of 1974 as “we faced approximately 4500 students who were not prepared to begin our precalculus courses” (731).  The authors note that “the enrollment in our remedial course includes typically a large number of students from diverse backgrounds, with equally diverse abilities, with poor attitudes toward the study of mathematics, with poor study habits and, to a large extent, poor academic motivation” (Leitzel and Waits, 731).  Only a few years after the introduction of the handheld calculator these professors are designing a new approach to an old mathematics course that will try to capture the attention of these students with such poor school habits.  The calculator will be instructive and it will be a hook to get the students interested in the material.  They noted that “in using calculators students raised questions about arithmetic properties of numbers that would have been of little interest to them otherwise” and “the desire to use the calculator seemed often to motivate this understanding” (Leitzel and Waits, 732).  The calculator would let the students spend more time doing more problems in a sort of trial and error scenario.  It took a long time to do some calculations with a slide rule or by hand.  A calculator would allow for easy and quick computation involving larger numbers or large sets of numbers.  Leitzel and Waits are proposing that by letting the students explore mathematics with the calculator as a facilitating tool, it is allowing the students to accomplish what they were not motivated to do before.  They add, however, “the question of whether a person who uses a hand-held calculator to do computations is somehow less educated than a person who does computations mentally we will leave for others to decide” (Leitzel and Waits, 732).  This was the big question regarding the calculator for those in education.  Was the calculator something that built upon the learning process or was it something that detracted from one’s development of arithmetic ability.  This question weighed much more heavily on those in K-12 education than in colleges.  Calculators were not rushed into kindergartens or the early grades in school.  I remember using calculators and adding machines at home and at my parent’s business when I was young.  The school curriculum in the schools I attended in southeast Georgia didn’t allow the use of a calculator in until the sixth grade.  That was in 1988-1989.

This debate continues even in the higher levels of grade school.  One of the loudest arguments involves high school geometry and the development of proofs.  Proofs allow the student to see that there is a rational basis for particular mathematical rules and operations that might not appear intuitive at first glance.  James Stein Jr. writes, “I am extremely concerned by the current emphasis on calculators in the elementary and secondary mathematics curriculum.  The vast majority of my students, to borrow Hofstadter’s phrase, are woefully innumerate, a condition I believe has been exacerbated by the reliance on calculators” (447).  Stein_  reveals that by this time, about 17 years after the introduction of the Canon Pocketronic, calculators are used in elementary and secondary schools.  Neil Rickert_  writes regarding this issue, “although the curriculum a generation ago was far from ideal, at least the students learned that mathematics provided a powerful tool for solving interesting and difficult problems.  Today mathematically strong students are leaving high school convinced that mathematics is a boring and sterile subject, overloaded with pedantry” (447).  He feels that by having students spoon feed axioms instead of discovering the proof behind those axioms and principles, students are turned away from mathematics.  The dynamo of change from proofs to the more problem solving ideology is the calculator.  With the calculator students are better equipped to perform complex operations and solve difficult problems whereas before there was a limit to the number of problems or complexity of a problem that a student could tackle with only pencil, paper and a slide rule.  In response to Stein and Rickert, Lynn Arthur Steen_  writes, “the calculator makes possible precisely the exploration of arithmetic patterns that Stein seeks.  To translate this possibility into reality will require greater emphasis on quality teaching so that calculators can be used effectively” (447).  Steen is looking for a solution involving teaching and the use of calculators.  She isn’t placing all blame on the calculators.  She goes on to say, “the need to move students from lower, rote skills to complex problem-solving has been recognized in virtually every report on education during the last decade.  It is calculation rather than deduction (as Rickert states) that improperly dominates today’s school curriculum” (448).  This shows that she also thinks that calculators have too much school space in that students are encouraged and taught to use them in elementary and secondary schools.  She feels that there are greater skills that must be taught along side the use of calculators.  Steen is suggesting that better problem solving skills coupled with the calculator should be the new order for elementary and secondary school math education.  After the initial boom and integration of the calculator into educational life, everyday life, and professional life, there is a backlash against the adoption of the calculator in educational life.  There must be mediation between traditional rote skill learning and the use of the calculator.  There must also be an revision in the way problem solving skills are taught and approached to better utilize the calculator as a tool and not as a reliance.  The debate regarding calculators in the classroom continue to this day though it often regards more advanced calculators such as ones capable of symbolic manipulation_  and graphing complex equations.

The electronic handheld calculator was initially embraced by many different people in different spheres of life such as the home, business, or school.  People needed to calculate percentages, balance check books, more easily solve math problems, calculate interest, and many, many other things.  Initially the calculator moved into these different facets of society and debate or dissent did not arise until the growing use of calculators in the school environment.  College mathematics departments tried to use calculators to help some remedial students get up to speed while other math professionals decried the use of calculators in elementary and secondary schools.  In the professional and home arenas, the calculator has been accepted as a useful tool to solve many problems that were once tedious or nearly impossible to do without the aid of some mechanical or electrical computation technology.  The introduction of the electronic handheld calculator was a quiet revolution that brought a democratization of calculation to nearly everyone in America.

Works Cited

Ament, Phil.  “Hand-Held Calculator.”  The Great Idea Finder.  Oct. 22, 2002.  Nov. 23, 2003 <;.

Canon Incorporated.  Canon Pocketronic Instructions.  Japan:  Canon.  1970.

Hamrick, Kathy.  “The History of the Hand-Held Electronic Calculator.”  The American Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 103, No. 8 (Oct., 1996), 633-639.

Hewlett-Packard Company.  “HP timeline – 1970s.”  2003. Nov. 23, 2003 <;.

King, Robert.  “The Evolution of Today’s Calculator.”  The International Calculator Collector, Spring 1997.  Nov. 23, 2003 <;

Leitzel, Joan and Bert Waits.  “Hand-Held Calculators in the Freshman Mathematics Classroom.”  The American Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 83, No. 9 (Nov., 1976), 731-733.

Rickert, Neil W..  “Mathematics Education.”  Science, New Series, Vol. 238, No.    4826 (Oct. 23, 1987), 447.

Steen, Lynn Arthur.  “Mathematics Education:  Response.”  Science, New Series, Vol. 238, No. 4826 (Oct. 23, 1987), 447-448.

Stein Jr., James D..  “Mathematics Education.”  Science, New Series, Vol. 238, No. 4826 (Oct. 23, 1987), 447.

1 Jerry Merryman is described as a “self-taught engineer” who attended Texas A & M, but never graduated.  He was considered “one of the brightest young engineers at TI (Hamrick 634).  _2 This first patent filing was followed by a refiling on May 13, 1971 and it was refiled again on December 21, 1972.  The CAL-TECH is covered by patent number 3,819, 921 (Hamrick 635)._3 MOS/LSI stands for metal-oxide-semiconductor/large scale integration._4 “The HP-35 was introduced in January, 1972 and was recalled in December, 1972.  The owners were sent a letter pointing out idiosyncrasies in programming caused by a defect in one logic algorithm.  HP offered to replace the calculator.  This was probably the world’s first instant recall.  The defect caused a few 10 digit numbers, when used in an exponential function, to give an answer that was wrong by 1%” (Hamrick, 638)._5 James D. Stein Jr. is in the Department of Mathematics at both the California State University, Long Beach, CA and the University of California, Los Angeles, CA._6 Neil W. Rickert is from the Department of Computer Science, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL._7 Lynn Arthur Steen is from the Department of Mathematics at St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN._8 The TI-92 is able to solve equations for a numerical answer and it can perform many calculus operations such as derivatives, integrals, etc.._

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.