The History of the Calculator

One of the most important inventions in the history of humanity is the calculator. This useful device can easily add, subtract, multiply, and divide numbers. It can perform functions that would take mathematicians hours to complete in seconds. It's even more impressive to look back at how far calculators have come. This article looks at calculators from their first mechanical beginnings to the hand-held devices we use today.

The Abacus

The history of the calculator starts with the Abacus, which dates back to around 2300 BC. The Abacus was invented several thousand years ago in Ancient Sumeria and Egypt. It was made up of a frame with wires that stood for different numbers and an area below for beads. It was possible to do simple calculations.

By moving the beads up and down, mathematicians could use the Abacus to perform arithmetic calculations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and even square root operations. The Abacus worked by holding place values in columns of beads, pebbles or shells. An abacus can complete complex calculations by manipulating the number of beads in each column.

Although this invention was a huge step forward, it had its limitations. The device was slow and cumbersome to use, there were no special functions, and it couldn't be used by those who didn't understand how numbers worked.

The Napier's Bones by John Napier

"Napier's Bones" are a mechanical alternative to the Abacus. The Napier's Bones were invented by an early 17th-century Scottish mathematician, John Napier, searching for a faster way to do multiplication.

A set of Napier's Bones consists of rods, each of which is marked with numbers from 1 to 10. The rods are stacked next to each other, with the numbers aligned in vertical columns. The user takes two sets of bones and multiplies or divides numbers by lining up the two corresponding rods.

Napier's bones allowed people to make relatively complex multiplication and division without much effort.

The Slide Rule by William Oughtred

William Oughtred was an English mathematician who in 1622 developed his first two scales and called it a "sliding rule". The term "slide rule" came into use sometime later.

The slide rule uses two logarithmic scales that allow rapid multiplication and division in its most basic form. Oughtred also produced other versions with three and four scales; today, these are called "three-rule and four-rule" slides.

A slide rule usually consists of three parts: a logarithmic scale (linear scale), a thin rectangular slider (the cursor), and an index arm. The user determines one number from two given numbers using three steps:

  1. Find the number on the logarithmic scale corresponding to one of the two numbers.
  2. Move the cursor to this number.
  3. Read off the answer on the other side of the scale.

The advantage of a slide rule is that it can be faster than a calculator or computer with practice because reading off an answer directly can be faster than punching buttons or typing in numbers on a keyboard.

The Pascaline by Blaise Pascal

Blaise Pascal was a French physicist and mathematician, he's best known for Pascal's triangle (which deals with binomial coefficients). In 1642, Pascal created a device called the Pascaline, capable of performing all four arithmetic operations without being told the numbers involved.

The device consisted of a wheel with numbers that could be turned using a handle. They were mounted on rods and could be moved around to change the order of the numbers that got added, subtracted, multiplied or divided at will. When two of these wheels were put together, it could even multiply two six-digit numbers. The Pascaline was much faster than other calculators available at the time and more accurate due to its sophisticated carry mechanisms.

The Arithmometer by Thomas de Colmar

In 1820, the French engineer and inventor Thomas de Colmar invented The Arithmometer, an adding machine. This invention was so significant that it changed the way people perceived computing.

The Arithmometer is a mechanical calculator that uses a cogwheel mechanism to perform arithmetic operations. It was the world's first commercially successful mechanical calculator, and its production continued into the 1930s. The machine can add, subtract, multiply, and divide quickly and accurately.

The Colossus by Tommy Flowers

The history of the electronic calculator began in the 1930s. The technology to construct a calculator using the complex logic required to solve arithmetic problems was not yet invented. However, while working at Princeton in America, an Englishman named Turing had developed theories on how it could be done.

Turing work was carried forward by Tommy Flowers in England in 1939, who made a special calculating machine using telephone switching equipment. His "Colossus" was built upon previous work done by German engineer Konrad Zuse and American Howard Aiken.

With World War II and the need to carry out complex calculations related to ballistics and other military issues, there was a great interest in developing more advanced calculators. The military used the machines built by Flowerduring World War II. They performed complex calculations for ballistics and helped to aim anti-aircraft guns.

After the war, these machines' commercial manufacture began and became known as calculators or adding machines

The Microchip

The microchip was invented in 1954 by Jack Kilby, who was working for Texas Instruments. Kilby was an inventor of many electronic machines, but he never got credit for his microchip because another man named Robert Noyce had the same idea at about the same time. Noyce worked for Fairchild Semiconductor, and he applied for a patent for his version of the invention in 1958; however, he never told anyone about it, so he was not given credit for it either.

The microchip is a tiny silicon wafer that contains millions of transistors. Transistors are like miniature light switches that can be either on or off. A series of transistors can be used to store data in binary code, which is the same way computers store data.

Electronic Calculators

The HP-35 was a significant product for Hewlett Packard. It was the first hand-held programmable calculator, and it launched a new era in the electronics industry.

Back in the day, students used big, bulky, and expensive calculators. These devices were often called desktop calculators since they were designed to be placed on a desk or table. As technology advanced, portable calculators became available. Today, it is common for students to have a calculator with them at all times.