Something I sometimes do when I don’t have time to waste but still want to lock into some useless pursuit that will eat up hours is to try and find various things I owned as a kid. The other day, I started thinking about old calculators, and went on an endless search to find some of the ones I used in high school and college.
It’s odd to even think about a time when people used calculators. Now, when I want to figure out if an actress is 18 yet by subtracting her date of birth from the current year, I either use the calculator app on my computer or my phone. I also have an actual four-function solar calculator I stole from my job’s office supply closet in maybe 1996, which was useful when I used to balance my checkbook, back when I actually wrote checks and couldn’t just look the crap up on my phone. But the calculator on my iPhone is generally easier to use, and I know where it is at any given point.
I recently had a discussion with my sister about old calculators. When we grew up, our parents had some old TI calculator, from maybe 1975, which had a hundred buttons and a flickering red LCD display and took a giant 9-volt battery. We had no idea what TAN or SIN meant, so we’d randomly hit the buttons, trying to get the machine to print out some cool stuff. We also had one of those Little Professor calculators, which had a face on the front of it (which always looked like an owl to me) and would print an equation like “7 + 9” and then wait for an answer, printing EEE when you entered an incorrect answer.
Calculators weren’t allowed in school for years, because when you’re supposed to be learning how to multiply single-digit numbers, a pocket calculator was as unfair as having a multiplication table in your hand, if not worse. And then when I got to high school, this completely reversed, and some classes required you to have a calculator. In a physics or trig class, the ability to quickly multiply and divide was a requirement, and we were suddenly allowed to use these electronic devices.
Something I never thought about, though: I was probably the first generation to have this luxury. When I was born in 1971, the first solid-state calculators were being manufactured. In 1965, Sharp introduced the CS-10 calculator, which weighed 55 pounds and cost $2500. By the end of the decade, they were fitting in shirt pockets (like those big Android phones “fit” in a pocket) and cost more like $500. When I started grade school, you could probably get a good four-function calculator for $50, but minimum wage was also something like $1.60. Prior to my generation, the only way you could “cheat” on math was maybe writing the answers down beforehand, or using a slide rule, which was probably more difficult than just memorizing stuff. When I started high school, did they change lesson plans to accommodate the ubiquitousness of digital calculators, or did math suck that much more before then?
I took an electronics class in my freshman year, and we were told to buy a scientific calculator. I don’t remember the requirements we were given, but I know it was something beyond the level of the crappy calculator you’d get for free at a Shell station with the purchase of a tank of premium. I got a Radio Shack EC-4006, which at the time was a pretty amazing machine. It ran on two AA batteries, and had a ten-digit display. It could convert hex to decimal and display (some) letters on the screen, plus it handled negative numbers, trig functions, and had some amount of basic programmability.
What I remembered most about calculators back then was nobody had the same make and model. There were dozens of different permutations of the basic calculator from TI, Casio, Radio Shack, Sharp, and lots of no-name or knockoff brands. The cream of the crop was the HP, which were incredibly expensive and used RPN. Someone in my class had one of these, and it looked nice, but I could never get the hang of entering all of the numbers and then entering an operator. I also remember Ray having some high-end Radio Shack that unfolded and had the display and main keys on one side, and a set of advanced function keys in the inside lid. Any time anybody touched it, he gave a twenty minute lecture about how you weren’t supposed to bend open the cover all the way, or it would stretch and break the microscopic conductive traces between the two halves. (This meant that everyone would try to take his calculator when he wasn’t looking and vigorously fold open the cover as far as it would go.) But we were all, in some sense, defined by the calculators we used and carried. Some of us took great pride in the calculators we used, while others were ashamed of their hand-me-down crappy drugstore ripoff version that couldn’t even do exponents.
I think I kept the same calculator until my second year of college, when I replaced it with this Casio graphing calculator, the fx-7000G. I still have that one in storage, although I don’t have batteries for it. (It used flat watch batteries.) That one had a 96×94 pixel screen and could be programmed in a crappy version of BASIC, although it had a whopping 422 bytes of memory. I remember spending the Christmas of 1990 at my then-girlfriend’s parents’ place in Toledo, trying to write a chess game in BASIC on that thing, which of course was impossible, as was actually saving anything with no disk drive or printer. My math career didn’t last much longer than that year, and I never had a good reason to carry around a graphing calculator, so I didn’t use it after that.
What’s astounding to me is how familiar the key layout of that Radio Shack calculator looks to me now. I carried that thing around for years in my book bag, toiled away on those chicklet-style keys, and spent many a boring lecture trying to spell out 7734-derived numeric sequences that, when the display was flipped, would spell out words. The layout of those grey and orange keys is burned into my head, and reminds me instantly of when I was hacking out story problems back in 1987.
What’s also amazing is how collectible some of the old calculators can be. I was looking to see if I could score one of those old HP calculators on eBay, and even the most basic of the RPN scientific calculators are untouchable for under a sixty or eighty bucks. HP, after twenty years of not releasing them, brought them back in limited editions, and you can get a brand new HP 15C for about $99. There are scores of web sites with pictures of old eighties calculators, just like the obsolete computer museums you find online. I don’t foresee myself doing anything more complicated than calculating interest on a loan, and it’s probably easier to use one of those online calculators for that, so I probably won’t be buying one. But it’s neat to see that people are still into it.