I was doing a quick bit of math with the calculator app on my tablet, and it got me to thinking about how far we’ve come since I was first exposed to a calculator more than forty years ago. I’m not counting slide rules (which I covered in an earlier post) but rather the first time I was trained in the use of a full-fledged gizmo.
When I began working at my new job in a business office, I was immediately exposed to three generations of calculating machines. The oldest was what was known as a comptometer. (No, not an abacus — I’m not that old.) It was a manually operated machine with multiple rows of keys that required you to first contort all your fingers onto the proper keys — sort of like a desperate Dutch boy at a leaking dike — then repeatedly pound your hands up and down for as long as it took to get the answer you wanted.
The next generation used a similar principle, but the machine was electrically-operated. It was a lot easier on the hands but it had a zillion moving parts, was very costly, and required regular maintenance. In fact, office machine shops were kept prosperous by contracting with companies like ours to make regular visits to oil and clean all these machines. (And the same with all our typewriters, but that’s another story.)
And finally, I encountered the newest type of calculator — an electronic one — which stunned me when I first saw it. A sleek, modernistic-looking desk unit with a digital display, it looked like something from a science fiction movie. I remember being told that it was normally priced at something like a thousand bucks, but the company had gotten a deal on three of them for under $2000. (And this was in 1971, when gas was 32 cents a gallon.)
And yet this large, impressive, expensive gadget just handled basic calculator functions. As I’m sure anyone reading this remembers, calculators would soon get smaller and cheaper, and eventually become so inexpensive that they’d practically be giveaways — literally so, if you count free apps on tablets or phones.