Aug 052017

As an 80’s kid, I was sort of a transitional fossil between analog and electronic calculators. When I was in something like the second or third grade, the school not only shut the doors, they *locked* them (yay, violation of fire safety laws) because someone had stolen one of the teachers calculators. This was sometime in the mid 1970s, and if you don’t understand why people getting twitchy about a stolen calculator made sense at the time… SHUT UP and let the old folks babble on about “remember when calculators were new and neato?”

For a while there electronic calculators were *really* expensive, but their price soon plummeted. In the 70’s, during grade school, calculators were big clunky things that had buttons the size of your thumb and plugged into the wall and were the sort of expense that that average family just wouldn’t splurge on. By high school in the 80’s, calculators were solar powered pieces of plastic the size of credit cards and were typically sold in the checkout lines of convenience stores, next to the gum. It’s rare for a whole branch of tech to become that cheap that fast.

Here’s a 1971 commercial for the “World’s Smallest Electronic calculator,” the Sharp ELSI-8.

By “small” they mean “big enough to beat a grown man to death with;” it’s not far from the size of a brick. The price in 1971 was $345; in 2017 terms, that’s about $2,123. That’s more than 42 times the cost of the pawn shop chromebook I’m typing this on, a machine that, while kinda crummy from the standpoint of a modern laptop, would had caused computer scientists to lose they damn minds back in 1971.

If someone offered me a free ELSI-8 today, I wouldn’t take it (unless I looked on eBay and saw they were selling for good money) because it’s now a useless paperweight with neither practical value nor aesthetic appeal. But on the other hand, the type of calculator that was in use just before the ELSI-8… if someone offered me one, I’d be all over it like white on rice. Before the electronic calculator there were mechanical calculators. The highest expression of this was the Curta, built from the 40’s to the early 70’s; useless today, but *dayum* I’d like to have one. because they are spectacular pieces of mechanical engineering, like a modern Antikythera Mechanism.

Unlike electronic calculators, mechanical calculators built by conventional machine tools were *never* going to become cheap. You can only get so inexpensive with professional machine tools and machinists.

But then… what happens when you combine electronics with a Curta? Sure, there are Curta emulators online… who cares. I want one I can hold in my hands. And if I had an extra $1300 burning a hole in my pocket,  could wander by ebay and buy one. And from here on, I expect that that price is probably only going to tick upwards. Maybe some day I’ll stop in a thrift store or a flea market and find someone who doesn’t know what they have, and buy their Curta from them for five bucks, and, oh yeah, throw in that ten dollar Enigma machine while you’re at it. But there is a future possibility for an affordable Curta: 3D printing. Someone has already printed a functional Curta, albeit one made of plastic and distinctly bigger than the original (3:1). But unlike a traditionally manufactured Curta, 3D printed versions will only get cheaper from here on out.

Give it a few years, and someone will 3D print a 1:1 Curta in the proper metals, that will look, feel and work like the original. It might take a few more years, but eventually such a thing will be reasonably *cheap.*

The ultimate in hipster irony: advanced technology being used to make an obsolete mechanical device to be used to do what the advanced technology would be better at anyway.

 Posted by at 5:12 pm
  • se jones


    Eat yer heart out, Michael Konshak runs the International Slide Rule Museum about 6 blocks from my house in Louisville. Check it out and donate if ya got anything he ain’t got already.

    My first calculator was a Unisonic 1299. The nixie tube display ate batteries like crazy. I still got…it still works. I wanted an HP-35 but couldn’t afford it.

    Mike’s GE space prop calculator makes me hyperventilate:

    • publiusr

      That is a piece of art…

      “neither practical value nor aesthetic appeal.”
      I rather like the clunky 70’s look myself.

  • Law

    Next stop: a 3-D-printed Babbage engine!

  • xvdougl

    My father would occasionally bring home his calculator from work. It was amazing because it included a programmable tape reader. One of the tapes had a game where you entered fuel burns as you descended for a moon landing. The object was simply to be under X ft per sec on touchdown. You entered a burn time and it would tell you your rate of descent, altitude, and remaining fuel. It worked in real time so it had a more seat of your pants feel. The tapes were maybe half the size of a stick of gum. Don’t recall what the rig cost at the time.

  • Bruce

    My brother back in the 70’s had purchased for a hundred dollars maybe a little more but don’t
    remember a Texas Instruments hand held calculator that used I think a 9 volt battery. It was
    dark tan and black and could only do basic calculations. Brigs back old memories.

  • CaptainNed

    High School. Fall 1977 to Spring 1981. Had the same math teacher for the last three years. She taught from an overhead projector and had an LCD-display HP calculator whose model number escapes me now. She had someone remove the appropriate part of the bottom plate so that she could put said HP on the overhead and it (quite obviously) worked.

    As for a Curta, what geek wouldn’t want one, n’est-ce pas?

  • Bob

    I bought a Bowmar Brain for $125 in 1974. It would do exponential and trigonometric functions. I still have it and it still works.

  • Garrai

    The $395 HP-35 introduced in 1973 was much smaller and far more capable than that Japanese boat anchor. Oddly, HP (the post-Carly Fiorina version of the company) reintroduced the HP-35 some years ago. The “new” modern version of this classic calculator is physically bigger, runs slower, has a truly crappy LCD display and the button layout was designed by retarded monkeys. God how I miss the engineering prowess of the old Hewlett-Packard.