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How Pocket Calculators Changed Electronics Forever

How Pocket Calculators Changed Electronics Forever

[ INTRO ] SciShow is supported by Go to to get 20% off
of an annual Premium subscription. We don’t think of pocket calculators as
being all that special these days. They’re cheap, easy to lose, and your phone
can do all that stuff anyway, right? But the development of the pocket calculator
mirrors the electronics revolution that brought us smartphones and modern computers. In fact, some technologies we now take for
granted found their first widespread use in electronic calculators in the 1960s and 70s. The first sort of compact electronic calculators
couldn’t fit in your pocket. They were the size of a typewriter, and demanded
so much power they needed a wall outlet. For example, the Anita Mark VIII was available
in the early 1960s, and cost as much as a car at the time. It performed basic arithmetic functions by
using vacuum tubes — basically airtight chambers with filaments inside, which could
shuttle electrons in precise ways to generate currents or act as switches. The name was short for either A New Inspiration
To Arithmetic or A New Inspiration To Accounting — which gives you a clue as to who bought
these expensive machines. But soon, there were a couple major technological
leaps that revolutionized calculators… and the rest of electronics. First, for calculators to become cheaper,
more portable, and less fragile, vacuum tubes were replaced with transistors and integrated
circuits. A transistor functions like a gate for electrons. Basically, by applying electrical power, it
can be either open or closed. These binary states are still the basic idea
behind all electronics. And typically, transistors are made from a
material called a semiconductor, which sometimes conducts electricity, and sometimes doesn’t. Early transistor electronics, like the super
popular transistor radio for consumers, would string individual transistors together in
series. Transistors were way smaller and sturdier
than vacuum tubes, but more complex devices like computers were still fairly big. In the late 1950s, though, engineers invented
the integrated circuit: a single semiconductor chip that had all parts of a circuit on it
— including many transistors. One of those engineers worked at Texas Instruments. The company knew it had something good on
its hands, but struggled to find a good consumer outlet for these compact chips. That is, until 1965, with the design of the
first prototype electronic pocket calculator. It was codenamed Cal-Tech, measured about
ten by fifteen centimeters, and could perform the four basic arithmetic functions: addition,
subtraction, multiplication, and division. Its chip required the equivalent of thousands
of transistors. They even built a version for testing without
integrated circuits, which, according to one designer, took up an entire two-tiered, two-meter-tall
desk. So integrated circuits really packed a punch. These days we call them microchips, and we
put them in, everything. The Cal-Tech also printed out results on a
roll of tape using a thermal printer. This was also pretty new at the time and worked
by basically melting text into a special type of paper, like the receipts you get at the
grocery store. The TI team actually wanted an electronic
display, but that technology wasn’t great yet. LEDs at the time had poor visibility. LEDs work based on passing an electric current
or field through a semiconductor, which causes electrons to shift around and emit light. The color of the light can be altered by introducing
different elements, which is easier said than done. It’s taken decades to make LEDs in every
color of the rainbow. Early on, gallium and arsenic-based LEDs were
only capable of emitting infrared and very dim red light because of the way electrons
move through those particular elements. Lots pocket calculators after the Cal-Tech
did feature red LED displays. But they demanded a ton of battery power,
because those early systems still weren’t very energy-efficient. The next revolution in calculators was the
liquid crystal display, or LCD. Liquid crystals have molecules that are free
to move like a liquid, but can settle into an ordered state like a crystalline solid. This dual identity means they can block or
transmit light, and switch between states rapidly when there’s an input like electricity. That’s why we use them in electronic displays. The first LCDs were fragile and only functioned
at high temperatures. But a breakthrough came in perfecting a mix
of chemicals that behave as liquid crystals at room temperature. Other developments made them quicker and more
durable, as well. LCD’s used less power than LED’s so calculators
could run off of watch batteries instead of large battery packs. Alongside digital watches, pocket calculators
were the first widespread consumer use of the LCD display. Nowadays, we have full-color LED and LCD displays,
and these technologies factor into things like researching what kind of TV you might
want to buy. Over the next few decades, calculators became
slimmer, cheaper, and more powerful. They evolved from specialized tools for business,
to a status symbol, to a basic tool you could find in an office supply store. But all this development eventually slowed
to a crawl. Like, you probably don’t carry a separate
PDA, digital camera, or pager, because cell phones do all that. So you wouldn’t carry a separate calculator
either, unless you’re still in school and you need it for the SAT or something. They’ve stayed basic machines to help with
learning, not flashy, Internet-enabled devices. And that’s how the golden age fizzled. But calculators did play a big part in the
consumer electronics revolution, popularizing display technology and the computer chip itself. Nothing to sneeze at. All this talk about old school calculators
takes me back to my mathlete days. [talk about this if it’s true, or talk about
what is actually true] offers courses and quizzes in
all kinds of subjects, but they also have a course on how to improve your competitive
math skills. This course on Math Competition Fundamentals
is so fun. You can’t just muscle through these problems,
and the lessons along with them help you learn how to be more efficient. Whether you want to improve your test taking
abilities or just want to have fun and pretend you’re in an academic decathlon, check out
this quiz and all the other interactive lessons at, but going to Right now, the first 200 SciShow viewers to
sign up will get 20% off of the annual Premium subscription. So check it out, and know that when you do,
you’re not only getting smarter, you’re also helping to support SciShow, so you’re
making us all smarter! [ OUTRO ]

100 comments on “How Pocket Calculators Changed Electronics Forever

  1. It was the calculator that helped get me into electronics and computer programming.
    If anyone wants learn electronics, there are lots on the internet. I find it a fun hobby.

  2. There is a certain subset of people that are capable of completing calculations comparable to that which is expected from a pocket calculator. In a time before calculators and log tables, those people would have been highly valued in any field that required a high level of numeracy – e.g. industry, research, and warfare. Conversely, giving everyone access to even an archaic calculator not only levelled the playing field, but also elevated society as a whole.
    A typical modern graphical calculator has more computational power than that which was available to NASA when they executed the Moon landings.

  3. The liquid crystals don't block or transmit light. They either pass it or rotate its polarization. There is a polarizing layer before and after the crystals that blocks or transmits the light.

  4. That's really quite fascinating. But was there any incentive from the calculator market to improve these technologies or was there another driving force behind microchips and screens that the calculator manufacturers just integrated into their products once they were developed?

  5. I still have a really old LED Texas Instrument scientific calculator I got as a present for school, many years ago. Recently I was thinking of checking to see if it worked and if it's worth any money to collectors. 🙂

  6. I had a Casio calculator with an LED display back in high school, circa '81 or '82. It had a blueish green display, not red.

  7. I still get a lot of use out of my ti-84 plus and my Casio fx 991, but notibly those are cheaper to replace if I accidentally spill acid on them compared to a smart phone.

  8. crazy how school force you to buy tyhe ti84 for >$100 while there are cheaper alternative that has even more functions

  9. I purchased a pocket calculator in 1971-72, it cost $250.00 and was the first that would actually fit into a shirt pocket.  It had LED display, used six silver dollar size NiCD batteries and could add, subtract, multiply and divide, nothing else.  It was for my university science/engineering courses.

  10. 1:36 ''These binary states are still the basic idea behind all electronics" that is not really true. They are *not* binary states, but can be used as such, which is what is done in digital circuits. But the massive field of analog electronics (of which there is a lot off, even with all your 'digital' devices) still exists, where they aren't used as switches.

  11. Well…without any bias whatsoever we've objectively arrived at the conclusion that ClassCalc is the future of calculators 🙂

  12. I remember having an LED calculator and an LED watch in the 70s. The generation before me used slide rules instead.

  13. I still use my Casio fx-100s that I bought in 9th grade some 23 years ago. Still on the same battery, I think. Can't recall if I ever had to replace it.

  14. Back in kindergarten durring the early 2000s, my teacher told my class, "you need to learn how to do all of these math problems in your head. It's not like you'll take a calculator around with you everywhere you go."

    Yeah, lets just say that didn't age very well…

  15. I know what you mean by changed electronics for ever, I tried to make a calculator in my Engineering class and 1. I never finishedit and 2. It was bloody huge!

  16. I have my calculator with me all the time, and if I need to calculate something, I mostly use that one. It's a lot better than what I have on the computer or my phone.


    So I've been watching this guy Hank for like six or seven years now, and it's the first video where I noticed that he can't pronounce the hard "L" sound.
    Too bad this video had too many words starting with "L", like "LED" and "LCD", poor guy suffered a lot talking all that stuff

  18. hmm think i get it now why i never remember anything every time i watch a clip on this channel . they talk so fast that your brains doesn't even have time to process all this verbal diarrhea .

  19. TI-85? I had an SR-10 in 1974. First scientific calculator or slide rule calculator. Was almost $100. By university in 1977, I forget the model, but they first added sine, cosine, tangent, and then couple years later, by 1980, the first programable one came out and they were under $50.

  20. My Hewlett Packard HP-11C is a prized possession. The Only scientific/engineering calculator to use RPN (Reverse Polish Notation) also called Post Fix Notation, eliminating the need for parentheses in nested equations. Cost me $80 in the late 1980s. No longer on the market for decades now, a 30 year old used model fetches $100 or more on eBay. That is Astounding appreciation for any electronic device. My 40 year old HP-11C still looks new, battery change every 8 years or so. Highly prized and coveted by any serious engineer, absolutely Not to be loaned to Anyone. Yeah, I've got an HP-11C emulator app on my smartphone. But I use the original for any serious calculation.

  21. I remember in school telling us about calculators and then got to use them in class because theyd be common especially in buisness. It was a desktop type, about 10" square. Tech keeps advancing.

  22. SciShow skipped over the entire generation of "vacuum fluorescent display" calculators. I have Sperry Remington SSR-8 and APF mark 51 calculators in my basement (with their AC adapters, of course). You can see the SSR-8 "thinking" whilst it computes a trigonometric function.

  23. How many people know about the ti nspire cx cas? I got it for Christmas one year and loved it. It helped me make an a in calc. It hasn't revived the credit it deserves. It's like a smartphone compared to a Nokia. Probably because it's so expensive though, I got mine on sale for $140 4 years ago, probably cheaper now.

  24. HANK I am so sorry for calling you John today at the airport, I was with a customer and only quickly caught sight of you so didn't process before speaking. SORRY!!! Thank you for the shows and I love all the knowledge you and the crew help share in a way thats easy to understand while being entertaining. 😉

  25. Oh hank. While you were busy playing the one built in grsphing calculator game my friends and I were WRITING and distributing our own games. I specialized in the TI-82 which was limited to ascii graphics but my other friends programmed for the TI-85. One of them even wrote an emulator for the memory wipe that was mandatory before tests… you couldn't tell the difference unless you looked for the one pixel on the upper corner of the screen that indicated that a program was running.

  26. It's also worth mentioning that the the first commercial CPU (Intel 4004) was originally designed to be used inside calculators.

  27. cell phones: numbers are in the usual, logical reading order (as we read a page in a book), they grow from left to right and from top to bottom.
    keyboard and calculators: numbers grow from left to right BUT from bottom to top. what's the weird logic on keyboards and calculators??

  28. No mention of nixie-tube displays that were around into the 1970s!
    When I began high school in 1972, the IT class was held in a glassed-in corner of a windowed 2nd floor walkway between two buildings, & it consisted of a 10-digit nixie-tube display, programmable calculator utilising punch-cards! The room was so small that it was only large enough for the maths-teacher & 3-4 students, the rest had to watch from outside!
    By the end of high school there were LED calculators which partly because of their cost weren't allowed in exams (slide-rules only!), with the affordable machines missing out on Sq-root & Pi functions (still can remember Pi to 9 decimal places)!

  29. SciShow forgot that after introduction of LCD pocket calculators were also the first consumer products with solar PV panel. Usually only a few cm2 PV panel but enough to make the calculator run. Sometimes also LCD watches had tiny solar PV panel.

  30. Wait, how did Hank have a TI-85 when he was a kid? I'm currently in high school, and the best we have are TI-84s! (Also how do you play snake on it?!)

  31. In my senior year high-school I learned to program a calculator (and use an AT&T teletype to send programs to a server, and save the program on a paperstrip).

  32. In the early 70s, my Aunt bought a Bowmar Brain, a red LED pocket calculator measuring about 4" x 5" x 1" thick. I was truly fascinated with that thing like it was magic.

  33. That first integrated circuit calculator is as old as me. I wasn't allowed to do my school exams with a calculator (and I and my cohorts were disgusted by the news that the following year's exams would be done with them! Damn it, that is what log books are for! I've still got mine…)
    Bought a Texas scientific calculator in 2001 for a uni maths course. Cost £35 (I have a free app which does very nearly as much, and one for a graphics calculator – which I'd bought for my son's first year at uni – 2011? He's just submitted his PhD thesis in a totally different subject – when he did engineering, and it cost over £100!). The battery still works, btw. I actually bought a replacement for my exam – be fair, it was uni level, not 16 year-old's exams – but it's still in its pack!

  34. In 1974 I purchased a used HP-45 calculator for $414, (a months pay for an E-2 was just under $300 a month) from a fellow airman, while stationed at Keesler AFB. It change my life. I upgraded to the HP-41 CX about 1980 while in college. They both are still working to this day!

  35. Jump cuts suck arse, for the love of all that's good please breathe in and take it easy. Good content ruined by aggressive editing.

  36. Here's a neat little problem I found with almost all pocket calculators. If you start with any whole number, say 2 for example, and multiply it by 2 it will show 4. Continue pressing enter (or equals) and it will then do 8, 16, 32, 64… and so on. Now, start with any decimal number, say 0.02 for example, and multiply it by 2 it will show 0.04. Continue pressing enter and you'll then see 0.0008, 0.000016, 0.00000032… Why does it decrease on pocket calculators? On your computer or phone it will increase, 0.04, 0.08, 0.16, 0.32… and so on. If I get a calculator and a computer side by side and press the same sequence of buttons buttons(zero, point, zero, two, times, two, enter, enter, enter) they will have two different answers by the end.

  37. I remember my father buying me a Texas SR50 for Christmas in 1974, when I was an engineering undergraduate. It was quite amazing.

  38. My father loves to tell stories about his days in graduate school when the one computer on campus took up an entire floor of a building and required an entire weekend to complete the kind of complex calculations he and his lab mates needed it for. Programs were submitted on punch cards. Now I can do them on my phone and get an answer in less than 5 seconds. My life is amazing!

  39. Liquid crystals can't block light on their own. They can only switch between changing the polarization of light or not and together with a pair of polarization filters, you get a display.

  40. In the early 1970s, my younger sister-in-law was in pre-vet classes at ISU. Pocket calculators were horrendously expensive. I remember walking into their dining room and there she was, surrounded by hundreds of sheets of paper on which she had been doing her P-chem homework problems. If she made a mistake on the third page, she had to start from scratch to find the problem. College really stressed her out (no wonder!) A couple of years later, I started on my BS in biology, but I was lucky that pocket calculators were finally affordable. I don't know what my first one was, but a year or so later I upgraded to one with square root, statistical, and e functions, and while I wasn't as smart as my sister-in-law, I got my homework done WAY faster than she did, poor girl.

  41. The four function calculator evolved into the programmable calculator, then the Personal Digital Assistant (ie Palm Pilot) then the smartphone. Hmm, this smartphone could use a bigger display, so then the tablet computer. Hmm, this tablet could use a physical keyboard, so then a quasi laptop with touch screen. I know that the laptop evolved on its own, but their design was eventually influenced by the evolved calculator branch.

  42. I'm sitting here with a TI-34 that I bought in 1992. I use it damn near every day, either for its designed purpose or as a coaster. It serves both functions quite well and will probably do so for the next 26 years as well.

  43. Over a decade ago, at Radio Shack, for about $4, I bought a calculator the size of a credit card, powered by a photovoltaic cell. I kept it in my wallet. Never really used it. Just kinda cool to have it. A real world artifact of Moore's Law, unimaginable to the generation before mine. Voodoo sorcery to pre-tech cultures.

  44. I bought a pocket calculator in the late 60s that would add subtract multiply and divide to the seventh digit with little red LEDs, I was making $1.25 an hour at the time and paid more than $20 for it my boss took it out of my check a little at a time. The hell of it is I bought it for my math class when I brought it to school my teacher wouldn't let me use …funny.

  45. But now standardized testing has killed calculator development. Calculators that are too good just get nerfed by College Board so no one bothers to develop them.

  46. My first calculator could do the 4 basics plus, if you can believe it, Percentages. But math and physics still required more advanced math so I still carried my "Slide Rule" with me to school for those classes.
    Oh, also, if you can believe it, until I got my calculator, I actually used an abacus alongside my slide rule. The abacus was actually faster than the slide rule for certain math problems until I got the calculator.

  47. hey scishow, I got a question for you that I BET no one asked before, but I dont know if it would go here or on the psych channel. anyways,
    "why do we feel the urge to go to the bathroom when we get home?"

  48. My grandfather used to claim (in the 90's) that we wouldn't always have a calculator in our pocket, so we needed to learn mental math. He still carries a regular pocket calculator, in spite of now having an iPhone.

  49. Scishow team, it's pretty funny to see "[talk about this if it's true or talk about what is actually true]" in the subtitles, but to be honest it does not help me know what was being spoken.

  50. I owned some of those very early power hungry calculators with the red LED displays.
    A friend of mine recently reminded me of an engineering undergrad class we took in the early 90s where we speculated about future technology based on existing tech and trends. By that time I had an hp48sx graphing/scientific calculator which was the most powerful of its time (beyond its native capabilities it also had standalone apps for science and games like Tetris and Minehunt). Also available at the time were some other electronic devices such as the Franklin electronic pocket dictionary/thesarus, and a couple PDAs like the Psion Organizer and Series 3 with calendar and address book. My dad had an electronic personal contact device that you could hold up to a regular phone and it would produce the tones to dial. Plenty of handheld electronic games. The first PalmPilot did not exist yet. The Internet existed, but not the WWW. Cell phone were now handheld instead of just car phones.

    So for one big project in this class, I simply put all these technologies together and described in detail a small handheld device with cellular voice, data, animated color display with decent onboard compute abilities and many onboard apps including games. I'd also recently read David Brin's Earth (one of my favorite books), published in 1990, and one of the things Brin used as a backdrop was the idea of a global computer network that put all data instantly at your fingertips, so I included that capability in my device as well.

    Following my presentation to the class, the professor himself shot it down as being entirely too far fetched.

    Was about 10 years (2002) before my first data enabled, touch screen smart phone, the Palm Treo 180.

  51. I had snake on my TI-85 too! I also had tetris, black jack, and pong. Pong required a second calculator linked with the first, but it was a two-player game. (Take THAT, HP 48GX!)

  52. The TI prototype came out the year I graduated high school. It was years before I could afford one. They were specifically banned in my university science classes so the 'rich kids' wouldn't have an advantage. We used that stone-age scientific instrument, the slide rule. You could spot the physics and engineering students. They were the ones with miniature (but working) slide rules for tie bars, and often used a circular slide rule. I used both a Keuffel and Esser (K&E) and the Pickett my father had used in the late 40s and early 50s.

    Years later, I happened to pick up a high school maths text. The introduction was on how to use your pocket calculator! Now of course, as you mentioned, I use my phone, tablet, or laptop. It's been years since I owned a 'pocket calculator'.

  53. The early pocket calculators had very poor buttons that had something called bouncing. You'd push a 3 and it might enter 333. You had to be very careful

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