Business ideas that changed the world: Pocket calculator

A staple in classrooms, discover how the calculator shrank dramatically in size and by 90% in price to become the handy pocket-sized tool we know today...

When: 1970
Where: USA, Japan and UK
Why: Calculations that once needed a cumbersome computer could be performed on the go, greatly increasing efficiency
How: Advances in mathematics, micro-processing and other fields
Who: Texas Instruments
Fact: Between 1971 and 1976 the cost of a pocket calculator fell by over 90%

The background

Throughout the 1960s, inventors and manufacturers worked intensely on developing the calculator. The portability, power supply, functionality and accuracy of the device underwent considerable change and development and the early predecessors of the pocket calculators came to market. However, these gadgets, though ground breaking, were a far cry from those that would be made in the following decade.

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Most 1960s calculators were desktop mounted (too heavy and too large to be fully portable), required a mains power supply and were provided with paper print-outs rather than electronic displays. They were also too expensive to be truly mass-market products and were largely bought by businesses and professionals rather than consumers. However, by 1970 most of the research and development required to make a pocket calculator for the masses had been achieved. Much of this work had been carried out by researchers at Texas Instruments (TI), most notably by Jack Kilby, who created integrated circuitry.

The 1970s saw a ferocious struggle for supremacy between calculator manufacturers, and this struggle took place in R&D labs and on the high street. There would be many winners and losers as manufacturers pursued consumer demands and requirements. Much of what was achieved in the pocket calculator market would be seen again almost 30 years later in the mobile phone arena; manufacturers strove to create cheaper and smaller devices, while at the same time trying to pin-point customer requirements for functionality and also aiming to solve the issue of power supply and battery life.

Commercial impact

In late 1970 and early 1971, the first pocket calculators came onto the market. But whether these really were ‘pocket’ calculators would depend on the size of the consumer’s pockets, both physically (they were large and heavy) and metaphorically (each cost a few hundred dollars). One of the most notable was Canon’s Pocketronic, which used chips developed by TI. Also coming onto the market in 1970 was the Sharp Compet QT-8B, recognised as the world’s first battery-powered electronic calculator. TI, which had led the way for the industry with the development of its ‘Cal Tech’ experimental calculator, did not enter the consumer market until 1972.

However, when it did, it did so in style, with the TI 2500 ‘Datamath’, followed closely by the TI 3000 and the TI 3500. These early models came with LED displays and rechargeable batteries, weighed less than a pound and retailed at less than $150 – truly a mass-market device. It is perhaps only fair that TI’s pioneering work in the late 1950s and 1960s led to its gaining the patent for the hand-held calculator in 1974. However, the battle for market share would continue, as would the race to reach key technological milestones.

Innovations in the market

During the early and mid-1970s, companies from all over the world had entered into a booming pocket calculator market. Casio, Commodore, Rapid Data, Lloyds, Digitrex and HP all began to compete with TI, Canon and Sharp. One of the main British companies to push the market forward was Sinclair, led by the engineering genius Clive Sinclair. The Sinclair Executive was the first truly slim-line calculator (it could fit into a pocket) and was also affordable for the masses.

Utilised by Sharp Electronics in Japan, LCD displays (liquid crystal displays) were the pocket calculator’s next innovation, requiring vastly less power to operate and hence improving battery life. This, in turn, meant that additional functions could be added beyond the four standard uses (addition, subtraction, division and multiplication). Increased competition and the decreased cost of components were also pushing the The Sharp QT-8B ‘micro Compet,’ one of the first hand-held, battery-powered calculators price down and, towards the end of the decade, units could be bought for 20% of their 1972 price.

In 1975, New Scientist claimed the pocket calculator market was worth $2.5bn. However, during the turbulent years of the 1970s, making predictions on market value was a dangerous game. Furthermore, price-cutting and competition meant that many companies abandoned the market, such as Sinclair, which enjoyed success in the more lucrative personal computer market. Manufacturers also overestimated market demand and there were several reported cases of warehouses being full of unwanted products.

What does the pocket calculator market look like today?

By the end of the 1970s, the rapid development of the pocket calculator was largely completed, including the development of solar cells, which overcame the problems of battery life. The market had undergone a disruptive period, followed by consolidation, and the big players would continue to compete throughout the 1980s and beyond. The major players TI, Casio, Canon and HP are still active in the market but their interests have now moved far beyond pocket calculators to other more lucrative technology areas.

Pocket calculators have remained with us to this day because they are easily affordable, inherently useful, and so user-friendly that anyone (including young children) can use one without tuition. However, some educators complain that their introduction into the classroom has meant that a generation has grown up thinking that basic numeracy is unimportant. Proponents, meanwhile, argue that in fact they encourage an appreciation of maths. But what is clear is that calculators will remain with us in one form or another for as long as we need to do sums – and there is little prospect of that ending any time soon.


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