I am of the last generation to know what life was like before pocket calculators.  Even that name is revealing; who calls them that anymore?  Who remembers when “adding machines” were big, clunky things like typewriters?  (Have you seen a typewriter outside of a museum or an old movie?)

I remember my parents doing their taxes with a nifty little plastic device with a set of numbered dials like a telephone.  (Uh, who remembers dial phones?)  There was a 1’s dial, a 10’s dial, a 100’s dial, etc. and you used a stylus to turn them to the correct numbers.  You could add and subtract by turning the dials clockwise or counterclockwise.  The device was handy for checking all those tax numbers, and lots of fun for me when I could get my hands on it.

As a science major in college, I had many tedious calculations to do, and often found it worthwhile to make a trek through the cold and snowy winter night to use one of the half dozen Wang calculators made available to students by the physics department.

When I graduated from college, I received a thrilling (and expensive) gift:  A Texas Instruments SR-10 calculator!  It was especially cool because it handled scientific notation.  Take a look at the keyboard and note that it did a whole lot less than the calculators you can buy today for $10 at your friendly neighborhood Walmart.  The last time I visited the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, I found my wonderful graduation present on display amongst the other relics.

I firmly believe that everyone should know how to do basic arithmetic functions easily and quickly, and think it’s deplorable that we have cashiers who can’t make change without a register to do the calculations.  I’ve never forgotten Isaac Asimov’s prescient story, The Feeling of Power (1958).

I also believe that everyone should know how to make bread, but that doesn’t stop me from being thankful to be able to buy bread at the store.

Thus, without apology, I am thankful for the handy, portable, convenient, powerful, inexpensive, labor-saving pocket calculator.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, November 18, 2010 at 6:02 am | Edit
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