Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

And now, a brief history of novelty pocket calculators

Illustration for article titled And now, a brief history of novelty pocket calculators
Photo: Matt Cardy (Getty Images)

Most people take calculators for granted, especially now that they’re built into our phones. But the noble pocket calculator has a long, surprisingly colorful history. The Twitter account Pulp Librarian—a curator of the art, history and fiction of old paperback novels who runs an online “bibliothèque of bemusement”—turned their eye to calculators recently. Their 22-tweet thread centers on the “great calculator race” of the 1970s. As the era brought about smaller, cheaper calculators, manufacturers rushed to transform a business tool into something more appealing to everyday people.

Texas Instrument broke the calculator seal in 1967 with its prototype battery powered “pocket” calculator known as the Cal-Tech. Then in 1970, Canon produced the first actual pocket calculator, which literally printed out calculations on a strip of paper. Companies continued to make improvements, leading to the particularly slick design of the Olivetti Divisumma 18 in 1972:


Pulp Librarian goes on to detail the various innovations that were made to the calculator over the course of the 1970s. Battery life was improved, LED displays were replaced with LCD ones, and solar power was popularized. Then Texas Instruments changed the game by vertically integrating calculator production. And that’s when the novelty calculator market took off. Pulp Librarian has a bunch of great examples of wacky novelty calculators and attempts to popularize the idea of “calculator games.”

And pocket calculators eventually began to interact with pop culture too:


The whole thread is a fascinating look at a very particular cultural niche. You can read the full thing on Pulp Librarian’s Twitter or via their Thread Reader post. And, don’t worry, there’s of course a reference to the classic “BOOBS” calculator trick.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.

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