Thursday, April 9, 2009

A very brief history of calculators or how my brother amazed my school

I started high school in 1973, three years after the end of the Beatles and a generation before the end of the cold war. Everybody wore their hair long, ludriciously wide ties were considered fashionable, most engineers (like my father) owned a slide rule and very simple electronic calculators were starting to become affordable. I remember my brother saving up several weeks of his paper round money to purchase a calculator with a square root button. The arrival of this calculator at our high school caused a sensation and my brother was asked to demonstrate this technological marvel to the headmaster. With the arrival of even more powerful devices throughout that decade, my brother and myself, and everybody else studying mathematics in the Western world, continued to be trained in the use of log tables for carrying out any calculation beyond 687 x 6578. I think the last time I used a log table Ronald Regan hadn't yet become president and computer programs were typed on cards and processed overnight.

During this time, serious letters to the papers and educational experts lamented the fall in educational standards, my year 10 geography teacher warned that global warming would see Sydney under a foot of water by 2000 and there was a general feeling with anyone over the age of 40 that using calculators was "cheating".

By the end of the 1970s and into the early 80s, calculators had advanced quickly and a range of programmable calculators were on offer. In this enlightened era, engineering students tended to be either "HP" or "Casio" adherents, though a few perverse souls identified with the reverse polish notation of the "TI" calculators. I remember quite distinctly slaving away on my Casio programmable calculator with its gigantic 2k of memory, writing quite intricate programs with the line numbering system of level 2 basic, a cute plug in ticker tape printer and an audio tape memory system. Armed with this calculating power, you felt that you could conquer the world or at least complete a pressure drop calculation for a piping system in under 10 minutes. Part of me (a very small part) still hankers for the happy chatter of my ticker tape Casio printer and the amazingly clunky graphics produced from this device. By this time, the scientific calculators familiar with modern students became standard and knowledge of the workings of a slide rule suggested either a perverted soul or a person lost in the past.

The calculator was here to stay ! My arrival in the Engineering profession coincided with the great personal computer revolution and in my own small way I lead the charge, using computer programs (now written in "high" level languages like GW Basic !!) to perform complex engineering calculations that had formerly been the province of "look up" tables and approximate solutions. Even with this shift towards computing, my scientific calculator (still a Casio man) was used on a daily basis. However, by this time my career had taken a sharp turn towards research and the graphics calculator revolution bypassed me, as I was knee deep in numerics, computational thermodynamics and writing unruly "programs" in Excel. It was only when I took my current position that I was handed my first graphics calculator. It was love at first sight ! I love the fact that I can "see" the solution of an equation, that I can calculate derivatives and integrals and even form the ABC TV symbol using parametric graphics. What is there not to love ! I even accepted the transition from being a Casio man to a TI man without suffering a nervous breakdown (OK I had a little therapy).

Interestingly, serious people are still lamenting the falling of educational standards, predicting that Sydney will be under a metre of water by ......, and most people over 40 think that using a CAS calculator is cheating.


  1. Man, those over 40 people who think using a CAS calculator are sure right.

    CAS calculators take all the "fun" and "guessing" out of your typical maths test. If you know how to use the inbuilt functions well enough, they can do almost all the problems for you. Granted, they wont show the working, but close enough. :)

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