The World of Calculators: from oce equip-
ment to pocket gadgets
Informal and unedited notes, not for distribution. (c) Z. Stachniak, 2011.
Note: in the case when I was unable to nd the primary source of an image or
determine whether or not an image is copyrighted, I have specied the source as
unknown. I will provide full information about images and/or obtain reproduc-
tion rights when such information is available to me.
In the 17th, 18th, and the rst half of the 19th century the dominating and
prevailing calculating aids were:
pen-and-paper methods (algorithms);
abacus (in its variety of forms);
To fully recognize the signicance of these calculating methods and aids, one
needs only to mention that the pen-and-paper methods are taught at schools
for this day, that the abacus is frequently used to teach numbers and count-
ing to pre-school children, and that printed tables with data are still in use
in a number of areas.
It would be the historical role of the digital electronic calculators and, in par-
ticular the hand-held (or pocket) calculators to relegate most of the mathe-
matical tables and abacus-like devices to historical relics of computing housed
in museums and private collections.
1 The birth of the oce calculator industry
The industrial revolution brought new manufacturing methods and with
them the ability to produce good quality precision instruments and mechan-
ical devices, such as calculators, in large quantities. In the rst half of the
19th century, an increasing number of calculators were oered commercially
but their use was not widely spread.
It all changed in the second half of the 19th century, rst in Europe and,
later, in America when large businesses, agencies, and institutions, such as
treasuries or banks, were expanding fast, putting more and more people into
their oces. It became evident that ever increasing number of calculation
tasks could not be handled cost-eectively without appropriate calculating
While institutions were looking for ecient ways for conducting their busi-
ness, inventors and entrepreneurs were determined to supply them with all
sorts of oce gadgets. In the second half of the 19th century, mechanical
oce equipment became an essential infrastructure of a modern business.
The rst typewriters appeared in the early 19th century and the rst wave
of useful calculators soon after in Europe and a few decades later in America.
By the end of the 19th century, calculators would not be viewed as me-
chanical curiosities any more but as useful devices enhancing human abilities
in a vast range of applications.
2 Thomas Arithmometer
Among the rst commercially produced adding machines was the Arith-
mometer built by Thomas de Colmar of Alsace around 1820. Thomas Arith-
mometres were never produced in large quantities (some sources estimate
that in the rst 50 years no more than 1500 were manufactured). They were
expensive and too slow for performing a large number of arithmetic opera-
tions in an oce as the calculators required setting numbers using all sorts
of dials (depending on a model) and a hand crank. However, Thomas Arith-
mometres were technically sound, captured the attention of businesses, and
started oce calculator industry, rst in Europe and, then in America.
Fig. 1. An early Thomas Arithmometer. Source: http://archive.computerhistory.org.
3 Calculator industry in the 19th century America
America entered the age of mechanical calculators in late 19th century, much
later than Europe. When major European countries were undergoing exten-
sive industrialization at the time of the appearance of Thomas calculators,
the United States was still primarily involved in agriculture while Canada
was not even on the map as a country.
The Civil War of 18611865 did not help with the industrialization either,
delaying the eects of the industrial revolution on the American landscape
for a decade.
It was not until after the Civil War when new forms of manufacturing (steam-
powered) allowed the American industry to grow and spread across the na-
tion. It was at that time, when a vibrant oce equipment industry was
created with calculator manufacturing centers in cities such as Chicago, De-
troit, St. Louis, and Philadelphia.
American companies and organizations seemed to like oce gadgets from
the start (typewriters, cash registers, calculators, telegraph, telephone) and
that created a potential for mass manufacturing of such devices.
It was soon evident that, for an oce calculator to be truly practical, some
major improvements to calculator designs had to be introduced. There were
two main issues:
early mechanical calculators were slow to operate; the process of enter-
ing numbers and performing operations should be as fast as typing on
some organizations, such as banks, required printed records of calcu-
lations and combining a calculator with some sort of a printing device
would improve the eciency of oce work.