Calculators: From Treasures to Junk in One Generation

 

After studying all weekend, our number two son announced at 11:00 last night, just before going to bed–or, rather, just before he intended to go to bed–I was already there–that to take his exam this morning he absolutely had to have a non-graphing calculator.  The calculator had to be–just had to be–sophisticated enough to handle sines, cosines, and logs (which, to be honest, I only dimly remembered from my own high school days), and yet, for some unknown reason, the teacher in the course had forbidden graphing calculators (this was new to me:  sometime in the last decade, apparently, somebody figured out how to make hand-held calculators display not only numerals but charts and graphs).  

The entire family then began ransacking drawers throughout the house, coming up, in not much more than five minutes, with the trove pictured here.  And this trove doesn’t even count the calculator number three son admitted that he lost earlier this term, the two calculators I suddenly remembered I had in my junk drawer in the office, the built-in calculators every member of the family has on his cell phone, or the built in calculators every member of the family has on his computer.

The upshot?  Since all the calculators we found were either graphing calculators (forbidden) or incapable of handling logs (too unsophisticated), it became necessary for my wife to get to Staples when it opened at 8:00 this morning.  Since the last time I myself purchased a calculator was in business school, and it cost, as I recall, close to $100–this is one of the two now in my junk drawer at the office–I went to bed in a fury, supposing we’d have to shell out a like sum to get my darling but absent-minded boy through a single test.  The actual price of the calculator, it emerged this morning? Just over ten bucks.

Question:  What does this say about us?  Back when I was in high school, hand-held calculators turned up in the hands of only a very, very few kids–I can recall one who brought his to chemistry class each day, calculating moles and atomic numbers and whatnot with a speed that dazzled even our crusty old teacher–and these kids were without exception a) nerds, and, b) the children of wealthy families.  Early on, I feel certain, economic statistics should have shown the hand-held calculator as an improvement in American life–one of those breakthroughs that did so much to enhance our standard of living over the last several decades.  And as the price of calculators dropped, so the statistics should, I presume, have shown our standard of living continuing, in a little calculator-impelled manner, to rise.

But now?  What are we to make of these devices now that they’ve become so cheap and ubiquitous as to represent mere clutter?  Wouldn’t we be at least a little better off with fewer of the darned things? At some very low but still not quite negligible level, hasn’t the mass production of calculators actually begun to impoverish us?

Yes, I know.  I’m starting to sound almost like a socialist.  But it’s true, isn’t it, that there really is such a thing as too much stuff?

If the Ricochetoise would please inform me how this observation comports with the findings of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, I would be most grateful.

There are 38 comments.

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  1. Profile Photo Member
    @DavidKnights

    I remember my first calculator in the mid-70s when I was in high school. We were solidly middle class. I went to public high school. My dad bought me a TI series calculator and it cost $69. I remember that to this day. It didn’t graph and had the red led display.

    As for too much stuff; no we don’t have too much stuff available, though with all the stuff we do have, it becomes more incumbent on the individual to control and simplify their own life. How much more libertarian can you get than that?

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Member
    @Misthiocracy

    No. Deflation is not a drag on society.

    If a surplus of calculators represents a drag on society, that would mean that:

    • the surplus of pens I have lying around my apartment is a drag on society
    • the surplus of coffee mugs in my kitchen is a drag on society
    • the surplus of buttons in my sewing kit is a drag on society
    • “hoarders” should receive taxpayer support for their “disability”
    • etc

    If YOU think you have too many calculators, then what is stopping you from donating the surplus calculators to Goodwill or The Salvation Army?

    Do not blame the objects for the clutter in your home. Clutter is a choice.

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  3. Profile Photo Member
    @SouthernPessimist

    I have a large slide rule from college that I am planning to give to my grandson some day. It will be so obsolete by then that he might think it was cool. To the point of your post I think Friedman would consider this an example of the inherent efficiency of markets. Individuals can have too much stuff but society as a whole grows in proportion to our stuff.

    • #3
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    @Talleyrand

    You are not becoming a socialist Peter, as in a free market you always have a matter of choice of products, including the right not to buy the latest models. Socialism leads us to proactively de-clutter buy queueing for purchases in the cold.

    De-clutter and recycle these objects for scrap, and leave the guilt to your expense claims and tax returns.

    I remember the calculators of the 1970’s which cost $100 in those days (a week’s wages or more) and were the size of a box of chocolates.My father, being an engineer, had to fight for calculator at BP that allowed the useful calculations of square roots. Such functions were then considered expensive luxuries, along with interstate trunk phone calls, and a personal stenographer. ( For all grades of General Managers and above, each had a liveried chauffeur to drive their company car; so business priorities were properly focused then, as now, on status symbols)

    I still miss Reverse Polish, and my HP 11C.

    Did a similar exercise for mobile/cell phones. In my one person household, I found four old but still working, to donate to vicitims during recent floods. Mea Culpa

    • #4
  5. Profile Photo Member
    @AaronMiller

    If I remember right, graphing calculators were either mandatory or strongly encouraged at my high school in the 90s. My big TI came in handy in Pre-Cal and Physics.

    The problem with calculators is that they absolve you of needing to do anything other than remember the formulas (which was always my problem, anyway). Kids forget how to do division by hand.

    As long as satellites remain in orbit and everyone can look up the formulas and calculations on their smartphones, we’re fine. If we’re ever hit by a severe solar storm, math textbooks will be a hot commodity.

    You’re right, Peter, that it’s remarkable how quickly standalone calculators became nearly obsolete.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Member
    @Misthiocracy
    Talleyrand: Socialism leads us to proactively de-clutter buy queueing for purchases in the cold.

    I LOVE this line. It’s going straight into my rhetorical arsenal.

    • #6
  7. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @Pseudodionysius

    I must admit that an article like this gives me paws.

    • #7
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    @Talleyrand
    Pseudodionysius: I must admit that an article like this gives me paws. · May 31 at 9:55am

    But aren’t calculators the cat’s whiskers P? Or is that crystal radio sets?

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Member
    @Misthiocracy

    FYI: Here’s an article I really enjoy about how technological innovation inevitably leads to deflation.

    The Internet Devalues Everything It Touches

    When the government inflicts inflation on us, it’s trying to fight technological innovation. It’s yet another reason why the Fed is so insidious.

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Coolidge
    @Pseudodionysius
    Talleyrand

    Pseudodionysius: I must admit that an article like this gives me paws. · May 31 at 9:55am

    But aren’t calculators the cat’s whiskers P? Or is that crystal radio sets? · May 31 at 9:56am

    The iPawd is where its at.

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Member
    @HangOn

    What, you didn’t lend him your slide rule?

    I remember my first calculator — it could add, subtract, multiply, divide, and take square roots. Up to 9 digits. It was over $300 and was a gift. It was a Texas Instrument and made math and chemistry tests a breeze. Before long though, the tests just got longer as more students got calculators. I gave it to my brother about a year later and got one that had much more functionality and was about the same price. Before long, they had them that you could program and for the same price. It was Moore’s Law before your eyes.

    Moore’s Law is something to always keep in mind with technology. At first, the technology isn’t very good (just like those first calculators). However, it made some aspect of life easier. Over some time period, the abilities will double. For computers it has been enormously short time period for doubling capabilities. 2 years I think. That’s why I think much of the criticism on the right of things like electric cars is highly misplaced.

    As for too much stuff, that’s ridiculous.

    • #11
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    @Boymoose

    Iam looking @ my HP11c. This RPN bad boy is over 20 years old. Im using it today to design my new wood burning oven. The ovens basic design is over 2000 years old.

    As Bob Walkenhorst said “some things are classics some things are just old”.

    • #12
  13. Profile Photo Member
    @tabularasa

    In about 1970 or 1971, I had a part-time on-campus job in the Geophysics Department at the University of Utah. The big news that year was the acquisition of two calculators that would allow the geophysicists to make field calculations of highly sophisticated mathematical calculations such as (“drum roll”) square roots. As I recall, each was about $400.

    You can get a $3.00 calculator at WalMart that is infinitely more sophisticated.

    What’s the point? Things have really changed (and I’m getting very old).

    • #13
  14. Profile Photo Member
    @Misthiocracy
    Hang On: That’s why I think much of the criticism on the right of things like electric cars is highly misplaced.

    The criticism isn’t about electric cars per se. The criticism is about government funding of electric cars.

    Just because one believes the government shouldn’t do a thing, it does not follow that one believes the thing shouldn’t be done at all.

    The only thing that can slow down Moore’s Law is government subsidies.

    • #14
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    @user_52278

    As a follow-on to Aaron’s comment, I tutor High School math in the evenings, and most of the students I have had over the years have been incapable of doing simple arithmetic. Since they are allowed to use calculators in class to work out sines and cosines, they use them to multiply and divide everything, such that some of them — literally — can no longer multiply 7×8. They also trust the machines completely, and one student could not understand why a question on the exponential growth of a population of geese could not give an answer of 7.2 birds.

    I wish teachers would allow students to give their answers in equation-form, without providing a final answer, until much later in the year.

    • #15
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    @KayBee

    When I was in college in ’82 or ’83, I purchased a Sharp scientific calculator (non-graphing). I still have it, I still use it, and IT STILL HAS THE ORIGINAL BATTERY!

    Now, can we get more power sources like that?

    • #16
  17. Profile Photo Member
    @TripedisCanis

    What does this say about us? Weeelllllll . . .

    • We take these marvels of technology so matter-of-factly that when we can’t lay hand to one immediately, it is no great consequence to go get another. How many of your calculators had, or could have been, purchased in a grocery store?
    • Our demand for greater convenience has made these single purpose devices almost obsolete. I have a calculator on my cell phone with the functions you mentioned. But, since it is also a communications device, it would be ineligible for test taking. The only place you would find a single purpose, non-graphing calculator capable of trig functions is in a high school classroom.
    • Are we not rich with the places to keep all this clutter? And their batteries?

    I marvel at Moore’s Law. The primary driver behind it is a free and open consumer society. It does not apply anywhere else. A surfeit of calculators is a small price to pay.

    • #17
  18. Profile Photo Member
    @SouthernPessimist

    To expand on your question about having too much stuff. About 7 or 8 years ago my wife and I agreed that whenever we purchased a durable good such as a TV or clothes we would give away a similar item. We no longer had the room to do otherwise, and it has worked out fairly well. My wife still has 200 pairs of shoes and Goodwill knows us by name.

    • #18
  19. Profile Photo Member
    @JimChase

    I purchased my HP48S around 1991 (graphing) when I realized it had that feature, as well as the ability to plug in customized formulas. I still use it now, along with my 11C, for much simpler computations than was required for my engineering courses.

    As for the simple, grocery-aisle calculators, you would be amazed at just what marvelous tools those are for entertaining young children in the car for long rides.

    • #19
  20. Profile Photo Member
    @DavidFoster

    I’m currently working on a review of “Father, Son, & Co,” the autobiography of long-time IBM CEO Tom Watson Jr….it’s interesting to look at the prices of some of the historical products he mentions. IBM’s first production product that used electronics was the 603 Electronic Multiplier, announced in late 1946. The 603 performed one simple function: read two numbers from a punched card, multiply them together, and punch the product back in the same card. It did this at a constant rate of 100 cards per minute, which was 5-10 times the speed of the previous electromechanical multiplier.

    The 603 was available for a rental price of $350/month, which according to the BLS inflation calculator would be about $4000/month in today’s money…or a purchase-price equivalent of perhaps $150000. One hundred of these machines were leased out, and the upgraded version “sold” by the thousands.

    • #20
  21. Profile Photo Thatcher
    @StevenPotter
    Aaron Miller: The problem with calculators is that they absolve you of needing to do anything other than remember the formulas (which was always my problem, anyway). Kids forget how to do division by hand.

    As long as satellites remain in orbit and everyone can look up the formulas and calculations on their smartphones, we’re fine. If we’re ever hit by a severe solar storm, math textbooks will be a hot commodity.

    You’re right, Peter, that it’s remarkable how quickly standalone calculators became nearly obsolete.

    I was going to say something similar. The notion that calculators are “junk” has more to do with the advancement in technology than their uselessness. The major household need for calculators would have been for reconciling the family checkbook. That’s what I remember of my parents using one. Today we have Quicken to calculate it all on the fly just by inserting the receipt values. The more integration of technology into our lives the less we need to actually do the math ourselves.

    • #21
  22. Profile Photo Member
    @Misthiocracy
    Aaron Miller: The problem with calculators is that they absolve you of needing to do anything other than remember the formulas (which was always my problem, anyway). Kids forget how to do division by hand.

    The problem with the written word is that it absolves you of needing to remember anything other than the dewey decimal system. Kids forget how to remember facts.

    • #22
  23. Profile Photo Inactive
    @CoolHand

    Talleyrand: I still miss Reverse Polish, and my HP 11C.

    I will be an RPN user until my dying days. They will have to pry my HP48G from my cold dead fingers!

    I have found a couple of very good little programs for PC that replicate the function of the HP48G pretty much exactly. My favorite is called RPNCalc, and is freeware that can be found via Google search.

    Having been through engineering school, I can honestly say that I have no idea why teachers put so much stock in memorization of complex maths. They are used very little, even in engineering life, and never will they be necessary in a time or place that you cannot pull them from the applicable reference material.

    I learned very quickly that recalling equations and coefficients from memory is a good way to end up doing all those calculations over again, hopefully before any on-site crap-ups have been made.

    When I went first went to engineering school, they made us buy that calculator (HP48G) at the campus book store. I gave $225 for mine, as I recall.

    I’d pay half again more than that now, to have a NIB spare.

    • #23
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    @DanielSattelberger

    My school requires a TI-83 or -84 (which, I believe, was in the picture Peter posted). It follows with the idea several have posted, how far technology has gone. It can graph and show things about the graph, it can figure out an equation from a graph, it can calculate sine, cosine, tangent, and their inverses, change angle measures between degrees/minutes/seconds and decimal degrees, and do so much other stuff that I’ve had it for two years and still haven’t figured out half of it, and it didn’t even cost me $100.

    Responding to commenters who mentioned that kids are using their calculators for simple addition: I’d argue this is a necessary evil. Things like law of sines and law of cosines and square roots simply involve too many huge calculations and long decimals to make attempting it without a calculator an extremely time-consuming experience.

    I’d also agree that calculators are being replaced. I remember a story a couple years ago where my school banned cell phones during class. One of my fellow students complained because he said he didn’t have a calculator, he used the app on his iPhone.

    • #24
  25. Profile Photo Thatcher
    @Percival

    The first calculator I saw belonged to my future geometry teacher, a neighbor who came over for dinner with my family and brought it to show to my dad, an engineer. It cost $400. My dad’s company bought him a calculator a few years after that. It cost $250. My first one was a TI-30, which ran about $30, IIRC, and I got a programmable TI-58 a few years after that, which cost $99. I recall hearing at the time that the TI-58 had about as much processing power as the Apollo-11 Command Module had had.

    My class was the last one that they taught slide rule usage to. Calculators were becoming ubiquitous — there didn’t seem to be much point in spending time with the old slipstick anymore. They were probably right, but I did manage to get through a physics mid-term a few years later with my trusty Dietzgen when I had a battery failure.

    I once talked to someone who had been working for TI back then. He said that the amount of stuff they learned with each new model led to the next one being better and cheaper.

    • #25
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    @dogsbody

    Peter,

    I suspect that your son’s teacher banned graphing calculators because the more powerful models can actually do simple algebra and calculus (e.g. derivatives and integrals of elementary functions). If the teacher is testing what the students can do by hand, this would give the students with the more expensive graphing calculators an easy way to cheat.

    That leads to the question of whether it’s still worthwhile to teach students how to do calculus by hand, but that’s an issue too large for this 200 word margin to contain. (For the record, I do think it’s worthwhile. In fact, I ban all calculators from tests when I teach calculus.)

    CoolHand

    Talleyrand: I still miss Reverse Polish, and my HP 11C.

    I will be an RPN user until my dying days. They will have to pry my HP48G from my cold dead fingers!

    I have my HP-41CV from my engineering days right here on my desk. Still works like it did when it was new, and I still love it. If I need to graph a function, I’ll use Maple.

    • #26
  27. Profile Photo Inactive
    @DanielSattelberger
    anonymous

    Dan IV: Things like law of sines and law of cosines and square roots simply involve too many huge calculations and long decimals to make attempting it without a calculator an extremely time-consuming experience.

    Huh? Call me a fossil, but I in four years of engineering school (B.S. 1971), I never once used a calculator and didn’t own one until I bought an H-P 45 in 1974. In all of the problems we were called upon to solve in statics, dynamics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, solid state electronics, chemistry, etc. the two or three significant digits you got from a slide rule sufficed. There were big Friden mechanical calculators for the researchers who needed them, but for instruction (and a great deal of actual engineering) there was no need for such precision.

    The biggest trouble comes with the square root at the end of a law of cosines equation. Many times I’ve had to find the square root of 345289.9857021 or some similarly large number. Try doing that one by hand.

    • #27
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    @DanielSattelberger
    anonymous

    Now, if I’m doing a numerical integration of the solar system, I may need all that precision, but how many other problems require it? · May 31 at 4:51pmI fear we may be getting into the geeky weeds here, but let me try to do this one without a calculator. At the end of a law of cosines computation, we want to find Sqrt[345289.9857021]. Okay, on my K&E slide rule, I set the cursor on the A scale to a little more than 3.45 (on the right side of the A scale, since the magnitude of the argument is odd). On the D scale, we immediately read off 5.88, and mentally placing the decimal point, I arrive at the square root as 588. The calculator gives it as 587.613806596. It took about the same amount of time with the slide rule and the calculator.

    Impressive.

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    @NickStuart

    I keep the trusty HP 12c that got me through B school back when Reagan was in his 1st term in my desk drawer. I pull it out a couple times a week to run present values, do exponents, and just keep in touch.

    • #29
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    @Pilli

    I bought my first calc (+,-,/,*,and %.) in 1972 using my brand new Sears credit card. Cost me $119.

    I used it in my night job at Mickey D’s instead of the mechanical calculator on the desk. In computing the % of sales for each food item sold, the mechanical machine would take 5 to 7 minutes per. I could go get a coffee refill in the time it took to do one calculation and still be waiting.

    The Sears calc was done when I pushed the last button. It saved me many hours not to mention the caffeine issues. I figured it paid for itself in the first couple of months. I was able to get home and back to studying and then to bed way sooner.

    That’s when I learned…useful technology = time saved = money saved. Now, before I buy I always ask myself, “How much time will this gadget save me?”

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