Electronic Calculators—Desktop

A collection of desktop electronic calculators in the Division of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History.

In the years following World War II, the expansion of engineering and scientific endeavors, the attempt to build better weapons, and the growth of large businesses and business networks combined to produce a demand for powerful computing machines of relatively moderate price. The development of compact electronic components, first sturdy vacuum tubes, then transistors and then integrated circuits, made this a physical possibility. Electronics engineers, some trained in nascent computer science departments, sought new projects. One result of this combination of sources was the desktop electronic calculator, which emerged in the early 1960s. It plunged in price with the advent of chips, becoming a widely available consumer product, produced on a global scale. Desktop machines, in turn, gave way to handheld calculators and to personal computers.

Electronic calculators were first produced by manufacturers of calculating machines like Sumlock Comptometer in Britain, Friden in the United States, and the Nippon Calculating Machine Company in Japan. They also attracted the attention of makers of electronic components like Hayakawa Electric (later Sharp Corporation) and Sony in Japan, and Hewlett-Packard and Wang Laboratories in the United States. The hefty machines built by these companies soon gave way to lighter, less expensive devices. Some manufacturers went out of business, some turned to manufacture of small computers and computer peripherals, and a few added calculators to their consumer electronic products. The globalization of calculator manufacture, and a growing distinction between makers and vendors of calculating machines, makes for a complex international story.