Amazing at the Time: Dad’s First Calculator in 1973
A few weeks ago my sisters and I held an estate sale at my father’s house since he had passed away in March at the age of 87 (a tribute site to him is here). One device didn’t sell and I should never have put it into the estate sale in any event: Dad’s first calculator.
In 1973 my Dad brought home an amazing device: a small hand-held electronic calculator called the Adler 81. We were stunned that it could do addition, subtraction, multiplication and division and you could (sort of) slip it in to your pocket or purse. He showed it off to the neighbors, brought it out at a party mom and dad had at our house to “wow” their guests, and everyone else he showed it off to were suitably impressed.
Until they found out the price, that is: At the time it listed for $175 and his company bought it for him for $150 dollars in early 1973. To put that into perspective in today’s dollars (using the Consumer Price Index as a measure) the relative value of that $150 in today’s dollars would be $775!
WHAT? DAD’S CALCULATOR WAS MADE IN ENGLAND?
There is alot of history around this calculator that I didn’t know until I poked around last night. I had never realized that the British created the world’s first electronic desktop calculator. I’d always assumed that Texas Instruments invented the desktop, hand-held, and other calculators but nope…apparently it was the Brits…but maybe not. I had to find out more so I used “the Google” to see what I could uncover.
Turns out this calculator was part of “Anita: the world’s first electronic desktop calculator.” The ancestry of the small device my Dad would eventually receive starts with a company that made puncher devices to validate railway tickets: “Bell Punch Co., Limited, was established in London in 1878 to acquire the patent rights of an American hand registering ticket punch which had already been adopted by a few tramway companies in Britain.“
As part of that acquisition, Bell Punch ended up with an “adding mechanism” and, in 1940, they introduced a mechanical adding machine called Sumlock. Becoming the dominant player in the “calculating machine” field in Britain over the next two decades, when the transistor hit in the 1960s they shifted to making electronic calculating machines for the desktop. The company did quite well, eventually molding themselves into a firm called Sumlock-Anita (entire history is here, the calculator lineage is here, and a pretty interesting article on the history of calculators is here).
Then in 1972 the United States company Rockwell, the American defense company now called Rockwell International, approached Sumlock-Anita with an offer to put their entire calculator circuitry on to a single silicon chip called an integrated circuit. The answer was obviously “yes!” so Sumlock-Anita was able to create a new, handheld calculator called the Anita 811 which they introduced in 1972. Versions of this calculator were made in England but also supplied to the Litton Industries subsidiary TA Vertriebs, of Germany, as its Adler 81, which my Dad would obtain in 1973.
Probably because they were an American company—and ended up mass-producing calculators that I’m certain many of us owned as kids or young people—I’d always assumed that the inventor (or one of the early innovators) was Texas Instruments. In this Wikipedia article on Texas Instruments it says, “Texas Instruments invented the hand-held calculator (a prototype called “Cal Tech”) in 1967 and the single-chip microcomputer in 1971, and was assigned the first patent on a single-chip microprocessor (invented by Gary Boone) on September 4, 1973.“
Yikes. So who really invented the hand-held calculator? It likely was Texas Instruments and they filed a patent on it in 1967 which was granted eight years later (in 1975). But who shipped the first hand-held calculators? There is this bit of history which shows that Texas Instruments was actually shipping hand-held calculators in mid-1972, around the same time Sumlock-Anita was shipping the calculator my Dad would own, but without alot of study and analysis, I’m not certain.
At any rate I’m not about to become a calculator historian but, like any technology, there are so many inventions and innovations that lead up to massive, disruptive change that the lineage becomes murky and is often in dispute. One could argue Texas Instruments ‘invented’ the hand-held in 1967 but Sumlock-Anita was right there too. So instead of figuring out something that doesn’t matter much anyway (unless you’re British and have pride in your engineering lineage) I’ll just stay amazed at Dad’s first calculator and leave it at that.
Stay amazed yourself.
About Steve Borsch
Connecting the Dots Podcast
Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.