May 27, 2024


Science It Works

Evolution of the scientific calculator

While we might have started out using our fingers and toes to count, humanity has been busy designing machines to help with calculations for hundreds of years. From early counting devices to modern calculators, a lot has happened in between.

Today, students and professionals alike are equipped with scientific calculators capable of executing complex mathematical functions and solving equations. They save a huge amount of time compared with writing out and solving individual problems and equations.

But how did inventors move from the very first abacus thousands of years ago to the modern scientific calculator?

What is a scientific calculator?

Scientific calculators, also known as digital calculators, are electronically powered devices that can solve many different calculations used in mathematics, science and engineering.

More basic calculators typically have four core functions: adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing. Some advanced electronic calculators include other functions like instant percentage calculators. Scientific calculators, on the other hand, are capable of solving much more complex mathematical problems such as those used in statistics or probability.

Many students use scientific calculators for high school and college level education in classes such as calculus and algebra. They’re also widely used in a professional capacity by engineers and architects, among others.

Nowadays, even more advanced calculators are available. For example, a graphing calculator incorporates all the functionalities of a scientific calculator along with the capability of graphing input data.

History of the calculator

Humans first started using tools to count with the invention of the abacus, a tool that’s so old that its exact origins have never been confirmed. It involves moving a set of beads or balls from one side of a row of poles to another.

Around the mid 17th century, the first adding machine was invented. It was only capable of adding and subtracting by moving a set of dials.

After that, a series of iterations on the adding machine advanced humanity toward the electronic calculators of today. This included Philip Hahn’s circular, hand-cranked calculator in 1778 and the first commercially produced calculator invented by Charles Xavier Thomas de Colmar in 1820.

Modern electronic calculators

Back in 1954, IBM came up with the first all-transistor calculator. Previous calculators had all used vacuum tubes to operate, but this model used around 3,000 transistors instead. It was a large, bulky machine that could cost you up to $83,210.

Pretty soon, inventors began to produce far more compact versions of the modern calculator. In 1967, the first handheld calculator appeared on the scene. Since then, the basic interface of standard handheld calculators hasn’t changed much. It was released for commercial sale in 1970, weighed 45 ounces and had ten numerical buttons from zero to nine. The display was capable of showing digits up to 12 decimal places.

Throughout the 1970s, calculators continued to evolve. The first pocket calculator with an LED display was released by BUSICOM in 1971 and cost $395. Hewlett-Packard quickly followed in 1975 with the first handheld programmable calculator at $795.

By 1985, Casio had released their first graphing calculator and quickly continued iterating on this model. They’re still one of the most popular brands of scientific calculators as we know them today.

The first scientific calculator

Of all the different versions of the modern calculator, the 1968 Hewlett-Packard HP-9100A can be defined as the first scientific calculator. It used transistor logic, CORDIC algorithm for trigonometry and was based on RPN entry.

Since then, other brands have taken over and dominated the scientific calculator market, including Sharp, Casio and Canon. Casio is particularly associated with their popular FX series, such as the Casio FX-991EX, commonly used by students in school.

Modern scientific calculator functions

Today’s scientific calculators can perform a core set of calculations and functions. Different makes and models may also include extra features.

When numbers are too large and long to be written in decimal form, scientific notation is used instead. An example of scientific notation would be ​​”m × 10n.”

Floating point arithmetic

This type of numerical representation is used when dealing with very small or very large numbers. It represents calculations and figures as an approximal formula rather than a standard integer.

Trigonometry involves measuring and calculating the sides and angles of triangles in relation to each other and is generally taught as a subset of geometry in the education system. Scientific calculators allow you to calculate and represent trigonometric ratios and formulae.

Scientific calculators also include shorthand buttons for constants such as “pi” so you can easily incorporate them into calculations and formulae.

In high school level education, calculus includes the study of concepts such as functions and limits. Scientific calculators allow you to solve limits directly without using long, written calculations on pen and paper.

Scientific calculators often display fractions as decimal numbers by default, but the different functions of a scientific calculator allow you to express things like fractions in a number of different formats.

In some mathematical equations, an imaginary number is used and denoted as “i.” Scientific calculators allow you to calculate using complex numbers which are expressed as “a + bi.”

Best scientific calculators

Best scientific calculator for middle schoolers

Casio FX 260 Solar II Scientific Calculator: available at Amazon
This is a super lightweight calculator that can easily be carried around or stored in a locker. A durable outer case slides over to protect the calculator screen from damage. It’s also reasonably priced, making it a little easier to replace if it gets lost or damaged.

Best scientific calculator for high school and college

Texas Instruments TI-36X Pro Scientific Calculator: available at Amazon
This calculator is suitable for all levels of mathematical study at high school and college level, including advanced algebra, calculus, statistics and geometry. It’s capable of handling highly complex equations and displays four lines of data.

Best scientific calculator for professionals

HP 35S Programmable Scientific Calculator: available at Amazon
Whether you work in the medical, scientific or engineering field, this calculator is as robust as they come. You can choose between RPN or algebraic input and it comes with a complete library of unit conversions, among many other features.

Lauren Farrell is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money.

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