A post from Shady Characters

Announcing a new book: Empire of the Sum

It has been a long time coming, but I’m pleased to announce that I’m working on a new book. Empire of the Sum: The Rise and Reign of the Pocket Calculator* will be published by W. W. Norton in late 2022 or thereabouts, and Brendan Curry will take the editing reins once again.

Empire of the Sum is a bit of a departure from Shady Characters but perhaps not a million miles away from The Book, in that I’ll be using an object so common that it often fades into the background to look at the wider ~context~ in which it was born, lived, and (sort of) died. Here’s how I put it in the proposal for Empire, after much help and encouragement from Laurie Abkemeier:

The calculator — electronic or mechanical, pocketable or otherwise — has a strong claim to being one of the most pervasive technological innovations of the twentieth century. For a hundred years, calculators were fixtures of classrooms, offices, lecture theatres, laboratories, and even space flights. To an astronaut, a calculator was a ticket home. To an engineer, it was as natural a tool as a drawing board or an HB pencil. To a tradesman, it was as familiar as a screwdriver. For a student, it was a trinket to be decorated with stickers — or dreaded as a totem of math class. Even now, in the age of the smartphone, everyone has a calculator in a certain kitchen drawer, kept company by takeaway menus, Sellotape, and half-burned birthday candles.

Many similar technologies in the twilight of their lives boast communities of ardent supporters. Vinyl collectors, film photographers, classic car owners, ham radio enthusiasts: bump into one at a party and get ready to learn a lot about record players, medium format cameras, or bias-ply tires. But where are the Little Professor boosters, the TI-81 bores? There is a small, close-knit community of calculator collectors out there, but the reality is that the calculator doesn’t need them to survive. Even if it no longer lives in your backpack or briefcase, the calculator has ascended to a kind of silicon afterlife, living on as an app on your iPhone, your Galaxy, or your ThinkPad. The pocket calculator may have disappeared from daily view, but its soul is still very much with us.

Empire of the Sum will chart the long rise and sudden fall of the pocket calculator and its ancestors. Each chapter takes a calculator — the ancient abacus, the ingenious slide rule, the sleek Programma 101, the space-bound HP-35, and more — and weaves them together into a story spanning thousands of years. We’ll meet medieval Scottish lairds, Restoration spies, and Cold War astronauts. We’ll hear pebbles rustle on Mesopotamian sand and watch electrons flash across a vacuum. We’ll watch the development of the hydrogen bomb and the rise of the microchip, the first powered by calculators, the second powering them. And finally, we’ll see the calculator fall from grace as the home computer eats its lunch.

So there you have it! I hope that has piqued your interest, and please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions. I’m also interested to know if you have any stories or anecdotes about calculators of any kind. Slide rules, abacuses, adding machines, graphing calculators, you name it; if you have a story, please do drop me a line or leave a comment here.

With apologies to J. G. Ballard. 

12 comments on “Announcing a new book: Empire of the Sum

  1. Comment posted by Paul Hoffman on

    I hope you will cover circular slide rules. If so, and you want an example of the infamous “Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer” from the back of the book “The Effects of Nuclear Weapons”, I’m happy to share it with you.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Paul — I will indeed! The earliest real slide rule may well have been a circular one, and I have a great picture lined up to illustrate that particular development.

      I’m intrigued in your “Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer” — could you drop me a line via the contact page?

  2. Comment posted by Duncan Mara (Emeritus Professor) on

    To describe/explain slide rule you’ll have to explain logarithms. Most people, inc. maths teachers, do this badly, but it can be done simply and elegantly. Happy to help if you think you’ll need some.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Duncan — thanks for the comment. Logarithms are not easy to explain, I grant you. I do have some words jotted down on the subject, but I’d be interested in any pointers you might have.

  3. Comment posted by Bill M on

    I look forward to the book.
    I’m glad to see slide rules. The Pickett N-600ES put men on the moon.

    The calculator was made to do one thing, do it well, do it quickly; calculate.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Bill — indeed! I’m now the proud owner of a Pickett slide rule, courtesy of my father in law, although it’s a more conventional full-size rule as opposed to the half-length N-600.

  4. Comment posted by Viseguy on

    I remember feeling vaguely guilty, in high school, in the 1960s, about being allowed to use a (horizontal) slide rule for math(s) exams. But that was for powers and logarithms! The idea of elementary-school kids using pocket calculators to do 4-function arithmetic is, even now, unsettling.

    That said, my calculator to this day is my 1980s DOS word processor (running under 64-bit Windows), which not only does arithmetic, but also prints out its calculations on a “tape”. Wonderful things, computers.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Viseguy — thanks for the comment! I’ve been quite taken by the tactility of using a slide rule, and the imprecision of it all is quite freeing. I do understand the scepticism over calculators in the classroom, but they can also act as incentives to get reluctant students more involved in maths. And they save you so much time. That’s hard to ignore.

  5. Comment posted by Brian Inglis on

    I believe I still have around somewhere Comrie’s (log, etc.) Tables from school, university T+E slide rule, a few company promotional calculators, including flat plastic ones in pad holders/padfolios, and a late model TI Programmer or competitor equivalent.

    One of the project/promotional calculators includes a perpetual monthly calendar display, world clock, and travel alarm, or is it a travel alarm clock calendar with a calculator?

    I now use the command line utilities bc – basic algebraic arbitrary precision and radix calculator/language (as opposed to *dc* RPN [Reverse Polish] arbitrary precision desk calculator/language); units – converter which does not require units always be specified, includes many historical units, now also multiple systems of units and currencies (updated on demand); and LibreOffice calc spreadsheet for repeated calculations in tables, and graphs.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Brian — thanks for the comment! I’m quite intrigued by bc and dc tools. bc is among the earliest “languages” implemented on Unix (perhaps the earliest?), and I find it telling that the one of the first major programs was a simulator for a much simpler machine. There’s clearly something innately useful about a plain old calculator!

  6. Comment posted by John Pavlus on

    The most interesting example I’ve seen of the pocket calculator’s “silicon afterlife” is a Mac/iOS app called Soulver. It’s like a magic notepad that lets you calculate stuff in (mostly) natural language, like “30% off what is $5000” or “1,000,000,000 seconds in years”. Ingenious and indispensable—and only inventable in a post-pocket-calculator world.

    Runner up (nerdier): HyperCalc, “the calculator that doesn’t overflow.” I remember playing with a physical pocket calculator as a kid and trying to “break its brain” by punching in calculations were too big for it to deal with. HyperCalc (via some mathemagical programmer spells that I don’t understand) says “hold my beer” to all that. 27 raised to the googolplex-th power? No sweat—but interpreting the answer may break your brain a little.

    Book sounds awesome, can’t wait to read it!

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi John – thanks for the encouragement! I can’t wait to write it.

      I appreciate the technical cleverness of HyperCalc, but Soulver looks especially intriguing. The main challenge I find with novel apps like it is that my brain is less plastic than it used to be, so I find it hard to adjust my habits to fully take advantage. That’s one of the reasons, I think, why the pocket calculator has hung around in one form or another for so long. Add, subtract, multiply, divide; once they’re embedded in the brain, they just don’t go away.

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