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. ↢