A post from Shady Characters

Museum of London: a Shady Characters field trip

This is the most recent in a series of four posts on Field Trips. Start at PART 1 or view ALL POSTS in the series.

Apologies for the relaxed pace of posts here; I’ve been hard at work on the manuscript for Empire of the Sum, which is currently ping-ponging between New York and Birmingham as my editor helps knock it into shape. There isn’t much time left for writing anything else!

That said, I did manage a trip to London with my family this last weekend, which was a pleasant little diversion. We visited the Museum of London, which lives on a roundabout (or traffic circle, or island, depending on your local vernacular) at the southern edge of the Barbican Estate. This alone is noteworthy. The Barbican is an astonishing place, a Brutalist, 1960s vision of a future in which residents and visitors perambulate serenely from one tower block to the next via elevated walkways and manicured gardens. It is, as far as I can tell, impossible to hurry through the Barbican: if the arresting views don’t get slow you down, the mazelike layout will finish the job.

Built in 1976, the Museum of London is of a similar vintage and manages to cram a lot of material into its two floors. It’s an old-fashioned museum in a lot of ways, with few interactive exhibits and a liking for display cabinets and dense textual labels. But don’t let that put you off: the history of London is fascinating, the building itself is a pleasure to stroll through, and its out-of-the-way location means that it’s often quieter than heavy hitters such as the Natural History Museum and Science Museum. (For what it’s worth, the Museum of London also looks to be less dependent on problematic sponsors such as BP, Shell and Rio Tinto.)

Down on the museum’s lower floor was a cluster of exhibits that caught my eye: a Sumlock Anita calculator, an Apple II home computer, and the control console for a Lyons Electronic Office. I spent a lot of time with these three devices as I worked on Empire of the Sum, but the pandemic put paid to a lot of in-person research and it was a treat to finally see these machines in the metal. Each one of them played a pivotal role in the rise and fall of the pocket calculator.

Controls for the Lyons Electronic Office
Controls for the Lyons Electronic Office. (Image by the author, taken at the Museum of London.)

The Sumlock Anita and the Lyons Electronic Office, or LEO, were competitors at one remove during a critical period in the calculator’s history. Vacuum tube computers, such as the LEO (developed by a chain of tea shops, no less), threatened the livelihood of the mechanical adding and calculating machines that occupied many an office desk. As the largest British manufacturer of such things, London-based Sumlock was especially worried. Their response was the Anita of 1961, a desktop calculator about the size of a cash register whose keyboard mimicked those of Sumlock’s older mechanical models. It was the world’s first mass-produced electronic calculator, and it shook the complacent calculator industry out of its torpor. Within a few years, transistorised desktop calculators were the norm; a few years after that, and pocket calculators driven by integrated chips had arrived. The clunky, chunky Anita started it all.

Sumlock Anita calculator
Sumlock Anita calculator. (Image by the author, taken at the Museum of London.)

If the Anita was the starting gun for the electronic calculator race, the Apple II, released in 1977, was the bell for its last lap. Home computers, as with mainframe-style machines such as the LEO before them, were not direct competitors for the calculator, but the programs that ran on them were another matter. The Apple II’s killer app — the first-ever killer app, by most accounts — was a program called VisiCalc that simulated a paper accounting tool called a spreadsheet. VisiCalc was a runaway success, to the extent that many customers bought Apple IIs purely to be able to run it. For decades, the calculator industry had been building better mousetraps; VisiCalc was a mousetrap, bear trap, and hunting lodge rolled into one. The calculator’s days were numbered.

Apple II computer and disk drive
Apple II computer and disk drive. (Image by the author, taken at the Museum of London.)

There’s much more to the history of the calculator, of course, and to the Museum of London! I hope to tell the calculator’s story as well as I can in Empire of the Sum (I guess we’ll find out how well I did in summer 2023 or thereabouts) but in the meantime, if you can make it, the museum is an excellent place to visit. Highly recommended.

2 comments on “Museum of London: a Shady Characters field trip

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Larry – thanks for catching that! Fixed now.

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