Basic science: understanding numbers
Basic science: understanding numbers

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Basic science: understanding numbers

2.1 Calculators through the ages

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The earliest forms of calculators were a series of trays and pebbles. These were very early abacuses, which developed around 4,000 years ago into the more traditional style of beads threaded onto rods and set into a frame. Abacuses are still used in the Far East and Africa and taught in schools in Japan and China. But for many people, this basic tool is something of the past.

In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, many mechanical calculators were developed, though with little success until the arrival of the arithmometer, a portable and reliable mechanical device that could add, subtract, multiply, and divide numbers. Next came the adding machine, a bookkeeping machine that was commonplace in offices until the 1970s.

Soon, electronic components began to shrink. And the early electronic calculators were developed. The first was the Casio 14a, still so large that it required fitting into a desk. In the 1970s, the components reduced in size again, and in came the pocket calculators with red or green LED displays. At first, these were chunky devices, some needing mains power to operate. But they will portable and could perform basic tasks like adding, subtracting, dividing, and multiplying.

In the 1980s, the displays changed from LEDs to LCDs, and the calculators got thinner, solarpowered, and some no larger than a credit card. The improved computing power of this time enabled calculators to add more strings to their bow. And with this, the scientific calculator was born. These beasts can work with scientific notation, logarithmic and trigonometric calculations, exponential functions, roots and powers, and other long complicated mathematical terms that many people have never even heard of.

By the 1990s, these calculators had larger screens and were able to solve equations and even plot graphs. Many of us still have a calculator lying around, forgotten in the drawer collecting dust. Why? Because the late 1990s through to the present day has seen a rise in other electronic devices such as the personal computer and the mobile phone, each with a built-in calculator just a few clicks away or resting in your pocket.

Perhaps you don't realise just how powerful your phone calculator is. Many smartphone calculator scan become high powered scientific calculators when tipped on their side. Try it now. Did it work?

One final thing, both simple and scientific calculators often contain a percent button. This simple button first appeared on the pocket calculators of the 1970s. Yet, few people ever worked out how this button worked. And the order that you press the numbers varies from calculator to calculator. We'll discuss percentages in this course, but we'll never use this button. We feel that it's best left well alone.

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Since numbers first emerged, people have used their fingers and toes, abacuses, electronic calculators and mobile phone apps to make calculations. This video considers how calculators have changed through time.


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