pocket calculator
Posted: 12 January 2012 09:01 PM   [ Ignore ]
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I am reading the novel True Grit and in it one of the incidental characters is described as being a seller of pocket calculators.  This is when Mattie is fourteen years old and is, presumably, in the nineteenth century and probably not long after the Civil War.  Oklahoma is still Indian Territory at any rate.  What would a pocket calculator have been at that time?

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Posted: 12 January 2012 11:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I poked around dictionary.com, wikipedia, wordnik,and various web sites about small mechanical calculators, but couldn’t find a totally satisfying answer.  But the best fit, although still a highly speculative one, seems to be the “Addiator” calculator.  This was a mechanical calculator that was very light for the time, but it would not literally fit in your pocket.  And, strictly speaking, an Addiator salesman would be an anachronism, but far less of an anachronism than any calculator that would truly be pocket-sized.

Interestingly enough, True Grit was WRITTEN before true pocket calculators, as we know them, were widely available on the market.  It was written in 1968.  The first electronic calculators, which were also the first true “pocket calculators”, began being sold in 1969 and didn’t really take off until the 1970s, and even then were prohibitively expensive for most folks.

One possibility that occurred to me was that the “pocket calculators” were slide rules.  Slide rules wouldn’t literally fit in your pocket but were far smaller than any mechanical calculator at the time, so if pocket calculator was a slang term for slide rule, it would be an exaggeration but not an absurd one.  And slide rules existed in the mid to late 19th century (well before that, in fact) but I can find no evidence that a slide rule was ever called a “pocket calculator”.  Small slide rules are sometimes called “pocket rules”, but “calculator” seems to have been used only for mechanical adding devices, and not for slide rules of any size.

There were, generally speaking, four different types of “mechanical” calculators that were made in the mid 19th to early 20th century: the arithmometer, the comptometer, the “millionaire” calculator (turn of the century), and pinwheel calculators.  But all of them were too big to possibly go by the name “pocket calculator”, unless the term was being used as a joke.  And, again, I can find no evidence these devices were ever called, jokingly or otherwise, pocket calculators.

The Curta calculator was a true, hand-held, but MECHANICAL, calculator that could lit in your pocket.  So, it might seem to be a good choice.  But it was developed in 1947.  While a certain amount of anachronicity is forgivable, that seems like too big of a stretch.  And, I can find no evidence that it was called a pocket calculator at the time.  Rather, the label seems to have been applied to it by historians after the electronic hand held calculator was invented.

The Addiator was sold in the 1920s and onwards.  The term was applied to both “genuine” Addiators and clones made by competing companies: much like Xerox, the brand became synonymous with that general type of machine.  It was MUCH smaller than any mechanical calculator available at the time.  It wouldn’t literally fit in your pocket, though.  While the 1920s would still be too recent for it to be historically accurate to have an Addiator salesman prancing around post civil war Oklahoma, it still seems plausible that a writer in the late 1960s, who is setting a story at a somewhat vague point in the late 19th century, would feel he could get away with a mild stretch of history like this.

I became very enamored with my Addiator theory when I found a vintage photo of an Addiator model with the words “Kingson Pocket Calculator” printed on said Addiator.  While this doesn’t prove that “pocket calculator” was a general slang term for the Addiator class of calculators (it could have just been a brand slogan for the Kingson), it is at least a link of some kind between those calculators and that term, which is more than I can say for any of the other mechanical calculators.  But, unfortunately, when it looked into it more closely, I saw that the Kingson model was developed in the early 1960s, which is much too late in time for it to lend any real support to my theory.  It is possible that the phrase “pocket calculator” was applied to the earlier Addiator models sold in the 20s and 30s, but that is pure speculation, and the earlier models were bigger than the Kingson.  Also, when I looked at the advertisement details for the Kingson, the advertiser expressly noted that it was the size of a “pocket comb”, suggesting that the descriptor “pocket calculator” was applied to the 1960 model in particular because it would (at least sort of) fit in your pocket.

http://www.vintagecalculators.com/html/addiator.html (scroll down a bit to find the Kingson). 

Sigh.  Its always a shame when a perfectly good theory founders on the rocks of inconvenient facts.

Despite this setback for my theory, the Addiator calculator seems as good of a possibility as any for what the writer of True Grit might have had in mind, and, by process of elimination, less implausible than the alternatives: slide rules don’t seem to have ever been called calculators, and every other mechanical calculator available anywhere near the right time period was much too big for the term pocket calculator to be remotely apt.

I’d be curious if anybody else, with access to better historical references than I used, could come up with a better explanation.

[ Edited: 13 January 2012 12:02 AM by Svinyard118 ]
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Posted: 13 January 2012 02:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I may be suffering from faulty memory, but I’m almost certain that the cylindrical slide rule I bought in about 1972 was advertised as a ‘pocket calculator’. Doing some Googling, I can identify it as an Otis King model K. ‘Calculator’ certainly seems right but I may be misremembering the ‘pocket’ bit (although it is eminently pocketable).

(I remember this as one of my less well-judged purchases. It cost around £5 at the time, quite a lot for a schoolboy in 1972, and within 12 months simple 4-function electronic calculators offering far greater precision were available for about the same price.)

However, back to True Grit. When I read it (fairly recently, after the Coen brothers film), I interpreted the meaning of ‘pocket calculator’ as ‘ready reckoner’, (ie a book of tables of pre-cooked calculations). However, some minutes of Googling, I can’t find any evidence of the two terms ever being synonymous, so I’m not sure why I leapt to that interpretation.

The term ‘ready reckoner’ itself seems to be completely dead apart from limited use in things like tax tables (it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page). In pre-decimal currency, pre-metric, pre-electronic-calculator days in the UK, it was indispensable. If you had a product that sold at 6 shillings and 7 pence per pound, working out how much 2½ ounces should sell for was an instant look-up in a reckoner rather than several minutes with pencil and paper (the answer is 1 shilling and a halfpenny, for the curious).

As Svinyard points out, there were plenty of mechanical calculators around, some pocketable. At one time, I owned a Magic Brain Calculator which is actually isomorphic with an abacus in operation with a cunning mechanism to semi-automate carrying. It looks to be a derivative of the Addiator (mentioned by Svinyard) with a refinement to allow both addition and subtraction using the same mechanism. (You may suspect that I’m a sucker for gadgets; you’d be right.)

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Posted: 13 January 2012 03:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Just do an advanced search for “pocket calculator” on Google Books with a limit of 1899 on the date and a variety of examples will pop up. They all seem to be variations on the slide rule, some circular. Many are specialized for particular applications.

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Posted: 13 January 2012 05:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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For what it’s worth, the story is being told from the perspective of an older Mattie in 1928, so we may forgive her for using early twentieth century terminology to describe something from her youth.

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Posted: 13 January 2012 05:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Thanks for the “Magic Brain” caculator, Dr. Fortran! Great find!

I thought of slide rules, too. They may certainly be called calculators – in fact, the Spanish for “slide rule” is regla de cálculo. 40 years or so ago, vendors of industrial equipment and such, used to hand them out as freebies to plant personnel. They were usually about 15 cm long, and would certainly fit in most breast pockets. The leatheroid case, or holder, often had a pocket clip.
Printed “ready reckoners” for financial calculations were, as Dr. Fortran points out, common in the UK before 1971 (old editions of Pears’ Cyclopedia usually have one), and in other non-decimal countries. I have such a Spanish “ready reckoner”, printed about 1780. Its title is ”De Quentas Añadidas”. It is vellum bound, 15x7.5 cm in size, 2.5 cm thick, and would fit in most pockets (its elongated shape suggests that it may, in fact, have been designed to do so).  The book is mostly intended for calculating multiples of unit prices, in terms of ducados, reales, and maravedís (1 ducado =11 reales, 1 real = 34 maravedís), and seems to have been published at a time when Spanish currency was undergoing all sorts of changes. It could certainly be called a “pocket calculator”.

Whether the author of “True Grit” meant any of the above is another matter entirely (I haven’t read the book). He/she may simply have made a mistake; or may have taken care to be as well informed as Dave.

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Posted: 13 January 2012 06:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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may have taken care to be as well informed as Dave.

I’m not well informed (at least not on this particular subject). I had no idea what a pocket calculator was. I just know how to Google, something that Charles Portis couldn’t have done in 1968.

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Posted: 13 January 2012 09:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Not surprisingly, Dave’s suggestion pf using Google books search with those date limitations supplied the answer in a second: slide rules were commonly called “pocket calculators” in the 19th century.  They were common in the US by the mid 19th century (at least per wikipedia) so that is almost surely what the author of True Grit had in mind.

To use just one example of a citation suuprting that slide rules were called this, the book “hand-book of the slide rule”, published in 1876 and written by William Henry Bayley, references “woollgar’s pocket calculator”, which it refers to in the next sentence as a “rule”.  (this device had apparently stopped being made by the time Bayley’s book was written, so it was not brand new even then.)

Thanks, Dave!  I will certainly keep google books in mind for future use.  I had no idea the tool was this powerful.  I feel foolish for not having known that, but at least know it now.

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Posted: 13 January 2012 10:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Don’t feel foolish. Internet search is a vast and constantly changing discipline. What seems obvious to one experienced searcher may not be to another. I’m continually learning new ways to search.

(This reminds me of all the “pocket calculators” (we didn’t call them that) we had in the US Army (c. 1987). My favorite was the “rad” to “centiGray” converter that was issued when the Army switched to SI measurement of radiation exposure. The handy little slide told you that 1 rad = 1 cGy, 10 rads = 10 cGy, 100 rads = 100 cGy, etc.)

[ Edited: 13 January 2012 10:21 AM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 13 January 2012 10:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Internet search is a vast and constantly changing discipline. What seems obvious to one experienced searcher may not be to another. I’m continually learning new ways to search.

sounds fairly well-informed to me ;-)

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Posted: 13 January 2012 02:52 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Dr Fortran - 13 January 2012 02:08 AM

... At one time, I owned a Magic Brain Calculator which is actually isomorphic with an abacus in operation with a cunning mechanism to semi-automate carrying. It looks to be a derivative of the Addiator (mentioned by Svinyard) with a refinement to allow both addition and subtraction using the same mechanism. (You may suspect that I’m a sucker for gadgets; you’d be right.)

I had one of those. Memories! When I lost the stylus due to a break in one of the prongs of the convenient holder, I used pencil and pen tips. The mechanism soon filled with debris and became difficult to work. Consequently, I saved my allowance for a real calculator, a Pickett slide rule! Made of bamboo! 

Around 1839, there appeared the J. W. Wollgar “pocket calculator” mentioned above:

books?id=DRkFAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA24&img=1&zoom=3&hl=en&sig=ACfU3U2giCYv1dMb4QRE23xjriJnlE56RQ&ci=57,1308,418,253&edge=0

.

books?id=DRkFAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA24&img=1&zoom=3&hl=en&sig=ACfU3U2giCYv1dMb4QRE23xjriJnlE56RQ&ci=485,136,422,174&edge=0

The date shown in the image above appears to refer to the letter above--but the initials are the same as J. W. Wollgar’s would be, and letters above and below are dated 1839.

This one, from the same source, appears to be conclusively dated 1839:

books?id=DRkFAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA231&img=1&zoom=3&hl=en&sig=ACfU3U3QxNfupCqOGtnR_b49hC8mjqlHNQ&ci=524,1223,423,105&edge=0

...

books?id=DRkFAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA232&img=1&zoom=3&hl=en&sig=ACfU3U2BU2tZf3KIg5sVkaEGqyypAffW0g&ci=514,343,416,109&edge=0

These are from:

The Mechanic’s Magazine, Museum, Register, Journal and Gazette, Volume 32, October 5th, 1839—May 30th, 1840, edited, printed, and published By J. C. Robertson, 1840.

[Please note: the images above are links]

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Posted: 13 January 2012 03:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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sobiest - 13 January 2012 02:52 PM

Dr Fortran - 13 January 2012 02:08 AM


This one, from the same source, appears to be conclusively dated 1839:

books?id=DRkFAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA231&img=1&zoom=3&hl=en&sig=ACfU3U3QxNfupCqOGtnR_b49hC8mjqlHNQ&ci=524,1223,423,105&edge=0



books?id=DRkFAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA232&img=1&zoom=3&hl=en&sig=ACfU3U2BU2tZf3KIg5sVkaEGqyypAffW0g&ci=514,343,416,109&edge=0

This one looks like the way my thoughts have been drifting.  The pocket calculator referred to was probably something along the lines of a slide rule but specialized for some purpose, such as giving total values for some commodity for which the unit price has been determined..e.g., what is the price for a peck of corn that is going for some value for a bushel.

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Posted: 14 January 2012 08:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Speaking of gadgets, here is a link to a site with an incredible number (256) of photographs of antique computing devices. A thorough search may reveal one from the 1800’s:

http://cohga.net/picasa/user/k.nagtegaal2_2.html

.

I also had one of these, thanks to a kind neighbor. It was a bit corroded, had no directions on how to use it and I could never get it to work:

PRODTHM-10923-1.jpg

The bamboo slide rule I mentioned above was a Pickett model ”B-1 Duplex.” According to The International Slide Rule Museum, these were made in Japan by Ricoh in the 1950’s and were the only laminated bamboo slide rule model Pickett produced.

In the 1610’s, John Napier, who is often cited as the discoverer of the logarithm, created what is considered by some to be the earliest “pocket calculator.” This device was known as ”Napier’s Bones” and there are many websites that refer to this as a first instance of “pocket calculator” but I doubt that it was referred to as a “pocket calculator” at the time.

102622601.03.01.sm.jpg
“Pictured is an original set of Napier’s Bones, a palm-sized calculator designed by John Napier in 1617...”
-- The Computer Museum, Boston, Mass.

“Palm-sized” seems to my ultra-miniature modern sensibility to be a bit of a stretch--the dimensions were 8 x 10 inches. Maybe it was actually the second “laptop” computing device. The first was probably the abacus.

I think the “pocket calculator” of True Grit is likely to be either a specialized slide rule, or mechanically indexed list device such as this “autodex telephone address finder”:

rolodex-autodex-telephone-address-finder_496820_100.jpg

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Posted: 14 January 2012 11:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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The phrase “Napier’s bones” continued in use as a slang or humorous term for the slide rule (based as it was on Napier’s logarithms).

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Posted: 16 January 2012 02:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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I still have my Hemmi SUN NO.130 (system Darmstadt) 27 cm slide rule from half a century ago - it’s a thing of beauty, and just as serviceable as on the day it was purchased. Still, I was astonished at the number of slide rule sites that show up on the Internet at the slightest provocation ("Hemmi slide rule” turned up 18000 Google hits, with mountains of information). There appears to be quite a considerable slide rule following.

As for the bamboo which seems to have been used for most Japanese slide rules, my guess is that it’s the wood* of choice at least partly because of low hygroexpansivity, not just “because it’s there”. Thermal expansion would be much less of a concern. I no longer have access to the forestry databases which might help me find confirmation of this. What I did find, while browsing, was an article by a Dr. Alan Morris, with an interesting discussion on “accuracy” and “precision” and the difference between them.
http://www.sliderulemuseum.com/REF/SlideRuleAccuracyVsPrecision_AlanMorris.pdf

* I use this term for convenience, not for accuracy. Of course bamboo’s a grass, or more properly, a Tribe of more than 1000 species of grasses.

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Posted: 16 January 2012 04:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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lionello - 16 January 2012 02:04 AM

There appears to be quite a considerable slide rule following.

I have been considering getting a kilt and have been toying with the idea of getting a pocket slide rule to put in the sock in place of the customary dirk.  My K+E Log Log Duplex Decitrig is a little to big for the job.  Looking for such a thing on the web, I find that the prices for these things that had been practically given away in breakfast cereal boxes are now running upwards of $150.

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