cover image Empire of the Sum: The Rise and Reign of the Pocket Calculator

Empire of the Sum: The Rise and Reign of the Pocket Calculator

Keith Houston. Norton, $32.50 (384p) ISBN 978-0-393-88214-8

Historian Houston (Shady Characters) surveys the evolution of mathematical calculation, from prehistory to the 20th century, in this informative study. Beginning with a chapter on “The Hand,” Houston details humans’ first attempts to count beyond the number of digits they possessed. As humans evolved, so too did their counting tools, progressing from Chinese counting rods and the Greek counting board of the 700s to the 300s BCE; to the abacus, which definitively emerged in China around 200 BCE; and the slide rule, first utilized by British mathematicians in the 17th century, which “ruled the greater part of the modern era.” The first calculating computer, the Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator, was created by Harvard in 1944. The race to make calculators smaller, faster, and more powerful was dominated by big names—Intel, HP—and would eventually lead to the device that ended the calculator’s dominance: the personal computer. With the advent of the first pocket-size calculator in 1971, followed shortly by the first scientific calculator, which could execute more complicated functions such as graphing and square roots, the age of the calculator had reached its pinnacle by 1974. This thorough study explains complex technical advancements with wit and charm. Math lovers and history buffs will be equally entertained. (Aug.)