By Wayne Kett

How do you add and subtract numbers? Hopefully if you were paying attention at school your answer will be ‘in my head’. However for many of us I suspect the truth is we reach for our smart phone and use the calculator.

The smart phone may be new technology, but even when I was at school in the 1980s it was possible to buy a calculator that could fit in my pocket. If however you wanted to find the answer to 8 x 22 in the 1950s you would not have enjoyed such luxury. The image below is a 1950s mechanical calculator and is part of the Museum of Norwich’s stored collection.


NWHCM : 1985.234.6: Calculator made by the Friden Inc, San Leandro, California, USA

This calculator was used in Norwich at the Rowntree Makintosh chocolate factory, first in their accounts department and then, from the mid 1950s in their laboratories. It’s very heavy and not exactly practical to bring along to the supermarket.

Devices for economising basic arithmetic have been used throughout history, although the technology behind the mechanical calculator can be traced to the early 17th century. First invented in 1642 by a nineteen year old French mathematician and physicist called Blaise Pascal.


Five of Pascals ‘Pascaline’ calculators on display at the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers in Paris

These early calculators were given the name ‘Pascaline’ and used a series of numerical dials in order to add or subtract two numbers (they were not able to handle division or multiplication). Sadly for Pascal his calculator did not prove to be a commercial success. Unlike our mechanical calculator which was first manufactured in 1949 and proved so successful that production of the model continued until 1966.

The humble mechanical calculator was however living on borrowed time. Advances in technology in the 1960s led to the first electronic calculators being introduced. By 1970 Sanyo had released the world’s first portable calculator – the Sanyo ICC-0081 ‘Mini Calculator’.


An early electronic calculator manufactured by Friden Inc, this one is part of the collection at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

These advances signaled the end of 328 years of people using the mechanical calculator to compensate for not paying attention to mental arithmetic at school!

Why not see what else we have in our stored collections by searching our Collections Online website: norfolkmuseumscollections.org

Follow our Collections Management department: @NMSCollMan

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