100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview
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Year of Invention: 1968

What Is It? A handheld device that performs basic mam functions.

Who Invented It? Jack Kilby and Jerry Merryman (in Dallas, Texas)

Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Handheld calculators provide instant and reliable arithmetic, algebraic, and trigonometric calculations. They are as powerful as early room-sized computers—all while being quiet, small, compact, and incredibly cheap. Suddenly, every office, every clerk, every house, virtually every person can stuff their own calculator into a pocket, purse, or backpack and perform any needed calculation. The calculator revolutionized the way we perform math.

History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Math calculation is such an important human function that five of the truly great inventions have been dedicated to it. Four preceded the calculator: the abacus, the adding machine, the slide rule, and the digital computer. The abacus’s origins are lost in prehistory. The modern abacus first appeared in Egypt and China around A.D. 190. However, earlier forms of the device were used in ancient Babylonia, appeared in Egypt by 500 B.C., and were used by Roman accountants and scribes.

Abacuses are still popular in China because of their speed. In a 1946 contest, Kiyoshu Matzukai, a Japanese clerk, was pitted against an American with an electric adding machine. The abacus user easily won.

Scotsman John Napier invented the first mechanical multiplication machine in 1606. Napier is best known for inventing the mathematical system of logarithms and for inventing the idea of separating a whole number from its fractional part with a dot, or period. Fifty-five year-old John Napier invented a series of tiles, commonly called Napier’s Bones, that slid against each other to perform multiplication problems.

In 1673, German inventor, mathematician, and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz created a metal adding machine that could multiply by performing repetitive addition and storing each new result in an accumulator.


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