The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.


calculator or calculating machine, device for performing numerical computations; it may be mechanical, electromechanical, or electronic. The electronic computer is also a calculator but performs other functions as well.

Mechanical and Electromechanical Calculators

Early devices used to aid in calculation include the abacus (still common in E Asia) and the counting rods, or "bones," of the Scottish mathematician John Napier. The slide rule, invented in 1622 by William Oughtred, an English mathematician, was widely used to make approximate calculations, but it has been replaced by the electronic calculator. In 1642, Blaise Pascal devised what was probably the first simple adding machine using geared wheels.

In 1671 an improved mechanism for performing multiplication by the process of repeated addition was designed by Gottfried W. von Leibniz. A machine using the Leibniz mechanism was the first to be produced successfully on a commercial scale; devised in 1820 by the Frenchman Charles X. Thomas, it could be used for adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing. A mechanism permitting the construction of a more compact machine than the Leibniz mechanism was incorporated into a machine devised late in the 19th cent. by the American inventor Frank S. Baldwin. Later the machine was redesigned by Baldwin and another American inventor, Jay R. Monroe. At about the same time, W. T. Odhner of Russia constructed a machine using the same device as Baldwin's. Charles Babbage, an English mathematician, and William S. Burroughs, an American inventor, also made important contributions to the development of the calculating machine.

Early mechanical adding machines were equipped with a keyboard on which numbers to be added were entered, a lever to actuate the addition process, and an accumulator to display the results. A full keyboard consisted of 10 columns of keys with 9 keys in each column, numbered 1 through 9. Each column could be used to enter a figure in a particular decimal place so that a number up to 10 digits long could be entered; if no key was pressed in a given column, a zero was entered in that decimal place. The lever was pulled in one direction when a number was to be added and in the opposite direction when it was to be subtracted. The accumulator was a set of geared wheels, each corresponding to a decimal place and having the digits 0 through 9 printed on its circumference. When a given wheel made a complete rotation, the next wheel was advanced by one digit. The mechanical adding machine remained essentially the same until the mid-1960s, with improvements consisting of motors to actuate additions and subtractions and mechanisms to print out results on a paper tape.

Electronic Calculators

Electronic calculators, which became available in the early 1960s, at first were merely faster and quieter adding machines. The invention of the microprocessor and advances in integrated-circuit technology made small, but highly sophisticated, calculators possible, and by the mid-1970s they were in wide use. Simple calculators perform only the basic four functions of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. More sophisticated calculators can perform trigonometric, statistical, logarithmic, and other advanced calculations.

Some electronic calculators are actually small computers with limited memory and programming capabilities. Some of these programmable calculators can accept plug-in semiconductor memory cards or programming modules for special applications, such as financial calculations, unit, currency, or number-system conversions, or engineering calculations. Others are also available that include nonmathematical functions such as data storage and schedule organizing. The personal digital assistant, a hand-held device optimized as an organizer with communications capability and accepting handwritten input, is a bridge from calculators to full computer function.

Early electronic calculators had numeric displays made from light-emitting diodes (LEDs). They have been supplanted by liquid-crystal displays (LCDs), whose lower power consumption helps to reduce battery drain. Some calculators use an LCD readout to provide a graphic, as well as numeric, display. CMOS, or complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (see integrated circuit), technology is also preferred for battery-operated models because of its low-power requirements. Some calculators are powered by solar cells in ordinary room light.


See B. Randell, The Origins of Digital Computers: Selected Papers (1982); J. P. Haney, Calculators (3d ed. 1985).

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Cited article



Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.