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Sharp EL-8029 'clamshell' electronic calculator, 1980.

Pocket electronic calculators were not necessarily bought for their utility alone. A number of manufacturers focused on making calculators that appealed to the aesthetic sensibilities of their users. Some were designed to promote the instrument's value and exclusivity, whilst others, in a manner similar to certain slide rules and mechanical calculators before them, sought to imitate other handheld objects to assert their convenience.

The 'touch' of class

Advertisement for Sinclair Sovereign electronic calculator
Image 1: Advertisement for Sinclair Sovereign electronic calculator

One of the most important pocket calculator manufacturers, the UK brand Sinclair, always paid special attention to the design of its devices. Their first model, the 'Executive', was marketed in 1972 as the world's first 'slimline' pocket calculator. With a minimal colour scheme and small buttons designed to feel more solid, the device won a Design Council Award and was sold in the millions and exported around the globe.

In 1976, Sinclair launched the 'Sovereign' calculator in an attempt to create a market for 'upscale' calculators during a time when lower chip prices were leading the market toward decreasing profits. They sold the Sovereign as a luxury tool resembling a remote control, as can be seen in representative advertisements (Image 1). Though not successful on the market, Sinclair anticipated a design-centric approach to computing devices that would subsequently be emphasised by companies like Apple.

Casio Mini Card MC-34 electronic calculator
Image 2: Casio Mini Card MC-34 electronic calculator, 1980 (Wh.4529.095A).

Inconspicuous calculation

As calculator chips ceased being a limiting factor in the size of devices, models were developed to resemble other items that one might find in a purse or pocket. The Casio Mini-Card MC-34 calculator and metric converter was designed with miniaturisation in mind, being not much larger than a credit card (Image 2). Sharp developed a calculator that would resemble a vanity mirror, easily disguised amongst other 'feminine' possessions (above). Although these devices did not have the staying power of more powerful scientific and financial calculators, they represent an important phase during which the look and feel of a calculator could be its selling point, in a similar manner to the smartphones we use today.

Mikey McGovern

Mikey McGovern, 'The aesthetics of calculation', Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge.

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