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'Mr. Calculator' is Guru of Collecting Electronic Calculators

By Neal McChristy
16-Sep-98

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In an age where technology moves quickly, items like the first transistor radios, first computers and electronic calculators are becoming collectibles.

Guy Ball, a senior technical writer for Unisys in Tustin, Calif., has tallied about 1,200 of the electronic calculators in his collection from the '70s. He has co-authored a book and been on a national television show.

His nickname is "Mr. Calculator."

"I have researched the birth and growth of pocket calculators for over 14 years," wrote the New Jersey native. "I have written on the subject for Antique Trader, Today's Collector, and few smaller publications. I am the collectible expert on the subject for two of the major antique/general collectible books."

He said that the television show was "personal fx," the collectible show on the FX Cable network, and he was also featured as a "super collector" on one of their other shows.

"I had been approaching them for some time," Ball said, "because I am always trying to promote the history of the calculator."

He said when the live television show began, the truck for the satellite relay was set up in his neighborhood at 5 a.m. Said Ball: "It was right near O.J. (Simpson's trial) time, so it brought a lot of attention."

Ball also says he enjoys talking to employees, managers and business managers of companies which produced or sold calculators at the time.

"In many cases, this is the only opportunity for these people to recount what was a very special time for them," he said. "If you think about it, here was a brand new technology that was changing very, very rapidly. Today, calculators are a commodity that you can buy for $2 (or get free for filling out a credit application). But then, a simple four-function machine cost $400 (in 1970 dollars). Major advances were adding memory or percent."

Some people believe that the pocket calculator evolved from the technology from the Space Race of the '60s. "I wouldn't say calculators are a direct result of it (the Space Race)," Ball said. Instead, they evolved from a company's desire to sell.

The first electronic calculators were larger, tube-type devices of the early '60s. But Texas Instruments had integrated circuits that weren't selling too well, so they devised a practical use of placing the ICs into the first "Cal-Tech" calculator, which printed out horizontally with a thermal tape. The "Cal-Tech" was completed in 1967.

Canon was interested, and the Japanese manufacturer began developing the first truly handheld pocket calculator in 1969. Another Japanese manufacturer called Busicom made contracts with two USA manufacturers to develop ICs for the calculator. One of these, Intel, subsequently bought back the rights to the 4004 chip used in the calculator to place in other equipment. This 4004 chip, the first "microcomputer on a chip," used in early computers, was the ancestor of the current Pentium chips used today.

"It's funny to talk to some of the old-timers of the time," Ball said. He talked to a person from Rockwell about how they increased the capability of the calculator, and said it was phenomenal progress to increase each function of the device.

Much of the information Ball has compiled is on his Web site pages. Ball calls himself an "information fiend," and his father has a history in editing newspapers. Ball initially was a photographer for that same newspaper in New Jersey, then moved to California as a "shooter," photographing in the Golden State. Finding a lot of competition in that area, he said he then went to technical school and worked as a technician, later moving to become a technical writer.

Ball says he is hanging on to telling about an important piece of history so people will care about the history and development of the electronic calculator.

"I realize with every product that comes out, there's an important development period that many people don't care about and don't want to care about," Ball said, "but certain things that we have represent an important history to us."

Guy Ball's Web site: http://www.oldcalcs.com

Related site maintained by Guy Ball- LED red-lettered watches - http://home.att.net/~vintageelectronics

Editor's Note: If anyone has any personal accounts of working with the calculator industry, particularly those who were in the industry, please contact Guy Ball at P.O. Box 345, Tustin Calif. 92781 or e-mail him at mrcalc@usa.net. He would also like to hear from people who have old advertisements for electronic calculators from the early '60s. The book that Ball co-authored, "The Complete Collector's Guide to Pocket Calculators," is available by contacting Asay Publishing Co., 420 N. Rangeline, Joplin, Mo. 64801, telephone (800) 395-0222.


 
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