My Calculator Does Not Compute

By Leonard Oliver Nasman, copyright 2005

The other day my wife and I were browsing in one of the local dollar stores. You know... the sort of place that is springing up like Purple Loosestrife in the Mohawk River Valley. A store where everything is priced one dollar, or two dollars, or three, or $19.95, or whatever. (The merchandise carried by these places is no more reflective of their name than the old five and ten cent stores.)

I rarely find anything I want to buy in these stores, however, my wife was looking for some cheap prizes to award her students for participating in various games at a class picnic. So, I was just tagging along.


Then, I found an irresistible item. A brand new solar-powered calculator. Actually, I didn’t really need another calculator. I have one in the glove compartment of Vanna White (our white mini van). I have a couple more scientific type calculators in my desk drawer. Also, If I need to do a quick calculation whenever I am working on my computer, I can always open the calculator simulator found in the Accessories folder. Or, if I have any really unusual calculating needs, I can surf the Internet to find all kinds of calculators.

There, I can get access to 20,170 different special purpose calculators... anything from Math or Engineering A-Z to Weather and Meteorology calculators. Or, how about an Ecclesiastical Calculator that helps calculate the dates of religious holidays. This is a great web site, and is well worth a visit. You cannot imagine the special calculators that have been developed. But, I digress.

So, why bother buy a new calculator? Basically, I just could not resist the idea of such a bargain, or the feeling of the unexpected joy of the lucky hunter who stumbles on his prey without even knowing he was hunting, or maybe just the concept of owning such a tremendously powerful scientific tool for only one lousy dollar.

slide rule

I remember once upon a time when I was in about ninth grade in the mid 1950’s and I was visiting my aunt Alice Palmquist in Warren, Pennsylvania and she took me along on some shopping errand. We passed an Office Supply store (a store that had no equivalent in my much smaller home town of Kane, Pennsylvania). There, I spotted in the window display a Post Slide Rule. I had to have it. I didn’t know how the thing worked, but it really looked ‘high tech’ and it cost $4.95, an amount that I was somehow able to afford. It was made of bamboo wood (straight grain and self lubricating, wow!) and had various scales finely etched on the smooth bright white coating.

I spent hours with this wonderful tool, studying the manual until I could use it to multiply two times three. I might note that this feat of ciphering failed to impress my father, who claimed that he could do two times three without the aid of a slide rule. I was not dismayed, however, and moved on to solving more advanced problems like six divided by two. Eventually, I could even do 237 divided by 13.3, at least to three decimal places. Or even find the log of 478. By the time I took physics class in high school where learning how to use a slide rule was required, I felt like I had a small head start on my classmates... a fairly uncommon feeling for me back in those days. But, again I digress.


The first electronic calculator I ever used was around 1966 when I was working at Ball Brothers Research Corporation (which by now I think is called Ball Areospace). Those were exciting times. Ball was in the business of building orbiting solar observatories, and had the contract to build three of the five Apollo Telescope Mount experiments that went along for the ride to the moon. Ball was on top of the latest high tech devices. Our group acquired a Singer electronic calculator. It was about the size of a breadbasket, and displayed results with little green numbers on a screen. It could add, subtract, multiply, and divide.

144 key

It could even do square roots, a feat not possible on the 144 key adding machines of the day. It was so expensive and rare that no one staff member was allowed to keep it. It was wheeled from office to office as the computation needs arose.

ti calc

By 1970 I had moved to a teaching position in the Drafting and Design Technology program at Trinidad (Colorado) State Community College. My experience with the old Post slide rule came in handy since I was now teaching a new crop of students how to ‘manipulate a slip stick.’ Electronic technology was rapidly advancing and the days of the slide rule were numbered. So, I purchased an electronic calculator of my own for only $180. The amazing Texas Instruments SR-10 had a red LED (Light Emitting Diode) display and had multiple functions including; add, subtract, multiply, divide, square, square root, and reciprocal. This was a big deal, since only a few years prior the cheapest electronic calculator (with fewer features) cost well over $1,000.

At this time I was reading a lot of trade magazines, including one called Digital Design News. There was an article about the prices of the new electronic calculators that projected a bottom- line minimum possible price of $25 for one of these things. The problem was, as is common with such prognostications, that the author was too close to the subject and assumed that calculator keys would always require an assembly of plastic parts, electrical contacts, and mechanical springs. Within less than a year someone had devised a way of laminating a membrane to a printed circuit board and replacing dozens of different parts that had to be hand-assembled with a couple of parts that could be put in place by machines. Sorry, once again I digress.

So, why do I claim that my new calculator does not compute? It is not that the answers it presents to problems I enter are incorrect. It is because the rest of the world has not advanced in the same way as electronic calculators. Think about it. In 1970 a basic electronic calculator cost $180. Thirty five years later you can buy a similar device for $1 and this comparison does not adjust for the difference between 1970 dollars and 2005 dollars.


In 1970 you could buy a small house in Boulder, Colorado for $18,000. That exact same house in 2012, was priced at around $280,000. (Update: in 2021 it was listed at over $700,000.) (OK, this price is based on the house we once owned in Boulder, and Boulder is not representative... even of Colorado. A more reasonable current price might be $180,000.) If house prices would have changed the same way as electronic calculator prices, a new house of similar size and features should cost $100, not $180,000.


In 1970 you could buy a brand new Volvo 4 door sedan for about $3,600. (Actually, I bought one in 1967 for about $2,432.) If automobile prices would have followed the same pattern as electronic calculator prices, it should now cost about $20. However, the current price for a new Volvo is about $38,000. This is about 1,900 times more than it should cost.

Checking prices for some other common things indicates that not many products have seen the same price reductions as calculators. For example, most appliances such as dish washers, refrigerators, ranges, and washing machines now sell for prices not much different from 1970 prices. For this category of products, and factoring in a general change in the value of the dollar, prices have come down a little. However, the prices have not come down as dramatically as for my calculator. Why not?


In the case of house construction, a carpenter from 1970 would not notice any major changes in the way houses are built in 2005. OK, more power tools such as power nailing machines and cut-off saws are in use, but walls are still mostly made piece by piece from two by fours, and shingles are still attached to the roof one by one. It’s not that more efficient methods are not available. For example, when I added a new garage to our Woodhaven house, we used SIPS (Structural Insulated Panel System). Instead of assembling a bunch of individual pieces of wood, the walls and roof were made from large modular panels. Three men (with no previous experience using SIPS) put on the entire roof on in less than one day. Using typical frame trusses, it would have taken two or three days and would not have been as strong or as well insulated. It’s just that the house construction industry has not changed all that much in the last 100 years. Why not? I don’t know. Maybe they think that people would not buy an $18,000 house today because folks would think it must be inferior. Maybe builder’s profits are based on a percentage of the price, and they have no incentive to dramatically reduce the cost.

As far as cars are concerned, we know that there have been a lot of improvements in manufacturing practices, including the increased use of robots. Car prices may be more reflective of what buyers are willing to pay, rather than manufacturing costs. For example, it used to be that pickup trucks were priced lower that sedans. They should be. After all, there are fewer pieces involved... fewer windows and seats, for example. However, pickup trucks now cost more than the average sedan, and Americans seem happy to pay the price. I don’t know how this is in other countries, but I doubt that there are many countries that have something similar to the American pickup truck or SUV fad. I guess I just cannot understand why the prices for cars and trucks have not dropped the way the prices for calculators has dropped.

Perhaps I never will understand why my new calculator just does not compute.

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