It Totally Peaked in High School

In his lively “Empire of the Sum,” Keith Houston looks at the best — and worst — years of the pocket calculator’s life.
It Totally Peaked in High School

Houston’s narrative is full of oddballs, many of them brilliant, some of them brilliant and insufferable. I could have read an entire book about the 1946 computing competition between Pvt. Tom Wood, who used a calculator, and Kiyoshi “The Hands” Matsuzake, who employed a Japanese abacus called the soroban (in case you’re reading this, Christopher Nolan: Let’s talk). I had no idea that the very notion of the algorithm comes from the ninth-century Arabic scholar al-Khwarizmi, or that there were two slide rules aboard the Enola Gay as it flew toward Hiroshima. Buzz Aldrin also carried a slide rule aboard the Apollo 11; it sold at auction for $77,675.

There are thorny stretches in “Empire of the Sum.” It is, after all, a book about math. On some level, you just have to accept that some of Houston’s references — to Boolean logic, or geometric progression — may be beyond your grasp. Then again, I don’t read to master everything, but, rather, to learn something.

I do wish that, once in a while, Houston climbed to a higher altitude, leaving behind the details of computational innovation to ask what all that innovation was for. The course of technological progress has had downsides we are coming to recognize ever more clearly; the calculator’s journey limns many of those concerns.

Even before the advent of artificial intelligence programs like ChatGPT, which will allegedly vanquish the burden of mathematical thinking once and for all, the discipline had succumbed to a technology it helped pioneer: the computer. “Which system will people turn to most often to balance their checkbooks or calculate the trajectory of a missile? Only time will tell,” this newspaper wondered in 1997, by which time calculator sales were already falling from the apex of 61.6 million units bought in 1989.

Today, a service called Matheo Pro promises to solve any math problem, “24/7”: All you have to do is take a screenshot of your algebra homework or engineering query and send it along. “Imagine having more free time to do what you love,” says the ad copy. “Leave your math task to our experts.” The obvious implication here is that no sane person could love math enough to sacrifice said free time for its sake. Calculators were supposed to alleviate tedium, too; computers are just better at it — even if they have created plenty of tedium of their own.