The World’s First Handheld Calculator Is Up for Auction

The World’s First Handheld Calculator Is Up for Auction
Image: Bonhams

They can do everything from plot complex equations to even play games like Doom (if you have enough rotting potatoes) but the handheld calculator started out as a very simple device capable of performing just four basic mathematical calculations. One of the very first prototypes, created by Texas Instruments back in the mid-’60s, is going up for auction, and is one of the rare times when buying a physical calculator — not an app — makes sense.

Even three decades ago, calculators had evolved so far they could be miniaturized and included in watches, but roll back the clock to 1965 and it was a different story. After using the company’s transistor technology to create the world’s first pocket radio, a product that was revolutionary at the time, the president of Texas Instruments, Patrick Haggerty, wanted to come up with a new product to demonstrate the usefulness of another TI innovation: integrated circuits.

It took two years for the company’s engineers to design and build the world’s first battery-operated handheld calculator that included a unique keypad and a built-in thermal printer which served as the device’s display, and it all had to be created from scratch as no existing technologies were small enough to squeeze down to the size of a device Texas Instruments wanted. It took another four years to turn the prototypes into a product that could be put into mass production, and in 1971 Canon released the Pocketronic, based on the TI design, which weighed two-and-a-half pounds and eventually cost $US150 ($211), or just shy of $US900 ($1,264) in today’s money.

Texas Instruments' prototype handheld calculator pre-dated technologies like LED and LCD displays, instead using a thermal printer and scrolling tape to display numbers and values. (Image: Bonhams) Texas Instruments' prototype handheld calculator pre-dated technologies like LED and LCD displays, instead using a thermal printer and scrolling tape to display numbers and values. (Image: Bonhams)

Because millions of them were produced and sold, if you’re a collector, finding a vintage Canon Pocketronic isn’t impossible. This calculator, however, is one of Texas Instruments’ original prototypes, code-named the Cal-Tech, of which only two are known to still exist, with the other being on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

This prototype is being made available for the first time as part of Bonham’s annual History of Science & Technology auction which is scheduled for November 5 in Los Angeles this year. It is expected to fetch somewhere between $US30,000 ($42,138) and $US50,000 ($70,230) given how rare it is, and how important Texas Instruments’ early work was towards making modern electronics possible. Even the digital watch you wore as a kid was more powerful than this thing, but your watch owes its existence to all the work that went into, and the technologies that were developed to make the Cal-Tech possible.