Harvard Hero Moment #40: The pocket calculator (Please don’t stop reading yet)

Louie St Claire

17 Aug 2020

Here at Harvard, as part of our 40th birthday celebrations, 40 of us decided to write homages to our favourite technologies. Being at number 40, virtually everything has been written about – Spotify, WhatsApp, Tinder, the lot! Luckily for me, and probably unluckily for you, no-one has covered the humble pocket calculator. That joy falls to me. So, I’ve always been interested in the transition technology ultimately makes from new and interesting gadget to utility. Examples include the washing machine, vacuum cleaner and probably most recently the mobile phone. This has nothing to do with the calculator, which is and always has been about utility.

A long history

Like paint and palette to an artist, the calculator is the tool for those looking to make sense of the world through numbers. I’ll refrain from a history lesson, but needless to say, we’ve had tools to help us do this from around 2500BC with pocket electronic versions arriving in the 1970s. Now that’s what I call a product lifecycle. Of course, my relationship with the calculator goes back to my school days where the first thing we learnt to do was turn it upside down and write words… Shell Oil and Boobless spring to mind. All very useful stuff. This was at a time when parents who could no longer remember how to do long division (or even what it was) would complain that the calculator would destroy that purposeless art.

Comfort in the calculations

Fast forward to my working life and I have often mused that I am a frustrated accountant in a PR person’s body. When I was five, I exclaimed to my dad’s horror that I was to be an accountant and wear a pink tie… We never quite recovered, but that is another story. I’ve always loved the numbers side of the business. On bad days I often find solace in the P&L and working out the growth, the percentages and what we need to do to hit certain goals. The calculator is the only thing that I need during these times and I am a firm believer that the answer is always in the numbers. These days I have a Casio MS-85, medium-sized desk version, solar panelled (but dual-powered – a hybrid if you like). The calculator is one of the few pieces of kit that hasn’t disappeared into my phone yet, although while I’m out and about that is a useful substitute too. The Casio will always have a place in my heart, if not my pocket. And that’s the thing about utility. It’s about a lack of emotional attachment that is sometimes at the heart of that transition from innovation to staple. And transitioning back to my PR persona, I guess this is where brand comes in, blah, blah, blah… BOOBLESS.