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Evolution of the scientific calculator

Rise of the modern scientific calculator

Scientific calculators can perform all the functions of a basic calculator as well as execute far more complex mathematical functions and equations. The ability to solve polynomials and simultaneous equations has long made the scientific calculator an indispensable tool for students and professionals in science, engineering and mathematics.

A brief history of the scientific calculator

The abacus

The first calculator, the abacus, was used by the Sumerians and Egyptians and dates to around 2000 B.C. An abacus consists of several rods with 10 sliding beads on each rod and can add, subtract, multiply and divide. Every row going up an abacus represents a different decimal place. Because abacus beads resemble beans, the abacus may be why accountants are sometimes referred to as “bean counters.”

The slide rule

John Napier developed logarithms in the 17th century, and his discoveries enabled Edward Gunter and others to create the slide rule. The slide rule uses logarithmic scales to do rapid multiplication and division. This device eventually evolved to handle advanced trigonometry, logarithms, exponentials and square roots.

The arithmometer and comptometer

Eventually, calculators began to look more like how we see them today. In 1642, Blaise Pascal created the first mechanical calculator, a device that could perform all four arithmetic operations without human intervention. Two hundred years later, this technology led to Thomas de Colmar’s four-function arithmometer, a counting machine with levers and knobs. The comptometer, patented in 1887 by Dorr E. Felt, was the first commercially successful key-operated calculator.

The business calculator

The first step toward using the calculator in an office setting came in 1961 with the invention of ANITA, or A New Inspiration To Arithmetic/Accounting. This was the first all-electronic desktop calculator, developed in Britain. ANITA marked a new age in computing technology and sold for roughly 355 pounds, equivalent to approximately 8,000 pounds (or over $11,000) today.

The scientific calculator

In 1972, Hewlett-Packard introduced the HP-35, the first scientific calculator, named for its standard 35 keys. It took the scientific world by storm, replacing the slide rule as the standard tool for calculating used by engineers, scientists and mathematicians. The HP-35 contained integrated circuits and LEDs and used transistor logic.

Today, scientific calculators and graphing calculators are widely utilized in academic and professional fields. Brands such as Sharp, Casio and Texas Instruments dominate today’s scientific calculator market, thanks to their widespread use in classrooms and professional settings.

Functions of a scientific calculator

Besides addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, scientific calculators can perform several kinds of calculations and functions.

Trig functions

Trigonometry is the study of relating sides and angles to their proper degrees and radians. Scientific calculators can determine several of those trigonometric functions, including the sin, cos and tangent of angles, expressed in either degrees or radians.


Scientific calculators can raise numbers to higher powers and find the square roots of a number or formula. Exponents are used in almost every math course past the fifth grade, but only scientific and graphing calculators can compute such algebraic functions. Scientific calculators can also solve for unknown numbers, which is helpful for algebra or any higher-level math course.


Another essential aspect of trigonometry and calculus, logarithms are helpful in formulas to help calculate measurements such as speed. All scientific calculators are capable of solving for the natural logarithm of an equation. Because many of these calculators have built-in memory functions, these logarithms can be stored later to help solve future equations.

Scientific notation

Scientific calculators can be used for more than math problems. They can help users calculate scientific notation or numbers that must be written in decimal point form because they are too large. Scientific notation, used in scientific and engineering fields, can be accessed on scientific calculators by finding the 10^x button. This will take large numbers and bring them down into more understandable forms.

Best scientific calculators

Texas Instruments TI-30XIIS Scientific Calculator

Today, Texas Instruments is the leading manufacturer of scientific and graphic calculators for students. The TI-30 model is designed to handle everything that students of all ages will need throughout their math careers, including algebra, geometry, statistics and calculus. Its two-line display can show entry and calculated results at the same time for complete formula computation.

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Texas Instruments TI-36X Pro Engineering/Scientific Calculator

If the graphing capability is not required, the TI-36X Pro is a capable choice for a student. Several calculations and formulae can be shown at once with its multiview display, allowing for easy retrieval. This calculator is great for students working through algebra, geometry and trigonometry. Additionally has degrees to radians and floating to fixed number modes.

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Sharp EL501X2BWH Engineering/Scientific Calculator

The EL501X2BWH series from Sharp is a fully functional, high-quality scientific calculator capable of performing over 131 math and scientific calculations. This compact calculator is a perfect fit on your home or office desk, plus its lightweight design is an added advantage for seamless portability. If you're looking for a one-stop calculator to solve trig functions, logarithms, powers, reciprocals and roots, the EL501X2BWH series is what you're looking for.

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Jared Lindsay writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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