Monday, August 31, 2015

Computer Nostalgia c. 1970

Growing up in St. Louis, one of my favorite places to visit was the local science museum.  This wasn't the huge St. Louis Science Center that currently straddles I-64 in the heart of the city -- it was just a couple of small buildings in a park in the suburbs.  But to my 10-year-old self, it was a wonderland.  There was the "Hall of Matter" with a UV light to make rocks fluoresce, a microscope to read writing on the head of a pin, and a large mechanical eye that could be distorted with a lever to illustrate myopia. And one day, some time around 1970, my family showed up at the museum to find a travelling exhibit with lines snaking across the room.  What marvel could have attracted such huge crowds?

It was, in fact, a calculator!  Not a pocket calculator, but a machine about the size of a cash register -- four of them were on display. Not only could they add, subtract, multiply, and divide, but they could do even more complicated functions. I was amazed and patiently waited my turn to play with this "computer." And once I sat down to use it, it was hard to pry me off. In retrospect, I think it was probably a Wang 360SE.

It's hard to imagine the days when a calculator that you can now buy at Walgreens for a few dollars was the top draw at a science museum. The pocket calculator revolution arrived amazingly soon after that. And when it arrived, it was more sudden and more complete than even the personal computer/Internet revolution. In my sophomore year of high school (1974-75), we all had to learn to use a slide rule for our physics class. By the next year, everyone in the school owned a calculator. Of course, it wasn't long before most people forgot how to do arithmetic, just as Isaac Asimov predicted in this short story, "The Feeling of Power."

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