Empire of the Sum

Whether or not you’re a fan of math, we’ve always had a need to count things. Maybe it’s to figure out the maximum weight an airplane can safely hold, or the appropriate amount to tip after a meal, or the exact number of minutes in a year so you can accurately write the soundtrack to the hit Broadway musical RENT.

Keeping track of numbers has always been part of what makes us human. So at some point along the way, we created a tool to help us keep count, and then we gave that tool a name. We called it: a calculator. But depending on what era you were born in, and maybe even what country, what constituted a ‘calculator’ varied widely. Some kids had calculator watches — so cool, right?!

But there were also slide rules, metal adding machine, and if you go back far enough, to a time before written numbers even existed: we have the abacus, tally stick, or simply counting things up on our own digits. Regardless of the form it took though, what’s clear is this: without the calculator, our built world as we know it just would not exist. Even now, though few of us own dedicated calculating devices as such, we still use calculators in disguise in the form of spreadsheets. In one form or another, they’re persistently essential devices, likely to stick around, well, forever, in one form or another.

Keith Houston wrote about the evolution of the calculator in his latest book, Empire of the Sum The Rise and Reign of the Pocket Calculator. It is exactly the kind of nerdery we like to get up to here at 99% Invisible — history explained through the lens of an everyday designed object. But his book (like our show) doesn’t stop at the mechanical devices we all know and love today, instead delving deep into the history of counting. (I mean, this is a guy who also wrote Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks — definitely our kind of nerdy enthusiast!).

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