2006-10-08

Old Calculators and TOS Set Design

While working on a page, I pondered the laughable notion of TOS writers having one of those early typewriter-sized desktop calculators trying to do math regarding some esoteric point in their scripts instead of worrying about the deadline. (Just imagine Gene Roddenberry plugging away on one of those big bohemoths while Justman stood atop his desk waiting.)

But since my memory was a little vague on when exactly those big bohemoths appeared, I went and looked it up.

As it turns out, desktop calculation was actually old hat by that point. Of course there was the good old abacus, naturally, but much more advanced devices had been around for awhile. And sure, there were also the large-scale computers and so on, but here we're limiting ourselves to popularly-available desktop-or-smaller calculation machines.

From Napier's Bones to 19th Century mechanical adding machines, desktop calculation was not a new thing, though I rather doubt the devices were as ubiquitous as personal computers are today.

In the early 20th Century mechanical calculators were pretty impressive devices. Perhaps the coolest was the Curta Type II handheld mechanical calculator, about the size of a modern hand grenade but, in the same way the pen is mightier than the sword, a helluva lot more powerful.

While it's true that desktop electronic calculators were newfangled thingamajigs in the mid-1960's (replete with vacuum tubes and even Nixie displays in some cases (also others, if you even managed to get an electronic display at all!), older electromechanical desktop devices . . . technologically akin to old-school typewriters or the mechanical calculator units but replacing an electric motor for the crank or finger power . . . had been around for decades. Perhaps the finest examples were the Friden models. This electromechanical beast was chock-full of extraordinarily complex mechanical apparatii. While it almost seems primitive to modern eyes so used to tiny solar-powered electronic calculators at a dime a dozen, it's still an incredibly impressive display of a mass-marketed complex mechanical machine. Of course smaller mechanical desktop units were available, but usually less functional.

There's really not enough, though, that can be said for old technology sometimes. While any old EM pulse would be enough to blow the brains out of every electronic calculator over a huge area, anyone lucky enough to have a Friden or Curta or Bohn or even just an old abacus lying around and remembering how to use it would scarcely notice the event inasmuch as their ability to do math without pencil and paper was concerned.

But in my research, one thing that leapt out at me was another Friden unit, the first electronic calculator to be based on transistors instead of vacuum tubes. (Technically it had one delay line and so wasn't a pure transistor device, but we'll forgive this one bawble.) As if to prove the point I just made about old technology, one problem the unit had was that its cathode-ray-tube screen could put out interference that would cause the calculations to get thrown off, producing invalid results.

Nonetheless, just take a look at the thing. It looks like it was just ganked from the conference table on Kirk's 1701. One wonders just how futuristic looking the ship was at the time for most people . . . other than light-up buttons and larger, more well-lit blinky consoles (not to mention more capability in similar packages), the devices of the time were stylistically right on par.

But in any case, that last observation was just an excuse for me to share my little old-calculator geek-out. One day I'll go wild about flashlights and really bore you. :)

(Special Thanks to OldCalculatorMuseum.com)

1 comment:

  1. Actually, there's a very funny thing about EMPs and older electronics - vacuum tubes are highly resistant to EMP effects. It's transistors that tend to get fried unless shielded.

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