Electronic calculators, which became available in the early 1960s, at first were merely faster and quieter adding machines. The invention of the microprocessor and advances in integrated-circuit technology made small, but highly sophisticated, calculators possible, and by the mid-1970s they were in wide use. Simple calculators perform only the basic four functions of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. More sophisticated calculators can perform trigonometric, statistical, logarithmic, and other advanced calculations.
Some electronic calculators are actually small computers with limited memory and programming capabilities. Some of these programmable calculators can accept plug-in semiconductor memory cards or programming modules for special applications, such as financial calculations, unit, currency, or number-system conversions, or engineering calculations. Others are also available that include nonmathematical functions such as data storage and schedule organizing. The personal digital assistant, a hand-held device optimized as an organizer with communications capability and accepting handwritten input, is a bridge from calculators to full computer function.
Early electronic calculators had numeric displays made from light-emitting diodes (LEDs). They have been supplanted by liquid-crystal displays (LCDs), whose lower power consumption helps to reduce battery drain. Some calculators use an LCD readout to provide a graphic, as well as numeric, display. CMOS, or complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (see integrated circuit), technology is also preferred for battery-operated models because of its low-power requirements. Some calculators are powered by solar cells in ordinary room light.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.