How Does A Calculator Work?

In religion we hear a lot about faith. I’ve seen it described as “belief without evidence.” Something that is difficult to comprehend, or explain, but we have complete trust. It is as if we are saying, we are not sure how it works, but we don’t doubt that it works.

This is kind of how I would describe my relationship with a calculator. I have no clue how it works…but I know it does. Sometimes I will test the calculator and see if I can catch it having a bad day. I will enter 99 x 99 and think that maybe this will be the time is spouts out 9999 instead of 9801.

Guess what? It says 9801, which is correct. It is always correct. Never once have I gotten a wrong answer from a calculator (although, if I need a calculator I wouldn’t know what the right answer is, so I wouldn’t know if the calculator’s answer is wrong).

How does it do that? Time to ditch the faith and start to learn some answers in today’s edition of Wonder Why Wednesday…

How Does A Calculator Work?

Fun fact…the first calculators were not small. In fact, they were so big they had to be built into a desk. According to Wonderopolis, the Casio Computer Company released the Model 14-A in 1957, thus creating the world’s first all-electric compact calculator.

Four years later the British Bell Punch/Sumlock Comptometer ANITA reduced the size to a trim and lean 33 pounds.

With the advancements in technology, calculator size and cost kept going down and down until the 1980s when the devices were small enough to fit in your pocket and cheap enough to be common in many schools.

All that is great, but it doesn’t answer the question of how it works.

Calculators, like Mexican restaurants rely heavily on chips. These chips, known as integrated circuits contain transistors that can be turned on and off with electricity to perform mathematical calculations.

They do this by processing the information in binary form. Like a kite, binary form relies heavily on string. Binary uses two digits to do the work: 0 and 1. With the help of chips, our calculator takes the numbers we enter (99 x 99 in my example above) and converts them into binary strings of 0s and 1s.

The chips use those strings to turn transistors on and off with electricity to perform the desired calculations. Confused? Me too. So I will turn to Wonderopolis who says,

Since there are only two options in a binary system (0 or 1), these can easily be represented by turning transistors on and off, since on and off easily represent the binary options (on = 0 and off = 1 or vice versa). Once a calculation has been completed, the answer in binary form is then converted back to our normal base-ten system and displayed on the calculator‘s display screen. Most calculator displays use inexpensive technologies common today, such as liquid crystal displays (LCD) or light-emitting diodes (LED).”

Got all that? So now I am picturing that if I were to open up a calculator I would find a bunch of chips and string. Throw in a random penny or two and you would have the exact same thing I find when looking between my couch cushions.

I think I might just continue to rely on that who faith thing when dealing with calculators.


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