The First European Pocket Calculator Came From Yugoslavia

At the start of the 1970s the pocket calculator was the last word in personal electronics, and consumers in Europe looked eagerly towards Japan or the USA for a glimpse of new products. Meanwhile the European manufacturers, perhaps Philips in the Netherlands, or Olivetti in Italy, would no doubt have been putting their best engineers on to the task of delivering the first domestic European models.

So who was first with a European-made calculator? Not the Dutch, the Italians, the Germans, or even the Brits, instead that honour went to the Yugoslavians. Digitron is a company located in Buje, in modern-day Croatia, and they pipped everyone else in Europe to the post back in 1971 with their DB800 model.

We read about the achievement through the above-linked exhibition, but perhaps the greatest surprise comes in finding relatively little technical information online about these machines. Other early calculators have been subjected to extensive teardowns, so we can see all manner of interesting period tech. This one however, other than references to using Japanese parts, has very little. Whose chip did it use, and were there any quirky design choices made? We hope that someone out there has one and is prepared to give the world a peek.

Meanwhile, we’ve looked at a few older calculators ourselves.

Classic Calculator Goes RPN, With New Brain

In the era of the smartphone, an electronic calculator may seem a bit old-hat. But they continue to hold a fascination in our community, both when used for their original purpose, and as objects for hardware hacking in their own right. After their first few years when they were a rare and exclusive gadget, they were manufactured in such huge numbers as to be readily available for the curious hacker. [Suikan] has taken one of these plentiful models and done something special for it, creating a new mainboard, and a firmware which transforms it into a reverse Polish, or RPN, scientific calculator.

The Sharp EL210 and EL215 were ubiquitous early-1980s calculators without scientific functions, and with a VFD display. We remember them being common during our schooldays, and they and similar models can still be found on a trawl through thrift stores.

On the board is one of the STM32 microcontrollers and a Maxim VFD driver, and fitting it is simply a case of soldering the Sharp’s VFD to it, placing it in the calculator, and attaching the keyboard. The firmware meanwhile uses the orange C key from the original calculator as a function key, alternating between standard and scientific operations.

If you’re curious about RPN, we’ve taken a look at it here in the past.

Decoding A ROM From A Picture Of The Chip

Before there were home computers, among the hottest pieces of consumer technology to own was a pocket calculator. In the early 1970s a series of exciting new chips appeared which allowed the impossible to become the affordable, and suddenly anyone with a bit of cash could have one.

Perhaps one of the more common series of chips came from Texas instruments, and it’s one of these from which [Veniamin Ilmer] has retrieved the ROM contents. In a way there’s nothing new here as the code is well known, it’s the way it was done which is of interest. A photo of the die was analysed, and with a bit of detective work the code could be deduced merely from the picture.

These chips were dedicated calculators, but under the hood they were simple pre-programmed microcontrollers. Identifying the ROM area of the chip was thus relatively straightforward, but some more detective work lay in getting to the bottom of how it could be decoded before the code could be verified. So yes, it’s possible to read code from an early 1970s chip by looking at a photograph.

A very similar chip to this one was famously reprogrammed with scientific functions to form the heart of the inexpensive Sinclair Cambridge Scientific.

Calculation Before We Went Digital

We have to like [Nicola Marras]. First, he wrote a great mini-book about analog computers. Then he translated it into English. Finally, he opened with a picture of Mr. Spock using an E6-B flight slide rule. What’s not to like? We suggest you settle in when you want to read it — there are almost 60 pages of text, photos, and old ads for things like slide rules and adding machines.

There is a lot of research here. We couldn’t think of anything missed. There’s a Pascalina, Ishango’s bone, a Babylonian spreadsheet, an abacus, and even Quipu. Toward the end, he gets to nomographs, adding machines, and the early calculators.

Continue reading “Calculation Before We Went Digital”

Hackaday Links Column Banner

Hackaday Links: November 12, 2023

Somebody must really have it in for Cruise, because the bad press just keeps piling up for the robo-taxi company. We’ve highlighted many of the company’s woes in this space, from unscheduled rendezvous with various vehicles to random acts of vandalism and stupid AI pranks. The hits kept coming as California regulators pulled the plug on testing, which finally convinced parent company General Motors to put a halt to the whole Cruise testing program nationwide. You’d think that would be enough, but no — now we learn that Cruise cars had a problem recognizing children, to the point that there was concern that one of their autonomous cars could clobber a kid under the right conditions. The fact that they apparently knew this and kept sending cars out for IRL testing is a pretty bad look, to say the least. Sadly but predictably, Cruise has announced layoffs, starting with the employees who supported the now-mothballed robo-taxi fleet, including those who had the unenviable job of cleaning the cars after, err, being enjoyed by customers. It seems a bit wrongheaded to sack people who had no hand in engineering the cars, but then again, there seems to be a lot of wrongheadedness to go around.

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: November 12, 2023”

Partial Relay-Based Calculator Puts The Click Where It Counts

It looks like [Michal Zalewski] is raising the next generation the right way. First, his eldest son asks for help building a one-bit computer from discrete transistors. Not to be left behind, his little brother then asked for help with an even more retro project, which resulted in this partially relay-based calculator. Maybe there is some hope for the future.

Now, purists will no doubt notice the ATmega64 microcontroller sitting in the middle of the main PCB on this project and cry “Foul!” But perfect is the enemy of done, and as [Michal] explains, at $6 a pop for the Omron relays he and his son chose, there’s only so far you can go with relay logic before you’re taking out a second mortgage. So the relays are limited to the ALU of the calculator, along with the drivers for the six seven-segment LED displays. The microcontroller is just there for housekeeping functions like scanning the keyboard and decoding digits. All the actual calculations are in the relay logic, not silicon. And we’d be remiss not to praise his son’s stylistic choices for this design — that it uses relays with clear covers, and that it has single-sided PCBs with curvy, hand-drawn traces traces that look hand-drawn on old-school yellow substrate. [Michal]’s heart must swell with pride to have fathered someone with such exquisite taste.

For his part, [Mikal] did some really good documentation for this build, including excellent descriptions of Boolean math with half- and full-adders and how relays are used to create the basic logic gates that comprise them. The calculator itself is still a work in progress, with microcontroller code still in development, but it’s working enough that you can enjoy the display driver’s clickiness in the video below. If that doesn’t do it for you, we’ve got other relay calculators to scratch that click itch. Continue reading “Partial Relay-Based Calculator Puts The Click Where It Counts”

Make Your Own 1970s Magnetic Stripe Cards

We’re now all used to near-limitless storage on flash and other semiconductor technologies, but there was a time when persistent storage was considerably less easy to achieve. A 1970s programmable calculator from Sharp approached the problem with magnetic strips on special cards, and since [Menadue] has one with no cards, he set about making his own.

These cards are a little different to the credit-card-style cards we might expect, instead they’re a narrow strip with a magnetic stripe down their centre. The unusual feature can be found at the edge, where a row of perforations provide the equivalent of a clock line.

The newly manufactured cards have the clock slots machined along their edges, and then the magnetic part formed from self-adhesive magnetic strip. This last thing is a product we were not aware existed, and can think of plenty of possible applications.

The result as you can see in the video below the break are some cards with variable reliability. There’s a suggestion that white cards might work less well with the infrared light used in the clock detector, also a suspicion the low batteries make reading less easy, but still he’s able to retrieve a stored program. An extinct medium is revived.

Longtime readers will know we’ve spent time in calculator country before.

Continue reading “Make Your Own 1970s Magnetic Stripe Cards”