Our series on the birth of the transistor—and the birth of our modern technological world—takes us to some interesting places. As it turns out, of all the electronics innovations over the years, transistors have indeed been present in just about every technological advancement you can think of.
When researching the importance of a new approach to transistors called MOSFETs, we learned that this is the technology that truly unlocks the potential of transistors. It allows them to be continually made smaller and smaller, which means you can fit more and more of them on a microchip to increase processing power.
Early microprocessors made breakthroughs in calculators back in the 1970s. In fact, the Busicom 141-PF calculator featured the Intel 4004, the first commercially available microprocessor.
To learn more about that particular calculator and others like it, and others that were at the cutting edge of technology at the time, we turned to Rick Bensene, curator of the Network Museum of Old Calculators.
“This is special 141-PF,” Bensene said. “It became the first consumer product to be produced using a computer on a chip. It’s hard to find them today.”
Bensene was interviewed by Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio, and the following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
David Brancacho: I have a few pieces of vintage electronics in my house, but they haven’t gotten out of hand. It seems you are out of control.
Rick Benson: Yes, it has.It’s a 30 year obsession, I guess you’ll call it, more than anything [laughs].
Blancajo: Why a calculator?
benzene: Well, for me, it was early in my life, I was exposed to mathematics. and calculator. As we got older, the machines turned to electronics. And they’re all the more fascinating because I can’t figure out how these boxes full of little bits and pieces do things the way they do. So that got me interested in electronics and how they fit together. Also, when I got a little older, I started to have a little money. So I started out just buying stuff on eBay and going to trade meetups and stuff and pick them up.
Blancajo: I think many of us — I mean, I’m one of them — our first experience with programming was a Texas Instruments calculator that let you type in some basic commands.
benzene: Yes. TI and HP pioneered the programmable field of pocket calculators. But before that there were big, big programmable desktops that basically did the same thing, but they just took up more space because they didn’t have the benefit of reducing transistor size to sub-micro and integrated circuit. So these massive desktops that take up most of your desk can shrink down to something you can hold in your hand. And still writing programs on it can do really useful things.
Blancajo: You’ve noticed this on your website. I mean, you write that many of the technologies we enjoy today, including microprocessor brains, originated from technologies developed with electronic calculators. I mean, given that the brains of microprocessors are built on transistors — I mean, calculators did push transistors.
benzene: Exactly. Before the introduction of electronic calculators, transistors were mainly used in consumer products in audio equipment. I mean, they’re used in radios, TVs, and analog systems. The first digital consumer use of transistors was in calculators. Even though at the time it was somewhat specialized and quite expensive, it was considered a consumer product. Part of what made the calculator so important in terms of technological development was that it was a new field of transistor application with a potentially huge market. Of course, the potentially huge market is an important goal for those who want to make a lot of money. So it was a natural evolution to start using transistors to produce digital devices for consumer use.It’s been quite an evolution in a very short period of time, from, you know, a lot, a lot [integrated circuits] In five or six years, from a calculator to a single chip.
Blancajo: Let’s talk… I don’t know if it’s – using the “Moby Dick” reference – your Moby Dick, but have a calculator you don’t have and maybe you want to put your hands on it. (Speak up, listener, if you know how to help him.) There was a Busicom 141 made by a Japanese company, but actually designed by Intel, and that was revolutionary.
benzene: Yes, that is. This is a very special machine. Actually, that model is 141-PF. Because before that particular calculator, Busicom did sell a machine called the 141, which was a markedly different transistorized calculator. So the museum already has a 141, but it’s 141-PF, which is a special. It’s special because the company’s name in Japan is Nippon Calculating Machine Corporation, and their brand name is Busicom. They designed a large and complex suite of chips that could be used in various combinations to create a variety of different types of calculators: one for scientific or engineering or professional business applications. They pitched the design to chipmakers in the US, and then they went to all the major commercial manufacturers, and they all said no. They see the Japanese as a competition and they don’t want to stand out from the competition. So they’re kind of frustrated.
They eventually heard about this new company called Intel. They are relatively new on the scene. So they took their idea to Intel, and Intel looked at it and said, ‘Yeah, we can do it for you, we can make those chips,’ even though they weren’t sure they could do it. As it turned out, they couldn’t. They kind of got themselves into trouble. But one of their engineers had an idea: Instead of using a whole bunch of specific chips wired together in different ways, you could build a small microcontroller that you could program to turn it into any kind of calculator you wanted.
So Intel set about assembling the chip. They also made some other chips to hold the program and memory storage and the input/output for the keyboard and printer and put them together. They produced the first small computer on a chip. It’s not a complete microprocessor. But it is the first core of a single-chip computer. [Nippon Calculating Machine] Started and built a calculator based on a calculator called 141-PF. This became the first consumer product produced using a computer on a chip.
Blancajo: So do you guys have some mechanical calculators too?
benzene: I have several. I specialize in electronics because that’s where the fascination comes in the most. But I do have a few mechanical machines that I’m particularly interested in, mostly because they’re mechanical calculators that I was exposed to when I was very young. So when I come across stuff that’s available, if they had some kind of influence on me when I was younger and got me started doing this, I’ll snap them up and put them on the site. I do spend a lot of time maintaining them because after 50s, 60s, almost 60s, they need lubricating and, you know, staying really happy. Because mechanical things degrade more easily than electronic things. So I have to do my best to keep those old machinery working.
Blancajo: So, Rick, this seems like a labor of love. What do you do
benzene: I am an IT person. I’ve been in IT for 40 years. I spend all day in front of the computer. I’m tired of computers. So I have other time besides life, you know, I like to be away from the computer. Calculators are kind of like computers, but not. And the technologies in them are very different, especially in the earlier ones. Exploration is fun because a lot of times you get a calculator but no documentation, no schematics, no logic diagrams, nothing you need to build to solve them. The whole idea of fixing something you don’t have any documentation on is quite a challenge. That’s the part I really like, taking things that are broken and making them work again. That’s the part I really like. It’s restoring them, getting them running again, and then taking them away and documenting them on the site so people can see what the technology was like back then.
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