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Old Technology

© April 2006 Anthony Lawrence

It's tax time again. The time when we once again vow that this year, we'll keep track of tax related items as they come up so that we don't once again end up sorting piles of receipts from a paper bag.

Yeah, right. That's going to happen.

Actually, on the business side of things, I do things that way: everything goes into QuickBooks and taxes are a snap. On the personal side.. well, it's good intentions and not much else. So every year around February or March we start gathering up the relevant checks and receipts and sorting them into piles.. big, messy piles.

This past year was worse than usual. We sold our home, bought a modular home (big sales tax receipt), sold some stocks, had a lot of medical expenses, gave a car and a lot of other stuff away to charities.. so of course we got started with the tax work early.

Early. You know, two days before the taxes are due. That's early, isn't it?

First order of business was that we needed a calculator to add up these receipts. We have a calculator, right? Sure we do, probably have bunches of them. No problem..

I mentioned that we moved, didn't I? Did I mention that an awful lot of our stuff is still in boxes, piles of boxes cluttering our living room and filling our garage? A few years from now, when we unpack the last of those boxes, I bet we'll find a calculator.. probably lots of calculators. Big ones, little ones, solar powered, battery powered, plug-ins.. but right now: no calculators can be found.

Let's not be silly. There are hundreds of software calculators. We can do this right on our computers. Most of our machines even have calculators already. My Linux box has one, so does the Mac and of course Windows does too.

"But they don't have tapes", my wife complained. Hmmm.. that's true, but I don't think any of the still packed calculators we own have tapes either. She had a simple answer for that:

"I need a tape."

So that's that, isn't it? I hopped in the car, went to BJ's, and bought a heavy duty Sharp calculator with tape for $40.00. Personally, I would have used something like TopCalculette (Mac) or www.tucows.com/ preview/282347 (link dead, sorry) tApCalc (Linux), where I could save the tape, edit it, annotate it.. but "I need a tape" is a cogent and irrefutable argument. Or at least it is when your wife says it is.

I brought the calculator home, installed the paper tape roll, plugged it in, and turned it on. It seemed to work, so I turned it over to the person with the fast and accurate fingers and went back to whatever I had been doing before "we" reaized we needed a calculator.

It was hardly a minute later when she called to me. "It doesn't work". I went to investigate.

"See - it just keeps adding. I can't start over."

Son of a gun. It did just keep adding. I shut it off and turned it back on.

7 +

The display read 7.

8 +

Of course the display said 15.


The display read 0

5 +


Huh? What do you mean 20? I hit GT again, and again the display read 0. I hit it twice, then hit 4 and "+" again.


I pulled out the instructions. There was a section about a "Constant Add Mode" switch. It's for multiplication: "The calculator will will automatically remember the first number entered (the multiplicand)". We played with that. No change.

Old timers with better memories already know the answer to this operational problem. My wife and I are old enough to know it too, but we had both forgotten, and it was only when I accidentally hit the "*" key that we both remembered and realized that on most old desktop calculators, "*" was total and clear.

As explained at Monroe 2880 Applications Calculator, that usage goes back to early days:

The 'diamond' key recalls the current accumulated total (akin to
a "MR" key) , and the "*" key recalls the total and clears the
accumulator (like pressing "MR" followed by "MC" on a calculator
with memory).

But why? I searched the web but couldn't find any reason for that choice. Possibly CDC Fortran's use of asterisk as a delimiter (CRITERIA FOR SATISFACTORY SUPPORT OF CHARACTER DATA)? That doesn't seem likely, but it's the best I could find.

And why a diamond symbol for sub-totals? I couldn't find any ideas about that either. I doubt these were chosen arbitrarily; there had to be some precedence of usage in a similar manner. But I sure don't know what it was.

Well, we got the taxes done. There was a brief moment of panic where we thought we had forgotten to enter a pile of miscellaneous income, but that was a false alarm. We may have missed a few legitimate deductions here and there, but that's OK. The IRS doesn't come looking for you when you pay more than you should have. We E-File, of course, using the latest technology to send the end results of all those old paper tape totals.

Any links or even guesses to the origins of "asterisk" and "diamond" in calculator keyboards will be appeciated. It's just idle curiousity, but I would like to know.

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More Articles by © Anthony Lawrence

Sun Apr 16 12:22:27 2006: 1926   TonyLawrence

I was just thinking that it's interesting that Sharp still uses those keys, while most shirt-pocket calculators you'd find today do not. I suppose Sharp is afraid that old-timers expect these keys, but I bet many young people would have no idea what "*" means - or would assume it was another "multiply" key.

Sun Apr 16 14:51:02 2006: 1927   BigDumbDinosaur

I hopped in the car, went to BJ's, and bought a heavy duty Sharp calculator with tape for $40.00.

Remember when a "heavy duty" desk calculator with paper tape was 10 times as much money and that 40 bucks barely got you something that could do the basic four operations?

Well, we got the taxes done...We may have missed a few legitimate deductions here and there, but that's OK.

Some years ago my wife and I decided the tax code (especially the business stuff) was too complicated to deal with. So we take the easy way out and have someone else do the grunt work. One of my clients is an attorney/CPA and very good with this tax nonsense. He never misses a legit deduction -- as long as I don't forget to record it somewhere.

Any links or even guesses to the origins of "asterisk" and "diamond" in calculator keyboards will be appeciated.

I too have often wondered where that came from. Those symbols seem to have been on desk calculators forever -- at least since the 1960's, when electronic desk calculators with Nixie tubes started to appear on the scene. Remember the Nixie tube displays?


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