When I was young, a calculator was not a toy. If you had one in the early 1970s (as my family did) someone in your family was a rich hobbyist. If memory serves, the calculator my family owned cost about $100, which is somewhere about $600 in today’s money. A similar model can be found at most convenience stores for about $5 now. This was a device not to be trifled with, a real piece of office equipment that was definitely not something you used idly or for anything fun. Oh no, a calculator was for the serious tasks of balancing checkbooks or preparing income taxes. Taking it out of the home for any reason was strictly forbidden, as it might get stolen or broken. The calculator was, at that time, the most complex electronic device in the home. That is. if you were willing to fork over about a month’s rent to get one.
Which, needless to say, made it something I simply had to get my hands on, no matter how high up in the cabinet it was stowed. And what to do when I did get it? Sure, you can have your fun multiplying random numbers but eventually it gets tired. So what do you then? Spell things.
For a short time in the 1970s as calculators got cheaper, everyone did it. Type in 0.7734, turn the calculator upside down, and you get something that looks like Hello. One petroleum producer must have loved the fact that everyone was putting in 71077345 and getting ShellOil. And, for the more puerile, there was always 5318008 and 81980085 which, supposedly, are some of the earliest examples of the art. After all, our baser desires have always driven technological advancement. (I’ll leave it to you and a nearby calculator to try those two, if you don’t already know what they say.)
For a while, calculator spelling was everywhere. It was on album covers, it was on T-shirts, it was part of our everyday lives. And then, as quickly as it came, it left. We all moved on to computers that could actually display words, not numbers, and not too much time passed before they could display pictures, too. And of course, though there’s not much evidence remaining, I’m sure that some of the first pictures out there… were 5318008. It’s just human nature.
By the way, the handheld calculator turns 50 this year, and here’s a nice longform article about it.