The February 2023 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

The Consumer Electronics Hall of Fame: Bowmar 901B

In 1973, Bowmar/ALI was the biggest calculator company in the world. In 1976, it went out of business

2 min read
Photo: Division of Medicine and Science/National Museum of American History/Smithsonian Institution
Good-Bye, Slide Rule: The Bowmar 901B (a.k.a. “the Brain”) calculator is generally regarded as the first calculator to use an LED display and the first to be pocket size.
Photo: Division of Medicine and Science/National Museum of American History/Smithsonian Institution

The creation of the Bowmar Brain was a desperation move. In 1968, Monsanto created the first numeric LED display cheap enough to be used in consumer products. Several other companies followed Monsanto into the market, among them Bowmar/ALI, then a tiny defense-industry subcontractor in Acton, Mass.

At first, all Bowmar/ALI intended to do was make and sell LED displays. They were novel, but at the time they were also small and faint, and there weren’t many commercial uses for them. One possible application would have been in the compact calculators that had only recently begun to appear, but Bowmar was having trouble cracking that new and growing market.

The very earliest battery-powered calculators, which appeared in Japan around 1970 from Canon, Sharp, and Sanyo, used unwieldy fluorescent or gas-discharge displays, or even tiny thermal-paper printers. Could Bowmar succeed with a handheld calculator that used LED displays? In 1970, the company decided to find out. Thus the 901B was born.

photoHandy Guide: Early Bowmar calculators came with explicit instructions on the back, aimed at users who had almost certainly never used an electronic calculator before.Photo: Division of Medicine and Science/National Museum of American History/Smithsonian Institution

Bowmar built it around the TMS0103 calculator chip from Texas Instruments, and also used TI’s Klixon buttons for its keypad. The 3.1- by 5.2- by 1.5-inch calculator was introduced in 1971 or 1972 (sources disagree). It listed for US $240, or about $1,400 in today’s dollars.

Bowmar soon found several customers who wanted to resell the 901B under their own names, among them Craig (which called it the model 4501) and Commodore (the C110). Sears and RadioShack were among the companies that would private-label subsequent Bowmar models.

The 901B and its successors helped Bowmar/ALI become the largest calculator vendor in the world for a few years in the early 1970s. But handheld calculators quickly became commodity products, and by 1974 prices were plunging. Texas Instruments had started building its own calculators, and had already supplanted Bowmar atop the calculator heap. As 1975 rolled around, Bowmar couldn’t source enough of the newest calculator chips, some of which came from—you guessed it—TI. That inability prevented it from being able to drive costs down enough to keep up with competitors. In five years, the company marketed some 28 different calculator models. After five years in the calculator business, Bowmar/ALI filed for bankruptcy in 1976. However, the parent company, Bowmar Instrument Corp., lives on, and is still in business today as a defense contractor called Bowmar LLC.

The Conversation (0)

GPT Protein Models Speak Fluent Biology

Deep-learning language models design artificial proteins for tricky chemical reactions

3 min read
Two protein structures labelled ProGen Generated and 25% Mutation.

By learning the "language" of functional proteins, the AI learned to prioritize its most structurally important segments.

SalesForce

Artificial intelligence has already shaved years off research into protein engineering. Now, for the first time, scientists have synthesized proteins predicted by an AI model in the lab and found them to work just as well as their natural counterparts.

The research used a deep-learning language model for protein engineering called ProGen, which was developed by the company Salesforce AI Research in 2020. ProGen was trained, on 280 million raw protein sequences from publicly available databases of sequenced natural proteins, to generate artificial protein sequences from scratch.

Keep Reading ↓Show less

Building the Future of Smart Home Security

Engineers must invent new technology to enhance security products’ abilities

4 min read
One engineer peers into a microscope to work on a small circuit while another engineer looks on

In this article, SimpliSafe’s VP of Software Engineering discusses his team’s focus on creating a safer future through enhanced technology.

SimpliSafe

This is a sponsored article brought to you by SimpliSafe.

It’s nearly impossible to find a household today that doesn’t have at least one connected smart home device installed. From video doorbells to robot vacuums, automated lighting, and voice assistants, smart home technology has invaded consumers’ homes and shows no sign of disappearing anytime soon. Indeed, according to a study conducted by consulting firm Parks Associates, smart home device adoption has increased by more than 64 percent in the past two years, with 23 percent of households owning three or more smart home devices. This is particularly true for devices that provide security with 38 percent of Americans owning a home security product. This percentage is likely to increase as 7 in 10 homebuyers claimed that safety and security was the primary reason, after convenience, that they would be seeking out smart homes, according to a report published by Security.org last year.

As the demand for smart home security grows, it’s pertinent that the engineers who build the products and services that keep millions of customers safe continue to experiment with new technologies that could enhance overall security and accessibility. At SimpliSafe, an award-winning home security company based in Boston, Mass., it is the pursuit of industry-leading protection that drives the entire organization to continue innovating.

In this article, Nate Wilfert, VP of Software Engineering at SimpliSafe, discusses the complex puzzles his team is solving on a daily basis—such as applying artificial intelligence (AI) technology into cameras and building load-balancing solutions to handle server traffic—to push forward the company’s mission to make every home secure and advance the home security industry as a whole.

Keep Reading ↓Show less