Mathatron calculator at York University

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Mathatron calculator at York University


hardware: programmable calculator


Historical context
(Z. Stachniak)

The commercialization of the transistor in the first half of the 1950s had a dramatic impact on the decade-old computer industry. The all-transistor computers were offered as early as 1953 and, by the end of the 1950s, all major computer manufacturers were building transistorized machines. Similar shift to solid-state technology was made across consumer electronics industry (for example, in the mid-1950s, all-transistor radios quickly began to replace large and bulky vacuum tubes-based radio sets).

Despite clear advantages that solid-state electronics had to offer to calculator manufacturers (if built, transistor-based calculators would be smaller, quieter, more versatile, and virtually maintenance free when compared with the traditional desktop electro-mechanical calculators), the calculator industry was much slower in adopting the new technology. Calculator manufacturers were quite reluctant to venture into electronics when no competitors, even those with electronics divisions (such as Olivetti, Burroughs, Sony, and Canon), were putting any electronic calculators on the market. They were simply unwilling to go against their main core products that still delivered corporate wealth and prestige, they had no desire to invest substantial resources into concurrent divisions of electronic calculators that would internally compete with their best-performing divisions of electro-mechanical calculators.

It was not until the early 1960s that the first solid-state calculators appeared on the consumer market and almost instantly gained consumer acceptance. While most of the early electronic calculators supported only rudimentary arithmetic operations with, in some cases, one or two memory registers for storing intermediate results, several firms introduced calculators with functionality that went far beyond that. The execution of short sequences of instructions (programs) was the most notable of these new features. Programs for such calculators could be keyed-in by an operator or read from an external storage media (such as punch cards) and, then executed as many times as desired by a single press of a key.

Mathatronics Mathatron
Massachusetts-based company Mathatronics Inc. introduced its programmable calculator Mathatron in 1964. In comparison with ordinary calculators of the era, the Mathatron offered programming of complex mathematical formulas. The calculator was equipped with a printer that recorded entered programs as well as outputs of their execution. A special learn-repeat feature of the Mathatron allowed to store a program and reuse it as many time as required during a calculation session. In March 1964, Computers and Automation reviewed the Mathatron referring to it as a "unique desk-top size electronic digital computer."

Mathatronics sold several models of its calculator:
  • Model 4-24 with 4 memory registers and program length of up to 24 steps,
  • Model 8-48 with 8 memory registers and program length of up to 48 steps,
  • Model 8-48S (Statistical Model) with 8 memory registers and program length of up to 48 steps,
  • Model 8-48E (Civil Engineering Model) with 8 memory registers and program length of up to 48 steps,
  • Model 8-48M (Mathematician' Model) with 8 memory registers and program length of up to 48 steps.

Models 8-48 offered several built-in scientific routines that could be selected using a built-in dial and pressing the "ENTER" switch located next to the dial. These routines could be executed separately or incorporated into programs.

Mathatron at York University
In the mid-1960s, York was rapidly growing and establishing new key departments. In 1965, Ralph W. Nicholls joined York University from the University of Western Ontario to form a new Department of Physics. In the same year, he became founding director of York's Centre for Research in Experimental Space Science (CRESS, later renamed the Centre for Research in Earth and Space Science) that quickly gained prominence in North America. Unfortunately, York's first computer--the IBM System/360 Model 30--was only installed in November 1966 and, until then, CRESS members had to rely on calculators and computer resources offered by the University of Toronto. It was Nicholls who brought a Mathatron to CRESS. The calculator served calculating needs of both faculty and graduate students throughout the 1960s and 70s. It's use was under strict control. The instructions attached to CRESS' Mathatron read:
  1. The use of this machine is restricted to CRESS staff members.
  2. CRESS Graduate Students must get permission from Dr. G.R. Hebert to use machine until they have indicated some proficiency in its use.
  3. Others must have the explicit permission from Dr. G.R. Hebert each time the Mathatron is to be used.
  4. Please fill in log book every time the Mathatron is used.
  5. Do not remove manuals from this location.
  6. In case of doubt regarding the operation of the Mathatron consult a) manuals b) G.R. Hebert, Room 205."

Museum's holdings
  • Mathatron 8-48, serial nr. 385,
  • Mathatron calculator desk,
  • Mathatron auxiliary program storage control unit.


Mathatronics Inc.


introduced in 1964




This calculator was in use at York University, Toronto, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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Mathatronics Inc., “Mathatron calculator at York University,” York University Computer Museum Canada, accessed June 15, 2024,

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