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Barack Obama's Calculator

A commenter at the Daily Telegraph asks why Barack Obama was asked to buy a calculator for his 5th grade class in 1971:

As long as people are starting to read the book "Dreams From My Father," take a gander where he describes his fifth grade school supplies list:

"... there was a list of things to buy -- a uniform for physical education, scissors, a ruler, number two pencils, a calculator (optional)."

Barack Obama and I were born in the same year. The year he graduated from high school was the year I graduated from high school. A calculator for a fifth grader, or any K-12 student, in 1971? Highly unlikely. Yes they did exist, barely, from Wikipedia.

"The first truly pocket-sized electronic calculator was the Busicom LE-120A "HANDY", which was marketed early in 1971. Made in Japan... The first American-made pocket-sized calculator, the Bowmar 901B (popularly referred to as The Bowmar Brain), measuring 5.2×3.0×1.5 in (131×77×37 mm), came out in the fall of 1971, with four functions and an eight-digit red LED display, for $240..."

It's is a version of a question that has been posted around the Internet for some time. The exact context of the phrase can be read here, where an admirer of the president quotes the relevant passage in Dreams, in which the school asks 5th grader Barry to bring along a calculator to class:

I had gone for several interviews with Punahou’s admissions officer the previous summer. She was a brisk, efficient-looking woman who didn’t seem fazed that my feet barely reached the floor as she grilled me on my career goals. After the interview, the woman had sent Gramps and me on a tour of the campus, a complex that spread over several acres of lush green fields and shady trees, old masonry schoolhouses and modern structures of glass and steel. There were tennis courts, swimming pools, and photography studios. At one point, we fell behind the guide, and Gramps grabbed me by the arm.

“Hell, Bar,” he whispered, “this isn’t a school. This is heaven. You might just get me to go back to school with you.”

With my admission notice had come a thick packet of information that Toot set aside to pour over one Saturday afternoon. “Welcome to the Punahou family,” the letter announced. A locker had been assigned to me; I was enrolled in a meal plan unless a box was checked; there was a list of things to buy–a uniform for physical education, scissors, a ruler, number two pencils, a calculator (optional). Gramps spent the evening reading the entire school catalog, a thick book that listed my expected progression through the next seven years -- the college prep courses, the extracurricular activities, the traditions of well-rounded excellence. With each new item, Gramps grew more and more animated; several times he got up, with his thumb saving his place, and headed toward the room where Toot was reading, his voice full of amazement: “Madelyn, get a load of this!”

The president did in fact attend Punahou in 1971.  Since the literary goal of the the passage was to highlight the "wonderfulness" of his new school, the detail could simply be a mistake all too commonly found in writing: an anachronism. An anachronism is "a chronological inconsistency in some arrangement, especially a juxtaposition of person(s), events, objects, or customs from different periods of time. Often the item misplaced in time is an object, but it may be a verbal expression, a technology, a philosophical idea, a musical style, a material, a custom, or anything else associated with a particular period in time so that it is incorrect to place it outside its proper temporal domain."

In other words, it's like those arguments on the Internet where people discuss the "original video footage" of the sinking of the Titanic. It ignores the fact that nobody had an iPhone back then.

Now it is theoretically possible that the future president was, in fact, asked to bring a calculator to his 5th grade class in 1971. The Vintage Calculators site shows the four-function Sharp EL-8 available in 1970 and notes that it was "very expensive." So while it is possible, it seems unlikely that even Punahou 5th graders were asked to bring that kind of stuff to class back then. The probable reason for the anachronism is that the author of Dreams misremembered something. It inserted itself into the memories associated with that time.