Do The Math

Shiuming Lai looks back at Atari's stand-alone arithmetic processing units


In the late 1980s, during the Tramiel era, a new product line appeared from Atari that had little if anything technically in common with its main-stay computer ranges. Whether I saw it at my local Dixons or in Atari User magazine first I can't remember, it made no difference to the surprise factor.

[Photo: Atari DMP 2002 calculator]

I mean Atari calculators, of course! At first it seemed strange. Why did Atari want to get into calculators? Was it a cunning ploy to get a foot in the education sector? Back then, Casio calculators were all the rage, probably the Nokia of its day, its scientific models being the epitome of high-tech cool and wannabe intellectual status among secondary school kids (with the added benefit of being "legitimate" and couldn't be confiscated like Sony Walkmans), Sharp coming second and Texas Instruments a distant third by my reckoning. This is even accounting for my maths teacher being something of a Casio evangelist.

Visitors at JagFest UK had the opportunity to purchase some of the Atari CC192 calculators - as shown on this month's cover - for sale at the MyAtari stand (others were apparently as surprised as I was all those years back, having only just seen them for the first time), but this was no one-hit-wonder, the full range was quite broad and included models with built-in printing capabilities. It would seem Atari didn't try to penetrate the unassailable scientific market, a good move, intentional or not, nor did it release bland me-too products in the lower end segment.

[Photo: 32-step auto recall models]

[Photo: 12-digit model]

Instead, Atari filled the void for business-oriented calculators, an idea most likely stemming from the Tramiels' background in electronic calculators in the Commodore Business Machines years (ironically many of those were designed and built in Japan, by Casio). Apart from the aforementioned printing capability of some models, typifying features include a dedicated mark up button on nearly all models (the value line being a notable exception, this was more of a common domestic calculator), an unusual but very useful feature on any shop floor even today. Then there were feature-specific ranges: 32-step auto recall, electronic memo banks (essential '80s yuppie toy and precursor to the modern PDA) and wafer-thin, credit card sized solar-powered models.

[Photo: Value line models]

[Photo: Solar-powered models]

[Photo: DMP2000 printer model]

Smart styling
Atari's products always stood out in terms of physical design and its calculators were no exception. Obviously following the house style of the popular ST computer range, the predominantly ST-grey and Atari-blue tones with parallelogram graphics like the ST function keys were very distinctive, immediately identifying them as Atari products. Four models in the solar range shown above were actually just two models in a choice of either red or blue trim, reflecting the XE and ST computer theme colours respectively (the base colour of both being grey, of course).

Once again, on the packaging, the Atari logo is shown like it is on the solar range page, with a rainbow colour gradient fill (well, not quite a full rainbow, just red to yellow and then blue) as previously used to represent the colour capability of Ataris, in the greatest of traditions, despite these machines having monochrome LCD screens! Nevertheless, the overall presentation made other calculators look positively monochrome in comparison. My Casio fx-82b of similar vintage came in a nondescript brown box and my current, fx-992s had similarly dull packaging.

Although it's well-known that Atari had its own computer manufacturing plant in Taiwan, where these calculators are marked as being made, the CC192 I have here is labelled, "Under License from Atari Corporation" so I suspect the tooling was not in place at the computer plant for calculators and they were contracted to a third party manufacturer already geared for this type of product.

[Photo: Electronic memo bank models]

Hints and tips
These calculators were perfect accessories or gifts for Atari fans when they were released. Magazines could afford to give them away as prizes, or just sell them to readers to make some easy money, the equivalent of a sweet rack at the checkout of a supermarket. Now they are collector items, commanding higher-than-original prices, though nothing outrageous.

When you buy one, it will be very probably still factory-sealed. Bear in mind it will have been in storage for a decade or more so don't be surprised if the batteries in the pack are expired. Some LCD deterioration can also happen. Having said that, I've only heard of one with such a problem so far (and this could be plain unlucky, as I've got much older calculators which still work fine). Now get collecting, and Do The Math!

Thanks to Brad Koda at Best Electronics for the images in this article. Some of the models illustrated are in stock at Best, please enquire for details and pricing.

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MyAtari magazine - Feature #6, August 2003

Copyright 2003 MyAtari magazine