Empire of the Sum

The Rise and Reign of the Pocket Calculator

6 October 2023

Keith Houston (Author)


The hidden history of the pocket calculator—a device that ushered in modern mathematics, helped build the atomic bomb and went with us to the moon—and the mathematicians, designers and inventors who brought it to life

Starting with hands, abacus and slide rule, humans have always reached for tools to simplify math. Pocket-sized calculators ushered in modern mathematics, helped build the atomic bomb, took us to the bottom of the ocean and accompanied us to the moon. The pocket calculator changed our world, until it was supplanted by more modern devices that, in a cruel twist of irony, it helped to create. The calculator is dead; long live the calculator.

In this witty mathematic and social history, Keith Houston transports readers from the nascent economies of the ancient world to the First World War, where a Jewish engineer calculated for his life at Buchenwald, and into the technological arms race that led to the first affordable electronic pocket calculators. At every turn, Houston is a scholarly, affable guide to this global history of invention. Empire of the Sum will appeal to maths lovers, history buffs and anyone seeking to understand our trajectory to the computer age.


"The book provides a breezy mathematical history tour through the development of number systems, slide rules, mechanical calculators and microchips. " — Jeffrey M. Perkel, Nature

"Houston's sprightly history aims to give the calculator the recognition it deserves as a stepping stone to the digital era... He makes a convincing case, in sum, for the significance of the calculator. " — The Economist

"Houston's narrative is full of oddballs, many of them brilliant..." — Alexander Nazaryan, The New York Times Book Review

"Starting from the seemingly simple task of recounting the history of the pocket calculator, Keith Houston unfolds a complex and fascinating history of numeracy, the evolution of technology, and the human desire to push our capabilities ever further. Deep," — Cal Newport, The New York Times bestselling author of Digital Minimalism and A World Without Email

"Everywhere and nowhere at once’ is how Keith Houston describes the pocket calculator, a machine that is so intimately intertwined with human history that it is impossible to imagine our lives deprived of its influence. In Empire of the Sum, Houston takes us on a journey that spans centuries and reaches across the universe, always coming back to humanity’s craving for calculating machines in all their diverse forms. I dare you to reach the end of this book and not be irresistibly charmed by both the pocket calculator and Houston’s witty, gregarious prose." — Natalia Holt, The New York Times bestselling author of Rise of the Rocket Girls

"[An] enlightening history" — Pablo Scheffer, The Times Literary Supplement

Also By: Keith Houston View all by author...



147 x 218 mm • 384 pages


Add to Basket



Powered by Glassboxx


Add to Basket