Software calculator

A software calculator is a calculator that has been implemented as a software program] rather than as a physical hardware device.

A software calculator that simulates a traditional electronic device with buttons. Hold mouse over buttons to see explaining tool tips
They are among the simpler interactive software tools, and, as such, they:

  • Provide operations for the user to select one at a time.
  • Can be used to perform any process that consists of a sequence of steps each of which applies one of these operations.
  • Have no purpose other than these processes, because the operations are the sole, or at least the primary, features of the calculator, rather than being secondary features that support other functionality that is not normally known simply as calculation.

As a calculator, rather than a computer, they usually:

  • Have a small set of relatively simple operations.
  • Perform short processes that are not compute intensive.
  • Do not accept large amounts of input data or produce many results.


Software calculators are available for many different platforms, and they can be:

A software calculator with command line interface

  • A program loaded onto and run on a computer as a separate, self-contained package. These can be for single or multiple operating systems.
  • An on-line calculator, implemented on a web page, where it is run from a server computer and accessed through a web browser.
  • A utility that is an independent part of a bigger package, such as an operating system. Windows, Mac OS and Linux all have the built-in calculator that comes with distributions.
  • Embedded in a hand-held device such as a mobile phone.
  • Embedded in a calculator watch.

As an input interface

Some high end software packages provide calculator-like interface to enter data. Such interface may contain on-screen calculator buttons and also support basic arithmetic operations that can be performed before entering the calculated value into the system. They are common in cases when the entering personal must make some decisions while entering the data (add 20 %, for instance) and traditionally used calculators at this step of the work flow.

Calculator function can also be added to the search engine of web browser.


Early years

Computers as we know them today first emerged in the 1940s and 1950s. The software that they ran was naturally used to perform calculations, but it was specially designed for a substantial application that was not limited to simple calculations.

Software specifically to perform calculations as its main purpose was first written in the 1960s, and the first software package for general calculations to obtain widespread use was released in 1978.[1] This was VisiCalc and it was called an interactive visible calculator, but it was actually a spreadsheet, and these are now not normally known simply as calculators.

Simulation of hardware calculators

Calculators have been used since ancient times and until the advent of software calculators they were physical, hardware machines. The most recent hardware calculators are electronic hand-held devices with buttons for digits and operations, and a small window for inputs and results. The first software calculators imitated these hardware calculators by implementing the same functionality with mouse-operated, rather than finger-operated, buttons. Such software calculators first emerged in the 1980s as part of the Windows operating system.

Some software calculators directly simulate one of the hardware calculators, by presenting an image that looks like the calculator, and by providing the same functionality.

Formula calculators

Simulating hardware calculator may be easy to understand and initially look attractive. However this interface is not very convenient to perform more complex calculations; historically it has been adapted to constrained devices that only have a single line numeric display and very limited computing power. High end hardware calculators that exist till these days use the similar approach as found in the programming languages: the expression is received as a string of symbols. It can contain different operations and parentheses, so the calculator must respect the intended order of operations. Advanced calculators also often provide more than one line to see multiple values at time. Such calculators can also be easily simulated with computer, while the expression parser is not so straightforward to write. Many programming languages (Basic, Python) as well as database engines (like PostgreSQL) provide such calculator as part of their command line interface. The Unix version released in 1979, V7 Unix, contained a command-line calculator as well.

Software calculators on the internet

There is now a very wide range of software calculators, and searching the internet produces very large numbers of programs that are called calculators. The results include numerical calculators that apply arithmetic operations or mathematical functions to numbers, and that produce numerical results or graphs of numerical functions, plus some non-numerical tools and games that are also called calculators. Many of the results are calculators that don’t imitate or simulate hardware calculators, but that take advantage of the greater power of computer software to implement alternative types of calculator.

Spreadsheets, computer algebra systems and databases are not normally called calculators, while they may share some similar features.


  1. 1 Power, D. J., A Brief History of Spreadsheets, DSSResources.COM, World Wide Web,, version 3.6, 08/30/2004. Photo added September 24, 2002.


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