When Kraftwerk Issued Their Own Pocket Calculator Synthesizer — to Play Their Song “Pocket Calculator” (1981)

Kraftwerk put out their eighth stu­dio album in 1981, and they titled it pre­scient­ly: Com­put­er World was released into what human­i­ty had only just begun to real­ize would become a world of com­put­ers. But back then, most peo­ple either had nev­er used a com­put­er at all, or had used no com­put­er more advanced than a pock­et cal­cu­la­tor. But the boys from Düs­sel­dorf had a song for them too: the album’s first sin­gle “Pock­et Cal­cu­la­tor.” And it was­n’t just a name: the Casio fx-501P pro­gram­ma­ble cal­cu­la­tor appeared on the list of “instru­ments” used in its record­ing.

Kraftwerk had become world-famous by the ear­ly 1980s, and on the inter­na­tion­al music scene they par­o­died the stiff, pre­ci­sion-obsessed Ger­man stereo­type to per­fec­tion. You’d think that they would thus demon­strate alle­giance to the for­mi­da­ble Dieter Rams-designed Braun ET55 cal­cu­la­tor, but by the time Com­put­er Love came out, Japan­ese com­pa­nies like Casio had come to dom­i­nate the per­son­al-elec­tron­ics mar­ket. Kraftwerk even record­ed a Japan­ese ver­sion of “Pock­et Calu­la­tor,” “Den­taku,” along with ones in Ger­man (“Taschen­rech­n­er”), French (“Mini Cal­cu­la­teur”), and Ital­ian (“Mini Cal­co­la­tore”).

“I’m the oper­a­tor with my pock­et cal­cu­la­tor,” go the song’s Eng­lish lyrics. “I am adding and sub­tract­ing. I’m con­trol­ling and com­pos­ing.” And whichev­er lan­guage you lis­ten to it in, it has a line equiv­a­lent to, “By press­ing down a spe­cial key, it plays a lit­tle melody.”

Kraftwerk actu­al­ly com­mis­sioned as a pro­mo­tion­al item a spe­cial cal­cu­la­tor from Casio that could do just that, a ver­sion of the com­pa­ny’s VL-80 mod­el that was also a musi­cal syn­the­siz­er. You can see and hear the basic, non-Kraftwerk mod­el demon­strat­ed in the video above. Casio, a name that in the music world would become a byword for sim­ple, inex­pen­sive syn­the­siz­ers, had already brought to mar­ket in 1979 the VL‑1, the first com­mer­cial dig­i­tal syn­the­siz­er (which itself includ­ed a cal­cu­la­tor func­tion).

With a Kraftwerk taschen­rech­n­er, even those with­out tech­ni­cal or musi­cal knowl­edge, let alone a full-fledged syn­the­siz­er, could make music. “Kraftwerk was eager for fans to play Kraftwerk hits on their own cal­cu­la­tors,” writes Dan­ger­ous Minds’ Mar­tin Schnei­der, “so they issued these spe­cial instruc­tions — OK, let’s call it ‘sheet music’ — to play not just the new mate­r­i­al but also clas­sics like ‘Trans Europa Express’ and ‘Schaufen­ster­pup­pen.’ ” Today, Kraftwerk con­tin­ues to per­form all over the com­put­er world in which we now live. With the 40th anniver­sary of Com­put­er World approach­ing, per­haps the time has come to bring the cal­cu­la­tors back on stage.

(via Dan­ger­ous Minds)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Case for Why Kraftwerk May Be the Most Influ­en­tial Band Since the Bea­t­les

The Psy­che­del­ic Ani­mat­ed Video for Kraftwerk’s “Auto­bahn” from 1979

Kraftwerk Plays a Live 40-Minute Ver­sion of their Sig­na­ture Song “Auto­bahn:” A Sound­track for a Long Road Trip (1974)

Kraftwerk’s “The Robots” Per­formed by Ger­man First Graders in Adorable Card­board Robot Out­fits

The Keaton Music Type­writer: An Inge­nious Machine That Prints Musi­cal Nota­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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Comments (4)
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  • Paul Hughes says:

    I remem­ber being 14 at the time, buy­ing the album on cas­sette and being blown away with the syn­the­sis­ers and their pow­er!

    Still gives me goose bumps lis­ten­ing to this all time great album.

    Got loads of their albums on vinyl, CD and cas­settes

  • Subhasis Tiwari says:

    Ma luv for cas­sette mul­ti­plied due to kraftwerk.

  • Raluca C. says:

    Big time nos­tal­gia.

  • Dennis Tuckerman says:

    I have a ful­ly work­ing Casio FX-502P with its tape FA‑1 inter­face.
    Do you have the pro­gram list­ing for ‘Pock­et Cal­cu­la­tor’ i.e. the string of num­bers that can be ‘played’ on the actu­al cal­cu­la­tor please?
    Sheffield UK

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