In 1642, the Renaissance saw the invention of the mechanical calculator (by Wilhelm Schickard and several decades later Blaise Pascal ), a device that was at times somewhat over-promoted as being able to perform all four arithmetic operations with minimal human intervention. Pascal's calculator could add and subtract two numbers directly and thus, if the tedium could be borne, multiply and divide by repetition. Schickard's machine, constructed several decades earlier, used a clever set of mechanised multiplication tables to ease the process of multiplication and division with the adding machine as a means of completing this operation. There is a debate about whether Pascal or Shickard should be credited as the known inventor of a calculating machine due to the differences (like the different aims) of both inventions. Schickard and Pascal were followed by Gottfried Leibniz who spent forty years designing a four-operation mechanical calculator, the stepped reckoner, inventing in the process his leibniz wheel, but who couldn't design a fully operational machine. There were also five unsuccessful attempts to design a calculating clock in the 17th century.

The 18th century saw the arrival of some notable improvements, first by Poleni with the first fully functional calculating clock and four-operation machine, but these machines were almost always one of a kind. Luigi Torchi invented the first direct multiplication machine in 1834: this was also the second key-driven machine in the world, following that of James White (1822). It was not until the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution that real developments began to occur. Although machines capable of performing all four arithmetic functions existed prior to the 19th century, the refinement of manufacturing and fabrication processes during the eve of the industrial revolution made large scale production of more compact and modern units possible. The Arithmometer, invented in 1820 as a four-operation mechanical calculator, was released to production in 1851 as an adding machine and became the first commercially successful unit; forty years later, by 1890, about 2,500 arithmometers had been sold plus a few hundreds more from two arithmometer clone makers (Burkhardt, Germany, 1878 and Layton, UK, 1883) and Felt and Tarrant, the only other competitor in true commercial production, had sold 100 comptometers.

In 1921, Edith Clarke invented the "Clarke calculator", a simple graph-based calculator for solving line equations involving hyperbolic functions. This allowed electrical engineers to simplify calculations for inductance and capacitance in power transmission lines.

The Curta calculator was developed in 1948 and, although costly, became popular for its portability. This purely mechanical hand-held device could do addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. By the early 1970s electronic pocket calculators ended manufacture of mechanical calculators, although the Curta remains a popular collectable item.

The Casio Computer Company, in Japan, released the Model 14-A calculator in 1957, which was the world's first all-electric (relatively) compact calculator. It did not use electronic logic but was based on relay technology, and was built into a desk.

In October 1961, the world's first all-electronic desktop calculator, the British Bell Punch/Sumlock Comptometer ANITA (A New Inspiration To Arithmetic/Accounting) was announced. This machine used vacuum tubes, cold-cathode tubes and Dekatrons in its circuits, with 12 cold-cathode "Nixie" tubes for its display. Two models were displayed, the Mk VII for continental Europe and the Mk VIII for Britain and the rest of the world, both for delivery from early 1962. The Mk VII was a slightly earlier design with a more complicated mode of multiplication, and was soon dropped in favour of the simpler Mark VIII. The ANITA had a full keyboard, similar to mechanical comptometers of the time, a feature that was unique to it and the later Sharp CS-10A among electronic calculators. The ANITA weighed roughly 33 pounds (15 kg) due to its large tube system. Bell Punch had been producing key-driven mechanical calculators of the comptometer type under the names "Plus" and "Sumlock", and had realised in the mid-1950s that the future of calculators lay in electronics. They employed the young graduate Norbert Kitz, who had worked on the early British Pilot ACE computer project, to lead the development. The ANITA sold well since it was the only electronic desktop calculator available, and was silent and quick.

The tube technology of the ANITA was superseded in June 1963 by the U.S. manufactured Friden EC-130, which had an all-transistor design, a stack of four 13-digit numbers displayed on a 5-inch (13 cm) cathode ray tube (CRT), and introduced Reverse Polish Notation (RPN) to the calculator market for a price of $2200, which was about three times the cost of an electromechanical calculator of the time. Like Bell Punch, Friden was a manufacturer of mechanical calculators that had decided that the future lay in electronics. In 1964 more all-transistor electronic calculators were introduced: Sharp introduced the CS-10A, which weighed 25 kilograms (55 lb) and cost 500,000 yen ($4586.75), and Industria Macchine Elettroniche of Italy introduced the IME 84, to which several extra keyboard and display units could be connected so that several people could make use of it (but apparently not at the same time).

Bulgaria's ELKA 6521, introduced in 1965, was developed by the Central Institute for Calculation Technologies and built at the Elektronika factory in Sofia. The name derives from ELektronen KAlkulator, and it weighed around 8 kg (18 lb). It is the first calculator in the world which includes the square root function. Later that same year were released the ELKA 22 (with a luminescent display) and the ELKA 25, with an in-built printer. Several other models were developed until the first pocket model, the ELKA 101, was released in 1974. The writing on it was in Roman script, and it was exported to western countries.

Another early programmable desktop calculator (and maybe the first Japanese one) was the Casio (AL-1000) produced in 1967. It featured a nixie tubes display and had transistor electronics and ferrite core memory.

The Monroe Epic programmable calculator came on the market in 1967. A large, printing, desk-top unit, with an attached floor-standing logic tower, it could be programmed to perform many computer-like functions. However, the only branch instruction was an implied unconditional branch (GOTO) at the end of the operation stack, returning the program to its starting instruction. Thus, it was not possible to include any conditional branch (IF-THEN-ELSE) logic. During this era, the absence of the conditional branch was sometimes used to distinguish a programmable calculator from a computer.

The first commercially produced portable calculators appeared in Japan in 1970, and were soon marketed around the world. These included the Sanyo ICC-0081 "Mini Calculator", the Canon Pocketronic, and the Sharp QT-8B "micro Compet". The Canon Pocketronic was a development from the "Cal-Tech" project. It had no traditional display; numerical output was on thermal paper tape.

In 1971, Pico Electronics and General Instrument also introduced their first collaboration in ICs, a full single chip calculator IC for the Monroe Royal Digital III calculator. Pico was a spinout by five GI design engineers whose vision was to create single chip calculator ICs. Pico and GI went on to have significant success in the burgeoning handheld calculator market.

The first truly pocket-sized electronic calculator was the Busicom LE-120A "HANDY", which was marketed early in 1971. Made in Japan, this was also the first calculator to use an LED display, the first hand-held calculator to use a single integrated circuit (then proclaimed as a "calculator on a chip"), the Mostek MK6010, and the first electronic calculator to run off replaceable batteries. Using four AA-size cells the LE-120A measures 4.9 by 2.8 by 0.9 inches (124 mm × 71 mm × 23 mm).

There were also improvements to the electronics inside the calculators. All of the logic functions of a calculator had been squeezed into the first "calculator on a chip" integrated circuits (ICs) in 1971, but this was leading edge technology of the time and yields were low and costs were high. Many calculators continued to use two or more ICs, especially the scientific and the programmable ones, into the late 1970s.

Sharp put in great efforts in size and power reduction and introduced in January 1971 the Sharp EL-8, also marketed as the Facit 1111, which was close to being a pocket calculator. It weighed 1.59 pounds (721 grams), had a vacuum fluorescent display, rechargeable NiCad batteries, and initially sold for US $395.

The first European-made pocket-sized calculator, DB 800 was made in May 1971 by Digitron in Buje, Croatia (former Yugoslavia) with four functions and an eight-digit display and special characters for a negative number and a warning that the calculation has too many digits to display.

However, integrated circuit development efforts culminated in early 1971 with the introduction of the first "calculator on a chip", the MK6010 by Mostek, followed by Texas Instruments later in the year. Although these early hand-held calculators were very costly, these advances in electronics, together with developments in display technology (such as the vacuum fluorescent display, LED, and LCD), led within a few years to the cheap pocket calculator available to all.

A more successful series of calculators using a reflective DSM-LCD was launched in 1972 by Sharp Inc with the Sharp EL-805, which was a slim pocket calculator. This, and another few similar models, used Sharp's Calculator On Substrate (COS) technology. An extension of one glass plate needed for the liquid crystal display was used as a substrate to mount the needed chips based on a new hybrid technology. The COS technology may have been too costly since it was only used in a few models before Sharp reverted to conventional circuit boards.

The power consumption of the integrated circuits was also reduced, especially with the introduction of CMOS technology. Appearing in the Sharp "EL-801" in 1972, the transistors in the logic cells of CMOS ICs only used any appreciable power when they changed state. The LED and VFD displays often required added driver transistors or ICs, whereas the LCDs were more amenable to being driven directly by the calculator IC itself.

The first American-made pocket-sized calculator, the Bowmar 901B (popularly termed The Bowmar Brain), measuring 5.2 by 3.0 by 1.5 inches (132 mm × 76 mm × 38 mm), came out in the Autumn of 1971, with four functions and an eight-digit red LED display, for $240, while in August 1972 the four-function Sinclair Executive became the first slimline pocket calculator measuring 5.4 by 2.2 by 0.35 inches (137.2 mm × 55.9 mm × 8.9 mm) and weighing 2.5 ounces (71 g). It retailed for around £79 ($194 at the time). By the end of the decade, similar calculators were priced less than £5 ($6.38).

Meanwhile, Hewlett-Packard (HP) had been developing a pocket calculator. Launched in early 1972, it was unlike the other basic four-function pocket calculators then available in that it was the first pocket calculator with scientific functions that could replace a slide rule. The $395 HP-35, along with nearly all later HP engineering calculators, uses reverse Polish notation (RPN), also called postfix notation. A calculation like "8 plus 5" is, using RPN, performed by pressing 8, Enter↑, 5, and +; instead of the algebraic infix notation: 8, +, 5, =. It had 35 buttons and was based on Mostek Mk6020 chip.

In 1973, Texas Instruments (TI) introduced the SR-10, (SR signifying slide rule) an algebraic entry pocket calculator using scientific notation for $150. Shortly after the SR-11 featured an added key for entering pi (π). It was followed the next year by the SR-50 which added log and trig functions to compete with the HP-35, and in 1977 the mass-marketed TI-30 line which is still produced.

One of the first low-cost calculators was the Sinclair Cambridge, launched in August 1973. It retailed for £29.95 ($38.23), or £5 ($6.38) less in kit form. The Sinclair calculators were successful because they were far cheaper than the competition; however, their design led to slow and inaccurate computations of transcendental functions.

The first programmable pocket calculator was the HP-65, in 1974; it had a capacity of 100 instructions, and could store and retrieve programs with a built-in magnetic card reader. Two years later the HP-25C introduced continuous memory, i.e., programs and data were retained in CMOS memory during power-off. In 1979, HP released the first alphanumeric, programmable, expandable calculator, the HP-41C. It could be expanded with random-access memory (RAM, for memory) and read-only memory (ROM, for software) modules, and peripherals like bar code readers, microcassette and floppy disk drives, paper-roll thermal printers, and miscellaneous communication interfaces (RS-232, HP-IL, HP-IB).

In 1978, a new company, Calculated Industries arose which focused on specialized markets. Their first calculator, the Loan Arranger (1978) was a pocket calculator marketed to the Real Estate industry with preprogrammed functions to simplify the process of calculating payments and future values. In 1985, CI launched a calculator for the construction industry called the Construction Master which came preprogrammed with common construction calculations (such as angles, stairs, roofing math, pitch, rise, run, and feet-inch fraction conversions). This would be the first in a line of construction related calculators.

The HP 12c financial calculator is still produced. It was introduced in 1981 and is still being made with few changes. The HP 12c featured the reverse Polish notation mode of data entry. In 2003 several new models were released, including an improved version of the HP 12c, the "HP 12c platinum edition" which added more memory, more built-in functions, and the addition of the algebraic mode of data entry.

The first calculator capable of symbolic computing was the HP-28C, released in 1987. It could, for example, solve quadratic equations symbolically. The first graphing calculator was the Casio fx-7000G released in 1985.

In 1986, calculators still represented an estimated 41% of the world's general-purpose hardware capacity to compute information. By 2007, this had diminished to less than 0.05%.

In most countries, students use calculators for schoolwork. There was some initial resistance to the idea out of fear that basic or elementary arithmetic skills would suffer. There remains disagreement about the importance of the ability to perform calculations in the head, with some curricula restricting calculator use until a certain level of proficiency has been obtained, while others concentrate more on teaching estimation methods and problem-solving. Research suggests that inadequate guidance in the use of calculating tools can restrict the kind of mathematical thinking that students engage in. Others have argued that calculator use can even cause core mathematical skills to atrophy, or that such use can prevent understanding of advanced algebraic concepts. In December 2011 the UK's Minister of State for Schools, Nick Gibb, voiced concern that children can become "too dependent" on the use of calculators. As a result, the use of calculators is to be included as part of a review of the Curriculum. In the United States, many math educators and boards of education have enthusiastically endorsed the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) standards and actively promoted the use of classroom calculators from kindergarten through high school.