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Kraftwerk: Pocket Calculator

A web search for “Pocket Calculator”, or a search on eBay, often turns up the electronic synthesizer popular song by Kraftwerk, the German pioneers of electronic music. Kraftwerk Man-machine album art recreated with lego men

A lot of Kraftwerk songs have a technological theme. Their 1981 album “Computer World” dealt specifically with the theme of computers and their increasing importance in society. Not all of the cultural message survived the translation from German to English. In particular, one of the themes concerned the authoritarian collection and storage of personal data. At the time this was a futuristic fear, but it has now become part of the 21st century Zeitgeist.

Computer World includes tracks with titles such as “Computer Love” (about computer dating), “Home Computer” and of course “Pocket Calculator”. At the time the first wave of home computing was at its peak, even though the main driving force behind this revolution seemed to be the desire to play computer games without having to constantly feed 10p pieces into games machines. The album art for Computer Love shows the members of Kraftwerk rendered on one of the dumb computer terminals which were prevalent in universities and industry at the time.

Amongst the numerous synthesizers and sequencers listed in the album notes is the Casio FX-501P programmable calculator. Unfortunately it does not say whether this device was responsible for the “little melody” played during the bridge section of the song:
I'm the operator with my pocket calculator
I am adding, and subtracting
I'm controlling, and composing
By pressing down a special key, it plays a little melody

Dentaku single cover

For their 1981 concert tour, the Kraftwerk merchandise included a customised Casio VL-80 calculator with a Kraftwerk logo on the body of the calculator and the leather-effect wallet. This calculator model is able to play notes in sequence. The calculator is able to store up to 100 notes, which must be initially keyed in manually using the calculator buttons. The calculator was supplied with a song sheet listing a number of songs and the corresponding key sequence. This included Pocket Calculator (Der Taschenrechner in German). In case you have a VL-80 the key sequence is as follows:
4599 845887
4599 845887 6
4599 845887
4599 845887 6
44284 44284 44284 44284

A number of people have devised programs for programmable calculators with sound output capability to emulate the “little melody”, such as the HP-48. >

The song was also released as a single in various languages (Pocket Calculator, Taschenrechner, Mini Calculateur and Dentaku). A Japanese version of the song is called “Dentaku”, and differs sufficiently for it to have been used as the B-side, and also in the 1991 re-mix anthology “The Mix”, in addition to the normal English language version of the song.