Tuesday, March 27, 2007
What is the oldest holy war in the technology world?
Internet Explorer vs Firefox?
Windows vs Mac?
Fortran vs Pascal?
It’s none of these. If you really want to start some bad blood between nerds of a certain age, start an argument about Texas Instruments vs Hewlett Packard. The Calculator Wars was one of the first battlegrounds between ease of use and computing horsepower. What calculator you used was considered a sign of how serious you took your studies.
When I started Calculus my junior year in high school, I was very proud of my brand new state-of-the-art Texas Instruments TI-30 scientific calculator. It had an exponential number display and everything. A friend in the class who would go onto to do great things in robotics (you can see his work in this video) had a Hewlett Packard HP-34C and would try to convince me of its superiority. It had some rudimentary programming ability and he taught it some parlor tricks, but I couldn’t see the big deal.
I decided I needed a new calculator to start college with, so I got the sleek brand new TI-55-II. Well, the TI-55-II was a complete piece of crap. On mine, the “7” key in particular was sticky to the point of rendering the thing unusable. Besides, I saw a lot of fellow engineering students using the newest HP and I had to have one. Per pressure is mighty powerful.
I sweet talked my folks into laying down some gift money so I could get an HP-41CV, the latest andgreatest calculator in the world until the CX model came out This machine was the workhorse number cruncher for the rest of my college career. The 41 had some quirks. It used size N batteries, which are half the size of AA’s and very hard to find. You know you are in a Nerd Nirvana when you can buy size Ns. I’m not sure Radio Shack even carries them any more.
The hurdle that HP calculator buyers faced was learning Reverse Polish Notation (or RPN). Once the concept behind the system was grokked, converts became missionary in their zeal to spread the word of the superiority of this system. RPN completely changes and reorders the way one looks at a math problem. There is a zen simplicity to manipulating a memory stack that makes other entry methods seem kludgy. To this day, I get befuddled by a standard algebraic calculator because the data entry is so convoluted.
I eventually bought along an HP-11C as a back-up calculator and even taught my wife how to use a HP-12C. For awhile it looked like the 12C might finally let HP make inroads into the general population. The HP-12C with its financial functions became the default calculator for real estate professionals. It showed professionalism and class. I think they also like the gold trim. The rest of the world remained unimpressed.
When my HP-41 bit the dust, I was heart broken. I searched for a replacement and found the HP-32S which was true RPN but lacked many of the advanced functions I had gotten accustomed to. I ended up hunting down a HP-48G which had a four-line display and used RPN notation. RPN entry is my theft prevention device. Younger engineers that have never seen a decent calculator take a look at it and put it down in bewilderment. The absence of an ‘=’ button befuddles them. They just don’t understand. It makes me shake my head in disbelief that someone can get an engineering degree without mastering RPN.
I am so brainwashed into RPN notation, that when I got my Treo phone I was frantic that there was no decent native Windows Mobile RPN program. I eventually used my old PalmOS MathU program with an Palm emulator. It doesn’t look pretty, but it keeps me sane.
Am I a true HP/RPN geek?
I never learned synthetic programming. I never used a calculator serial port as a data acquisition tool. I have never downloaded a program (even though somewhere I have a cable to do it with). But to know I could have done these things if I wanted to is enough. Not unexpectedly, there are a lot of web pages devoted to vintage calculators, both HP and TI.
Hewlett Packard has lost the Calculator Wars. Texas Instruments with its graphing calculators moved into the middle school and high school market and overtook the hearts and minds of impressionable algebra and trig students. My son has a whole draw full of TI-83s and 89s and who knows what else. The power of Excel and the ubiquity of laptop computer make all the advanced functions of a true scientific calculator obsolete.
I feel like on of my professor that lamented the loss of slide rules. To him, a slide rule was a badge of honor to be wore on a belt. A phallic symbol that showed you were a true engineer. A craftsman is known by his tools. I may never use anything much more complicated than the square root key, but I continue to use my HP with pride. Like a badge of honor.
BlatantCommentWhoring™:What are the tools of your trade?