Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Nerd Tools

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?


Harmonica Man said...

All I want to know is... what kind of tape did you use to keep your glasses together - masking or cellophane?

Dave2 said...

My dad had an HP-97 programmable which had those little "mag-card" strips that you could store your programs on. For the day, it was pretty darn impressive, though I could never get the hang of RPN and ended up with a TI myself.

DemetriosX said...

My father gave me a TI SR-56 for my birthday senior year in high school. Not bad and it did it's job most of the time. Freshman year in college, though, it let me down big time. Big chemistry test and the thing was dead. It had a tendency to switch itself on in the case.

After that, I always took my father's old slide rule along as backup/talisman. But it had the drawback of attracting professors who would come over and play with it while I was trying to take their stupid test.

Anyway, the next summer I scraped together the cash to get an HP 41-C. $140 if I remember correctly, which is like $500 today. Eventually, most of the guys I played RPGs with got one too and we went all out writing routines to calculate experience, carrying capacities, etc. and tweaking out every extraneous byte.

I tried to learn synthetic programming, but I never got anywhere with it. Yanking out the memory card while the calculator was on made me nervous. I still have it around somewhere. God knows if it would work if I found N batteries anywhere. (One friend of mine had to go to great lengths to eliminate a static charge on his once.)

These days I'm a translator, and without the Internet I'd be doomed. I doubt our house could hold all the reference materials we need. But on-line dictionaries, Google and Wikipedia cover a good 90% of my needs.

flasshe said...

This brings back such memories! I too started off as a TI geek until my friends convinced me that HP/RPN was the way to go. I think I still have an HP-41C around the house somewhere, with card-reader and all. My main desk calculator at home is a (smaller) HP with RPN, and I still find it hard to use non-RPN machines.

I'm going to have to get MathU for my Palm TX!

Elizabeth said...

My brother was a TI geek. I remember I was NOT ALLOWED TO TOUCH HIS CALCULATOR! I don't think I was allowed to look at it.
I'm a Deaf Ed. teacher so I always have hearing aid batteries in my pockets and a sign language dictionary stashed in my school bag.

Impetua said...

My better half and I met in college during the year and a half that I tried to be an engineering major. We had the same machine, an HP 48GX. I finally sold mine last year for fifty bucks, not bad since it cost 200 new more than ten years before. The guy who bought it from me told me that it was more powerful than what they used to put a man on the moon... We still have J's machine.

I am a pre-nursing student and currently I have no tools of the trade, but after a while I'll have a stethoscope and a pen around my neck and all that groovy nurse stuff. I'm doing clinicals right now in my CNA class (required for nursing school) and, much to my delight, got to buy my first set of scrubs last week. Yay! Evidently I was born to be a nurse.

Anonymous said...

My boss lost his RPN calculator a few years ago, and searched for weeks on ebay to find the same model. And yes he is an engineer.

Last spring we were cleaning out the storeroom, and sorted through his stack of old briefcases (yes he keeps those) and found the missing unit. He was bowled over with joy. This alone should qualify him as a RPN nerd.


Claude said...

I remember when I was in college that TI made a couple of forays into the PC business, none of which really worked out. I also vaguely remember the computers having compatibility issues with other computers. Go figure.

These days it's my laptop computer that's never far away. It is truly my auxiliary brain.

Mooselet said...

I have to admit that your entire post read something like "calculators... blah blah... calculus... blah blah... geekdom". Sorry, but given I failed calculus in my freshman year of college this is not surprising. :-)

As a nurse - or at least when I worked before small children - Impetua can look forward to the following items in her pockets along with the pens and stethoscope - alcohol wipes, gloves, medicine cups, extra Tylenol, empty pill foils and the occasional syringe and needle. I'd also end up with extra dressings if I'd had a lot of those to do, and plastic pull tabs on the end of IV bags. The cats used to enjoy chasing those about.

2fs said...

And 0.7734 to you too!

yellojkt said...

I am so glad someone caught that.

Mitch McDad said...

I'm still stuck on the abacus.

Anonymous said...

its 2007 and I'm using hp 12c. Not because I bought it 20 years ago, but it is truly an ideal calc for financial purposes... Im 25 and got it from2 months; some of it functions are slow - there is a newer version - hp12c platinum, but why spending more, when hp 12c was still produced in 2004 and you can still buy it for 50 bucks? (after its launch at the beg. of 80s) RPN rules, especially it is Polish, just like me ;-)