Thursday, July 12, 2012

STEM, RPN, and Market Forces

There was a time when giants walked the Earth. Giants who were into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or what today is known as STEM. Giants who landed men on the moon and brought them back. And when those giants needed to solve some problems, problems so hard they couldn't just solve them in their heads (which were mighty problems indeed), they pulled out their trusty Hewlett Packard calculators and made mysterious incantations in what is known as Reverse Polish Notation or RPN.

HP made an entire line of domain-specific calculators just as today we have domain-specific programming languages, calculators designed for specialized job functions. Here are three of them that I own and still use on a regular basis.

Hewlett Packard 11C Scientific Calculator

The 11C is a scientific and engineering calculator. It features all the usual logarithmic,  trigonometric, and exponential functions. It's programmable: you can save sequences of steps, including iteration and conditional expressions, to calculate long equations automatically. If you took science and engineering courses in high school or college, this calculator would have been your faithful servant. You can even use it to balance your check book.

Hewlett Packard 12C Financial Calculator

The 12C is a financial calculator. It computes depreciation, loan amortization, and net present value (NPV), stuff I actually have to do now and then on those occasions when I have to put on my management hat. It also does a bunch of stuff that I know little or nothing about, but the MBAs who read my blog (remarkably, there are one or two) will recognize. You can tell this calculator was meant for guys on Wall Street because it's metal trim is gold instead of silver. No, I'm not kidding.

Hewlett Packard 16C Programmer's Calculator

The 16C is a programmer's calculator. It handles calculations in decimal (base ten), hexadecimal (base sixteen), and octal (base eight). The ability to do octal arithmetic will be appreciated by my old comrades from my PDP-11 days, since that minicomputer insisted on organizing everything in three-bit units to match the fact that it had a whopping big set of eight registers. The 16C handles logical operations like and, or, and exclusive-or, bit shifts and rotations, and both one's and two's bit complement. These are the kinds of calculations you routinely do when you do the kind of work I do. I use my 16C on nearly a daily basis.

People will tell you that the software calculator they have on their laptop or tablet is just as good as these old HP calculators. Those people are wrong. What they really mean is that once in a while they have to add numbers bigger then they can do in their head, and the little calculator that came on their Windows or Mac laptop suffices. I use those calculators too, and will even admit that the Calculator program found in the Applications directory on Mac OS X (not the dumb as a brick calculator widget) is actually pretty good. I once had an excellent calculator utility on my Palm Pilot for which I paid real money; it emulated an HP calculator right down to the colors, shape, and placement of the buttons. But for the most part, calculator software applications seem more like someone's freshman computer science project. When the going gets tough, the tough scientists and engineers get out their HP calculators and start slinging RPN.

Or at least, they used to. I use my 16C so often that it occurred to me that maybe for not too much money I could own two of them, one to keep in my office at home and one to keep in the briefcase I take to client sites. After some web perusal what I discovered is guys like me (both in age and profession) paying ridiculous prices for used HP 16C calculators on eBay. The cheapest one I saw today was US$71, the most expensive US$389. Three hundred and eight-nine dollars! They've become fraking collectors' items!

I immediately turned around in my office chair and put all three of my HP calculators in my floor safe.

But I don't mean to imply that you can't buy any of these calculators new. HP still manufactures one of them, and it looks exactly like mine that is pictured above. Can you guess which one?

If you guessed the 12C financial calculator, then you probably have some insight into what all the fuss is about when people express concern that not enough students are majoring in STEM-related fields. Seriously. The fact that HP, once the premiere manufacturer of scientific and engineering calculators, now just makes one of these little shirt pocket sized marvels for those folks with a business school background tells you something about how they see the market for their products.

To be fair, HP does make some pretty nice looking larger models; I find the 35s scientific calculator to be kind of sexy, and it still supports RPN. But I don't see anything even remotely like my beloved 16C. I'm guessing those Java developers with their new fangled multi-core servers and their fancy sixty-four bit addressing just don't need to do hexadecimal arithmetic anymore.

I hate how I sound when I get this way. Hey, you kids! Get off my lawn! I blame Congress.


Craig Ruff said...

There is active development of hardware still taking place today for some of the more advanced HP calcs. The 41C/CV/CX line is a popular one for extension with more memory and even a complete CPU replacement (the Systemyde 41CL with variable turbo mode up to 50x the original clock rate). My 16C sits on my desk, and I have a 48SX emulator on my iPhone that I use.

Bob Nye said...

I still love the 16C. When I got my first Palm device one of the apps that I really liked was a 16C emulator program. HP calculators were the pinnacle!

Chip Overclock said...

Yep, I had the same emulator on my Palm, and I really miss it. (My various Palm handhelds were still better overall organization tools than my BlackBerry, my iPad, or my Samsung Android tablet.)

It's funny, I think this article has generated more comments (including on Facebook and Google+) than any other article I've written for this blog. People _really_ loved their HP calculators, and a few of us still use them.