Monday, July 11, 2005

HP Calculator cult

Although I hardly use a calculator anymore, I hadn't realized how I had been immersed in the HP calculator cult until mine broke. The first time I used an RPN (reverse polish notation for those not in the know) calculator was at an exam at MIT. I forgot my calculator and I asked the student next to me if I could you theirs. I've seen these weird landscape shaped calculators before, but I had never used one. I was totally confounded by the fact that I couldn't get it to work at all!! I thought, why are these so popular when they don't even work? Plus there was a math professor that kept showing his graphing HP calculator off during lectures, which simply bored us poor folks who didn't have one. Sometime after that experience, I was explained the virtues of RPN, but wasn't convinced to get one until I worked at Dorr-Oliver (so when I was around 23). It was a cheap $50 32SII, not the 2 line 42S, or the classic 11C or 15C. It was new looking, portrait shaped, but most importantly RPN. Plus I wanted the base (hex and binary) capabilities.

So I was completely surprised when a co-worker stopped at my cube a few years ago and said, "I'll give you $50 for that calculator." I said, "What? No way!!" He said, "OK, $100." I said, "Are you crazy? This is not even a classic!" He explained to me that even my generation of calculator was worth a lot of money. Of course I loved my calculator too much to sell it. Still, I just left it lying on my desk (I would know who stole it was if it went missing) collecting dust. Unfortunately, I think the dust did it in. The + and - keys (essential!!) stopped working consistently and eventually the whole left column worked intermittently. I was devastated!! I did some looking on the web and conferred with my HP expert friend (who has no less than 20 calculators in his personal collection) and found some bad news about fixing it yourself:

http://www.hpmuseum.org/disasm.htm :
Most of the newer models including the Pioneers, the Champion/Clamshells and the 48 series are not designed to be disassembled. It's very likely that disassembling one will leave you with junk! If you feel compelled to disassemble one anyway, you generally start by carefully removing the metal keypad plate. You can use a hair dryer to warm and soften the adhesive and you must proceed slowly and carefully to avoid bending. (It's unlikely that you will be able to restore this plate to its exact original condition.) Too much heat can damage the calculator. Then carefully drill off the tops of the heat-stakes. On reassembly, you may be able to remelt some of the heat-stake remains, or use glue or tiny screws. It's essential on most models for the two halves to be held together firmly and this can be difficult to achieve.

Yikes!! Finally, I decided to send it off to these guys for repair: http://www.fixthatcalc.com/. Hopefully $43 will be worth the investment. These calculators are going around $100-$200 on eBay now. Here is more info from them:

http://www.fixthatcalc.com/history.htm :
From its inception, the units were never designed to be opened for service. They are held together with heat fused plastic rivets that are very difficult to defeat. Being repairable was not part of the design, as it was for a low cost, but rugged calculator. We specialize in the "unrepairable" ones, which includes the following models:
The Pioneers
Scientific models: 20S,22S,27S,32S,32Sii,42S


I barely considered the nasty looking HP 33s RPN replacement. What are they thinking?

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

How does one define a generation change? In engineering it's the calculator.

First, the slide rule. Guru's sware by these. Then the RPN calculator. The bane of my existance. Then the TI series. Finally, a calculator Gen Y'ers can use.

In high school, we were loaned really cheap, solar powered TI series calculators. That was my first calculator experience. No doubt, TI gave the calculators to school in hopes that students would get used to using them.

When it came time Freshman year to purchase a graphing calculator, I purchased a TI-83. What a machine! Any calculator you can play Tetris on is the calculator for me. Granted that probably lowered my GPA by .25 points, but what the heck, life's short.

So my first coop job comes around and at work one day I ask to borrow someone's calculator. They present me an HP RPN. I realize quickly that I'm out of my league, and very am embarrassed when everyone realizes I don't know how to operate an RPN calculator. My embarrassment turns to boredom as I listen to the them ramble on about how great HP calculators and RPN are.

At least they've been in my position, listening to old timers talk about their slide rules, which, I admit I have never seen, used or even considered using.

So my senior year, a fellow student and friend of mine comes to class with a TI-95 I believe. It has a QWERTY keyboard and more buttons than I could ever know what to do with. He loves it because he can program his study answers into it, it can do calculus and has all kinds of other features.

Now a divergent rant.

So now I'm in grad school with the same student. Come to find out, this student can't integrate, derivate or really even add in his head. He'll ask his calculator to perform some calculus tasks, and just accept with blind faith it's answer, which has been wrong EVERY time (no doubt, do to the user's input or its capabilites being over estimated).

Truely, technology has made students more lazy, stupid and imcompetant. (I'm not sure if I spelled that right, but spell check will fix).

RPN calculators seem illogical, but when you want to add a bunch of numbers, doesn't it seem more efficient to punch in the number, then select add, instead of hitting the plus sign 19 times.

That brings us to the current generation of students in school, with their laptops. Excel and MathCAD are the new calculators. I'm sure their users will no doubt groan about listening to me talk about my 24kb TI-83.

I'd like to suggest that NO calculators be allowing during exams. Engineers should be able to perform calculus operations on napkin, that's what separates engineers from mathematicians.

Only after the fundamentals are learned, should students be given a slide rule, an RPN calculator, a graphing TI calculator and a laptop with MathCAD, in that order, so they can understand the importance of knowing how to do math correctly, so that they can recongize junk answers when they see them.

I forget my user name and password, so I'll just say that Jeff L. wrote this.

I need to go calm down now! :-)

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