The little calculator that could

In high school I didn’t know about HP calculators. I don’t think you would even have been allowed to use one, since they were programmable. Never mind the fact that if you were able to program one, math was probably the least of your problems for an exam…

I started out with a Casio FX-80 clone made by Philips, mainly because my grandma worked at Philips so we could get them at a discount. It was large, ugly, and slow.

Then one of my classmates turned up with this tiny, truly pocketable calculator. Not only was it faster than the Philips, it had colorful keys and it retained its memory when you turned it off (which is more convenient than it seems).

A cheap 1980s calculator, the 506P was a tough little machine that never let me down.

A cheap 1980s calculator, the 506P was a tough little machine that never let me down.

I really don’t use it anymore, but after 30 years (and replacing the batteries once in those 30 years) it is still going strong. Here’s a cheap calculator I will never throw out…


HP Current option

So, if you want a scientific RPN calculator but you’re unwilling to pay prime coin for a used device, what options are left? In the early 2000s it meant getting a 33S, developed when HP was led by Carly “why do we employ engineers” Fiorina. I held out as long as possible,  and eventually after clenching my teeth got a butt-ugly HP 33S when it became apparent that there was not going to be a successor any time soon. That was about one month before the HP 35S was announced, it seemed.

The keyboard of the 33S was hardly better than that of ZX Spectrum computer and when I was able to offload the 33 to some dude in Australia I happily did so, to upgrade to the much more classic feeling 35S.

The HP 35S is far from perfect but signalled a return to the design that made HP calculators great.

The HP 35S is far from perfect but signalled a return to the design that made HP calculators great.

What’s great about the 35S, and what’s not great? Great are the slope-fronted keys, just like the classic models. Not great is that the text is printed onto it, unlike the double-shot molded keys of yore, that could not rub off. Ironically, the keys on my (now dead) HP DV7  rubbed off as well, although my 35S is still holding out.

Speaking of keys, when using the calculator in hexadecimal mode the keys labelled H-M are used for entry of A-F. Why the alphabetic keys (for programming) were not simply labelled in rows going up instead of going down (since it is not a Qwerty lay-out it doesn’t really matter anyway) is beyond me. Carly oh Carly, why did you lay off the engineers…

At least the Enter key is large, the calculator is fast and while the “cheat sheet” is missing it does have a ton of conversion functions onboard. I still like the 15C more but it’s an acceptable replacement that found a place at my desk both at work and at home.

The best calculator?

Opinions vary, especially when it comes to calculators. Especially calculators. You can roughly divide humanity, in that respect, in three camps: the righteous HP fans, the TI heretics, and the “I don’t care” pagans. Really? What is there to argue about a calculator? Who cares?

There once was a time where numbers mattered. For most of us that time was high school, and for some of us it was even college. Once you’re working as a professional you quickly discover that real life math is a lot easier than what was taught in college, there’s just a lot more of it. Enter Excel, and we rarely ever need a calculator again. And when we do, well there’s a calculator app on our smartphone, after all.

But the smartphone is small, and there’s no substitute for feedback of real buttons. And then there’s the annoying fact that nearly all modern calculators (real or app-ones) use algebraic entry modes.

Enter the trusted, 1980s vintage Hewlett-Packard 15C. The pinnacle of pocket calculators? The HP 42S was perhaps more advanced and had, in my eyes, a better button layout, but it is very hard to beat the 15C in elegance, size, and attitude.

An American made Hewlett-Packard 15C (made in the first week of 1987)

An American made Hewlett-Packard 15C (made in the first week of 1987)

What is it that I like about this calculator? First of all, the display. Good ole’ LCD segments, instead of dots; much easier on the eyes. Second of all, this is a USA-made calculator in a time when it meant something. It feels about three times as heavy as a modern day, similar sized calculator. Third of all, the horizontal layout may look weird, but it is actually easier to hold than modern-day vertically laid out calculators. And finally, it uses RPN. If you’re unfamiliar with that… You’re forgiven. But once you’ve used an RPN calculator you will never want to go back. What is RPN? I’ll save that for a separate blog post.

A few nice touches on this calculator; first of all, the backside contains a “cheat sheet” with often used unit conversions, used conventions for complex numbers (yes, the HP15C can natively calculate with complex numbers) and a diagram on how to insert the batteries (three SR44 button cells that can power the calculator for years).

The electronics are wrapped inside a sheet with three layers. The middle layer is conductive to protect the electronic against electrostatic charges; the outsides are non-conductive to protect against short-circuiting. The result is a dust resistant solid calculator that is said to be able to survive the electro-magnetic pulse of a nuclear explosion.

Mine was a “mint condition” used calculator that I bought on eBay. The seller did not quite understand the meaning of the word “mint”—the 15C nameplate was missing, and the keys were sticky, but I got it for a very good price so I decided to live with it. The sticky keys were resolved by soaking the calculator in distilled water for a day, and then squeezing a paperclip underneath the keys to remove the gunk. Let it sit for a few days and remove the last moisture with a 15 minute stay in the oven. Yes, these are calculators that laugh at such treatments! It works as new now.