Thursday, February 4, 2016

What the 7734?

Anyone who remembers the introduction of handheld calculators to the world in the late 1970s and early 1980s probably recalls learning to spell words with the numbers. Anyone who was in junior high school during that period probably recalls learning to spell curse words with numbers, such as the four digits in the post title. Hint: Turn your computer upside down.

Of course, calculators grew more advanced and specialized, even while the prices came down. There were scientific calculators that did logarithmic functions in addition to basic arithmetic. There were calculators programmed with functions that handled the math used in financial planning, like compound interest calculation.

In 1981, Hewlett-Packard introduced one such model, the HP 12C, which sold for $150. Its list price on today's HP website is $69.99.

Yes, an electronic product first offered 35 years ago is still being sold today -- and it doesn't even work like a regular calculator. By that I mean it's not built so you have to use what's called algebraic notation. That's the kind of entry that would look like an algebra equation when written out. Punching in the old standby "2+2" in order to find that it equals four requires pressing three keys -- one of them twice. For everyday math this doesn't take an excessive amount of time.

But for the more complicated math that accompanies financial planning and market questions, algebraic entry is relatively slow and clumsy compared with the system that the HP 12C is designed to use: Reverse Polish notation (RPN).  A little practice lets someone enter an equation in RPN quite a bit faster and with fewer keystrokes than the standard method, reducing the possibility of hitting a wrong button and improving accuracy.

And this little gem has remained so useful for some financial services people that it's being sold basically unchanged 35 years after being introduced. By contrast, Microsoft released its Vista operating system for purchase in 2007 and ended its mainstream support for the system in 2012 -- giving it an effective life of one-seventh of the HP 12C. Sure, you can't play games on the calculator. But given how crappy a system Vista really was, there were plenty of times you couldn't play games on it, either.


fillyjonk said...

I knew a number of my fellow students in high school and college who bought HP calculators SPECIFICALLY because of the "backwards logic" of them. They maintained that the calculators were less likely to be stolen because so few people could use them.

Also, I remember 5318008 was the big thing people were wanting their calculators to spell, back then.

Friar said...

I suspect vocabulary lists were circulated.