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The Last Calculator You’ll Ever Need

Hewlett-Packard's HP-41CV.

Hewlett-Packard’s HP-41CV.

Okay, I admit, this is a weird one. You know how sometimes you wake up thinking about that nonsensical dream you just had, that project you need to start into today, why your child gags on cooked peas, or why it’s important to not get audited by the IRS this year? You have your own list. Me, I woke up today realizing that I’ve been using the same calculator almost daily since 1980, with hardly a thought. No dead keys, no quirky keys, no popping apart, no worn away markings. Except for the sturdy coat of dust from being left out forever, it looks and acts the same as when it was new. Then again, it should. Why? Two reasons.

First, it cost somewhere over $800 in 1980 dollars. Think that’s a lot? Today, that would be $2,300. Memory was horrendously expensive, among other things, and the HP-41CV had plenty of it. In 1975, I’d gotten the earlier HP-65, the first magnetic card-programmable handheld calculator made. That listed at $795, and wasn’t much less going across the table in those days. The HP-41 added a bunch of tech stuff, including the ability to work with letters as well as numbers.

Who cares? Well, not being math-minded, my job with a bottle manufacturing company was to design new plastic bottles in a field office, and make damn sure that the volume of product they held would turn out to be within specs. An error here would be extremely costly and invoke a large time penalty. As Computer-Aided Design obviously didn’t exist then, the way to do this was to draw the bottle on paper. Then, if it was anything other than round, create sectional views of it at strategic points, drawing them with insane accuracy. Trace each of those sections – again, accurately – with a planimeter. With the help of calculation, a planimeter can measure surface area in square inches. Given a workable wall thickness of the plastic, interior volume could be accurately calculated.

This process got old fast when using a slide rule, and the whole point of having a design engineer out in a field office was to get the end result faster than the usual home office grapevine process. A calculator would help. A programmable calculator like the HP-65 would mean the end of sawing your way down a long and tedious printed formula by hand. It simply waited for your little data inputs. An alphanumeric calculator like the HP-41 meant that any programmed prompts for entering data could literally be spelled out instead of merely waiting with mystery codes in the display. It was the difference between “05” and “Enter Radius”. Given the wire-bound programming guide that came with it, even I could program the thing. Remarkable. Considering the whole of what it was capable of and all that could attach to it, it was the bleeding edge. Hell, the astronauts in the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz test project stowed a -65 on board just in case the craft’s Apollo guidance computer puked. See the gold markings shown in the photo below? If you don’t want those, you can change their function to whatever it is you want, complete with a clip-in keyboard overlay to relabel them.

Not too many starving students owned these, but businesses could afford them.

Not too many starving students owned these, but businesses could afford them.

Second, it was designed by Hewlett-Packard to their standards at the time. That basically meant no compromises to lower cost, if reliability or usability would be compromised. If you’re tapping keys a lot of the day, every day, what happens to your keys? Well, back then, the decoration identifying them wore off, and you’re remembering what used to be what. HP used double-injection molding, making the “marking” pass all the way through the key. Take a file to it and scuff off the top surface, and it stays just as readable. The keyboard is coffee-proof, and its contacts are designed for constant use. HP, started in 1935, had made their reputation on laboratory equipment that was cost-effective and seemingly lasted forever, and this new calculator line was simply an extension of that. Some 35 years later, my example is still drama-free.

That’s good, because I can’t go back to common calculators. That’s because the HP line used RPN, or Reverse Polish Notation, to key in entries. Huh? It’s like this. When you key in 2+4-2= on your own calculator, you hit “2 + 4 – 2 =” to get the end result. RPN uses no “=” key. You key in your first two numerical entries and then hit the function key you want. From then on, you key in the next number, then the next function to carry out. Here, that dictates “2 (enter) 4 + 2 -“. It sounds awful, yes. But when you’re having to saw your way through complex formulas, you key them in pretty much the same way you would approach them if you had to do them with pencil and paper. End result, I actually find RPN simpler for me to do, and now can’t borrow someone else’s calculator if I don’t want to get lost and screw up several times. Similarly, no one else can borrow my HP and have any idea of what they’re doing. Once I’m pushing up daisies, my beloved HP will likely wind up in the same landfill, no doubt still fully workable until the batteries finally give out years later.

That same “Lab” approach spawned PC designs which bristled with professional-use features. At a time when home-use computers required new cooling fans and power supplies every few years, and removal of the case to get at the innards was a clumsy affair made much more difficult in horsing it back together, I had a couple of used HP dual-processor Vectras. They weighed a ton, since the chassis was a serious, braced affair with internal ductwork and a built-in adaptability that eliminated the need to use up valuable slot spaces with add-on adapter boards. Forget screwdrivers. Everything meant to be serviceable internally was held by thumbscrews, complete with well-thought-out hand access for everything. No awkward prying, no sliced skin. The case popped off by releasing two pull handles, and it was stiff enough that putting it back into place required no realigning of floppy sheet metal. Closing the handles cinched it tight again. Because I was used to current computers, I’d also picked up a lot of spare parts for these two Vectras to keep them going, since they were now so cheap. In computer terms, I was ready for WWIII. Turns out, that was money (very little money) mostly wasted – they just kept idling away, 24/7, as Internet servers in my basement.

And again, that approach was used when HP first introduced their line of inkjet printers. I had a clunky old early-’90s HP black and white inkjet unit right up until I hit the road in 2012 and had to cart it to Goodwill, doing my best to not tear up at the bitter irony. I’ve owned lots of inkjet printers, fighting clogs and paper feed problems hand-to-hand. HP, Epson, Canon. Despite the sharper, faster results and color output, they were finicky junk – even HP’s later upscale offerings when they went consumer. The least reliable have been the most expensive ones. Meanwhile, when I had to get something on paper, hooking up the ignored old antique once more always got me results. If I’d had the space for a backup printer in the Defiant, Old Reliable would still be with me today.

Like so many companies in the New Economy, the unrelenting pressure of stockholders for short-term profits has completely changed Hewlett-Packard’s approach to products. And Epson’s. And Canon’s. As with most products today, you must now ignore the verbiage and scour the reviews to try to identify not the best, but the least awful model. But this morning’s wakeup was nice, in its own excessively geeky way. The -41 is always at my left hand on my office desk, waiting and ready to deliver the bad news about my financial status. But, I guess dedicated calculators are much like wristwatches and cellphone belt clips today – they’re a sign of no longer staying current in trends. Much like myself, the old -41 is a product of its time and place, and I’m content with that.

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13 thoughts on “The Last Calculator You’ll Ever Need

  1. AND! You never lost it in all your moves! As anyone my age knows – “they just don’t build ’em that way anymore”

    • …since almost no one would buy them, I figure. The consumer mindset is its own punishment, sometimes.

      By the way Pam, I’ve treated this calculator with the same priority as bank account paperwork. During a move between living quarters, it stays with me. Now, in the Defiant, all it needs to do is stay put. It’s now the house that moves, not me!

  2. Hey Doug I started college in 1976 at Va. Tech without a calculator. After 2 weeks I admitted that I either needed a hi tech calculator or else drop out of college. I got a Texas Instruments and I started passing exams! It cost about a hundrrd dollsts new. It was not the highly programmable one.

    Bill n Sadie plus Mic

    • I hear ya, Bill! Texas Instruments simply owned the engineering students, and math, too. After all, what normal human is going to want to program a calculator with custom formulas, pump up memory, plug in printers, barcode readers, tape recorders, floppy drives, video displays, or connect to computers? Just the weirdos in research labs and such, who already had HP lab equipment and wanted to improve their processes. I simply realized that I was likely to eventually screw up doing the several formulas I needed, and felt that an automated procedure would save my bacon, at the least. Hey, it wasn’t my money!

  3. Another camper gave me an HP 12c last year. I believe it is from the same genre as your beloved HP calculator, or perhaps even an earlier version? Since I had been used to using the new type of calculators, my beginning with this calculator was distressing to say the least. But I liked the idea of how the math work in the HP, so I was determined to figure it out. I find that I will use it more often than the old Texas TI-30XIIS that I already had. Now that I’ve gotten used to the HP, I don’t like going back to the old…well let me rephrase that. I don’t like going back to the new math types anymore because they confuse my mathmetic world as well.

    I still have the Texas and I keep it in the same spot as my wonderful HP for two reasons. Every once in awhile my brain will short circuit and I can’t remember how to use my HP, so I will pick up the Texas and totally confuse myself. That is when the paper and pencil will ome out. Then, of course, there’s always a time when somebody wants to borrow a calculator. I always give them the Texas because I know my beautiful HP would confuse their world as well! 🙂

    I doubt that I will ever use, need or even be able to figure out all of the functions on this beautiful little calculator, but I really like having it and knowing that it will last longer than I will! 🙂

    • Yep, Rachel. Turns out, the 12C is an HP for financials, and is much newer at 1981-on. Wave it proudly in camp. It’s actually the most popular and longest-in-production of all HP calculators. It’s still in production today, albeit with mods several times since then, since it has become the de facto standard for financial pros. Small and flat like typical calculators, it uses the same keypad technology as the big boys. It too is still serious overkill for balancing a checkbook, because it is also programmable, with the same 99-line limit as mine. It will likewise outlive us all, no doubt, and the batteries are much easier to find locally. If you get bored and want to become more so, I just found its User Guide here. The back of it has a sizable bunch of solutions to common financial and statistical problems, which can be used straight or keyed in to create a program that stays available for use. From what I read, it can do conditional branching and looping, and store multiple programs. But it isn’t alphanumeric, so it won’t prompt you for info with words.

      • “But it isn’t alphanumeric, so it won’t prompt you for info with words.”

        I am actually glad to hear that! If my calculator started writing to me, I do believe I would be a little concerned!

        Speaking of being concerned, there is a word that you used that I am not familiar with.

        Bored. As in, boredom? Hmmm.

        Main Entry: boredom
        Part of Speech: noun
        Definition: disinterest; weariness
        Synonyms: apathy, detachment, disgust, distaste, doldrums, dullness, ennui, fatigue, flatness, incuriosity, indifference, irksomeness, jadedness, lack of interest, lassitude, lethargy, listlessness, monotony, pococurantism, sameness, taedium vitae, tediousness, tedium, tiresomeness, unconcern, world-weariness, yawn

        As one who is unfamiliar with the state known as boredom, and when one considers the definition or the synonyms of said word, that is hardly the way to entice me to go and check out that site! Lol.

        Now fatigue, that state is something that I am definitely familiar with. However, I never associated it with the word ‘boredom’ because even in an exhaustion so deep that it is tanglble, there can be beauty and simple pleasures. Naps, a soft bed, afternoon breezes, a big shade tree, to name a few of the favorites that I associate with the word fatigue.

        Now that we have dealt with the nonsense and since I have already enjoyed the challenge of trying to figure this calculator out on my own, I am delighted to know there is a site that I can go to to figure out the rest of it.

        By the way, I had already looked at the back of it, but I have yet to purchase the magnifying glass, that will be required, for these ole eyes to be able to read that tiny little print! 😉

        • I suspect that if you have the time to look up the exhaustive meaning of bored, Rachel, you must be bored. However, the big plus is that now I can occasionally pout, “Oh, I’m just feeling a little pococurantistic this eventide.” Awesome! That oughta stun a few campers here. Thanks!

  4. Linda Sand on said:

    I come from a 10-key world where you type the + or – after you input the number. I remember trying to learn to use the new calculators. It was hard to do. I miss my old 10-key. I never had a scientific calculator but I remember Dave having a TI one. I bet he still has it in a drawer somewhere.

    • I’m not aware of TI ever offering any RPN model, but that’s not saying much, Linda. Still, it’s pretty likely that if Dave coughs up his old TI, you won’t be any happier. Since RPN is more like thinking through math than reading through math (to me), getting handed a typical calculator is like receiving a Klingon translation book. You’ll get there eventually, but it may be disconcerting at times, and you’ll likely have to run through it several times from the start if you don’t want to get punched.

  5. Dennis on said:


    I used to work with you……..I KNOW WHY that calculator is in such good shape…. 🙂

    • Yep Dennis, which makes the phrase “work with you” invalid. You worked. I napped under my desk. Then when I awoke, I watched you work, unless it was lunchtime of course.

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