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JPL Meets the HP-35

Posted by Dan Bathker on 2 Apr 2000, 10:04 p.m.

In June of 1971 Dr. Barney Oliver, then longtime Chief Engineer of HP, lately deceased, had volunteered to lead a joint Stanford University / NASA Ames Research Center study conducted at NASA Ames near Palo Alto-Sunnyvale California. Notable academics and engineers spent an intensive summer studying the prospects for discovering extraterrestrial life, by listening to microwave radiation using a huge dish antenna system on the Earth surface. I was privileged to have been invited to spend a day up at Ames describing the large sensitive NASA Deep Space tracking antennas developed for NASA by Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena California.

Dr Oliver (Barney to all he dealt with) was an outgoing, encouraging and gregarious type person as many know. He seemed to enjoy being a student of human nature as well as an eminent engineer. His final presentation of study results given later that summer was very exciting to a large audience assembled at Ames and consisting of scientists, engineers, government sponsors and a few news people. Later still, a final report was published entitled "Project Cyclops" with the all-seeing one-eyed giant from Greek mythology analogy being clear.

A month or so later (September or October 1971) Barney paid a visit to JPL. He was particularly fascinated with our large sensitive antennas used to track weak spacecraft signals from deep space. Three or four of us antenna engineers conducted Barney around our "campus" and labs discussing technology directions. Towards the end of the day Barney reached deep into his jacket, searched around, smiled broadly as he was given to doing and s-l-o-w-l-y pulled out a sparkly-new HP-35, winked and said, "Gentlemen, I just happen to have a little something here to show you".

You might imagine our responses. Prior to that, small "pocket' calculators were known, but were 4-function and with limited calculation (accuracy) and poor display ranges. Here was (essentially) a pocket calculator that did trig, logs, exponentials and more and even more importantly did extremely large and extremely small numbers (10-to-the-plus/minus 99th power if I recall correctly). It was a professional engineers' dream, lying there in the palm of my hand. It was like a very pretty genie just popped out of a magic bottle and announced "I'm here to solve your number problems from here on out, anytime, anywhere, and with greater accuracy and ease than you've ever imagined in your wildest dreams." Besides the attention-getting math capabilities, the product design in terms of human factors (button size, that incredible tactile quality and the obvious manufacturing refinements) were most impressive. It was a genie indeed. As we ooh'ed and aah'ed the little jewel, Barney just sat back, enjoying the scene as he had probably done before, and planned to do in the near future with other potential users. He was obviously very proud of what HP had produced.

Barney just smiled as he observed our reactions. He was being the student of human nature, and loving every moment of it. He seemed to know HP had a success-in-the-pipeline. As I recall, it was the next January (1972) that HP advertisements were released. For many years the old '35's served their owners well. To this day I use my 20 + year-old '65 on a daily basis, caring and gently feeding that (4th) fussy rechargeable battery as I would for any pretty genie, including my powerful old chevy el camino of the same vintage.


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