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Car Trek XVI -- The Search for the HP-16C

Posted by Wayne Brown on 2 Apr 2000, 10:22 p.m.

My love affair with the HP-16C began about 1988-89. Up till then, I had used a TI calculator that did basic math and number-base conversions, and not much else. Then I was assigned to interface a UNIX system to a network of Honeywell process-control computers. This involved a lot of time with a data scope, analyzing bit patterns and calculating checksums, etc. One of my colleagues (a mainframe systems programmer) offered to loan me a calculator that he said was much better suited to the job - an HP-16C. From the first moment I picked it up, I knew there was something special about it. At the time, I was providing application and systems programming support for several HP minicomputers, and already had come to appreciate Hewlett-Packard engineering. This, however, was my first exposure to an HP calculator. The solid feel, the beautifully laid out and labeled keyboard, the sleek lines all said "Quality." I had intended to use it for nothing more than hex and binary arithmetic, but I soon found the bit shifting and masking functions, as well as the variable word size, to be exactly what I needed. Before long, I had learned to use its programming capabilities in a myriad of ways. It was clear that I had to have one of my own.

I called our HP account manager - a man who had never let me down before - to see how quickly I could get one. What he told me was very disconcerting; the 16C had been discontinued! He said he'd do what he could, but doubted he'd be able to find one for me. I called every HP CE (Customer Engineer) and technician I knew, but no one could give me any pointers to finding a 16C. The only suggestion anyone had was that maybe I could find a store somewhere that still had one on the shelf or tucked away in a back room. Thus began my year-long search for the elusive beast.

I drove to stores all over Mississippi and Alabama, checking with anyone who carried HP merchandise. Several times I came close - one store had the entire Voyager series EXCEPT the 16C, another had just sold their last one, still another listed it in their catalog but turned out to have none in stock. I had almost given up hope, when I found one more possibility - a bookstore at Mississippi State University. I had already checked the MSU campus bookstore, but I discovered there was an off-campus bookstore that did a lot of business with the students. So I went there and asked, and was not surprised when the sales clerks said they'd never heard of it. However, they invited me to look though their stock, and behold, in a dark, dusty corner of a display case, almost buried under newer merchandise, was a faded 16C box. It had been in the display case for so long that the part which was exposed to light was now several shades lighter than the rest of the box. Inside was a pristine 16C whose serial number showed it to have been manufactured in 1982. The clerks figured it must have been there, forgotten, for at least six or seven years. There was a price tag on it, but they had no idea if it was correct for such an old item; so, they gave it to me at a discount. I carried it home as if it were a twenty-carat diamond.

That was about 10 years ago. My 16C has a few nicks and scratches now, but it's still as beautiful as ever. None of the key labels have faded or rubbed off, and the display is still clear and sharp. It works as well as ever, too. Just the other day, I changed the batteries, for only the second time since I've owned it. (I've never seen any device get the kind of mileage out of batteries that this thing does.) I carry it in my briefcase or pocket every day, and have a small collection of programs I've written to do little jobs over the years - everything from calculating hardware addresses for HP 3000 DRT (Device Resource Table) entries, to doing metric conversions for the table saw in my home workshop. I can't use an algebraic calculator any more; RPN is hardwired into my brain now, and I always press the keys in the wrong order on non-RPN calculators. My 16C calculates my taxes, guides me through hex and octal dumps, balances my checkbook. The wife and kids have gone through several calculators over the years, but my 16C is still going strong. It's been a faithful friend, and I have no doubt that it will continue to serve me well for years to come.


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