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Reactivating an old HP87

Posted by Fred Ellers on 8 Apr 2000, 3:55 p.m.

Here are a few thoughts that may be helpful to anyone else interested in reactivating an HP87 system. The big problem is that the 5 1/4 inch HP87 floppy drive is entirely different than the same drive for the PC so all the programs and data that were developed by the user in the early 1980's cannot be recovered (so far as I know) except by reactivating the HP87. In my case at least it has turned out that the floppy drive is the Achilles Heel since it has the most mechanical movement and HP stopped supporting or repairing it in the mid 1980's. The HP87 it's self was designed to be totally quiet with no moving parts or fans and based upon the two units I have owned was built to last a lifetime.

At the time I bought the HP87, Hewlett Packard did not have a hard drive for this unit but one was being offered by Bering which I added. It bombed out in rather short order, was repaired once by Bering and is now in storage with no thought of being used in the future. With the floppy and the hard drive out of service everything has to be keyed into the HP87 which turns it into an oversize calculator. None of the programs written for it can be read or used.

A little background which may have been shared by others may be helpful. I retired as an mechanical engineer with an engineering and construction company in 1982 with no background in programming and only a casual contact with those who did that kind of work in our company. At the advice of a fellow engineer, Bob Custer, I bought an HP87 system including the plotter and printer and started out with the really excellent HP87 operators manual to write all my own programs. In particular I was delighted with the rich graphics language that came embedded in the computer and that is in fact my main reason for trying to reactive the HP87 system.

After retiring from Bechtel, I took on some consulting assignments related to the North Sea oil fields and made an initial draft on the HP87 of an article for the Scientific American on these platforms which finally came out as a lead article in the April 1982 issue. During this time I bought a critical path project program for the HP87XM named CPERT and had the programmer expand it to 625 tasks which as I recall took about 3 hours time to run on the HP87 so long as I kept up with the paper feed to the printer. This was in the development phase of the Oseberg Platform and as part of a consulting assignment to Norsk Hydro in Norway.

Other special applications included an artificial intelligence program for evaluating gold mines in the East Belt of the California Mother Lode (essentially a shrinking down of a Stanford Research Program oriented to evaluating world wide mining projects) and a geophysical data processing program to read, evaluate and plot the VLF carrier signals used to contact nuclear submarines. All of these were undertaken more as hobby rather than with any real expectation of making any money and that in fact is the way things turned out. None of the above programs can be run on anything but the HP87. In the years since the HP87 was operational I have upgraded to a new PC every three or more years but every time I have started to develop a PC version of the old HP87 programs, I miss the HP graphics language that was built into that first computer and besides I no longer have the time or patience to learn a new language..

Anyway several months ago, I ran an ad for the HP87 floppy drive, an 82901m and got a response for an as new unit for around $100. After getting all the equipment operational, I found that I had depended on my memory too much in running the old programs mentioned above and had to reread the hard copy and go back to the various HP manuals but as of now everything is working and I sit back and listen to the old plotter clacking away and the printer spilling paper all over the floor and think how satisfying it was, and is, to have participated in what was very close to the first real deck top computer.

One other thing this exercise did was lead me to browse the want ads and the HP forum on old calculators which have proven to be very interesting experiences and which I would not otherwise have known about.

And that's the way I ended up using the HP forum as part of the reactivating the old HP87.


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