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Landing on the moon never impressed me

Posted by D. Banks on 12 Feb 2001, 10:25 a.m.

I grew up with slide rules and books of tables. Yeah, maybe I was the only one in 6th grade that knew how to use either, but by the time I got to high school, they were very useful skills. Every once in a while, one of us could sneak up to the front of the chem lab and steal some time on the big nixie-tube 4-banger, but otherwise, calculators pretty much didn't exist.

Then HP changed my world. Back in '69, when we got pictures of people walking on the moon, I wasn't impressed. Maybe it was all those years of 2001, Buck Rogers and everything else, but it just seemed like moon walks were inevitable. What I wasn't prepared for, what science fiction didn't tell me was coming, was the HP-35.

I remember reading about it in '72 in a Poptronics issue. I was enough of a computer geek already to understand (and prefer) RPN. This was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen in my life. The moon thing may not have surprised me, but this sure did.

I mean, I had this slipstick that was good to maybe three digits, and I had these books of tables that were good to maybe six, but here was a device that could do 10 digits. Ok, maybe not so accurately in the case of the original 35s, but still. Ten digits.

And, it could fit in your pocket, for large values of "pocket." This thing was totally amazing. Yeah, $400 was a lot of money then, but I'd expected it to cost more on the order of $1000, especially considering what lesser calculators were going for.

I went off to college in '73, and when I got there, I discovered that nearly the entire campus had already converted to "HPs." By the end of my first semester, I found that a person was at a serious disadvantage on the exams if they only had a slide rule. Fortunately, it was easy to borrow a 35 for an exam.

In the classroom, there was always a very distinctive sound when a professor would put a problem on the board. It was the sound of 30-40 velcro belt packs being ripped open.

For the little time I was at that college, HPs ruled. Even when the high end TIs came out, HPs were considered the real deal, and anyone who didn't have one was to be pitied. The college bookstore ordered them by the truckload, and buying one meant going down to the bookstore and getting one's name put on a list. And one particularly memorable HP demo that the bookstore used was to throw one across the room to prove its durability.

In the spring of '74, I managed to talk my parents into getting me a 45. Lucky, I guess. What a great machine that was. I learned every aspect of it, and even tripped over the timer, which I discovered by fiddling with the power switch.

The 45 lasted me until 1980. By then, the battery pack was long gone, and I learned, one horrible day, that the calculator could indeed be damaged if operated by wall wart alone.

I first considered starting a collection back when the woodstocks were coming out, and I saw the classics being heavily discounted on closeout. I didn't buy anything at the time because I was barely making enough money to survive. Later, around 1987, I really did start my collection, and one of my first acquisitions was a working 45. I remember that at the time, everyone I knew thought I was crazy for collecting those things. After all, who ever heard of collecting calculators?

And now, nearly 3 decades after the original release of the HP-35, I still think it's the most impressive bit of technology of the 20th century.

Of course, the 45 is still my favorite; I was just playing with one the other night.


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