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Only one calculator for me

Posted by Ernie Malaga on 13 Mar 2001, 2:34 p.m.


I have always been fascinated by calculators. In fact, I can't remember a time when I was not. Even as a kid in Lima, Peru, I used to play with mechanical calculators and slide rules. My first encounter with an electronic calculator, however, did not occur until 1971 or '72, when an uncle of mine bought one that could only perform the 4 basic operations and had all of 8 digits in a fluorescent display. It must have been a Casio, and I probably wore out the batteries from playing with it so much. But, feeble as it was, it piqued my interest for these devices. And it made me want to have one myself.

By 1974 I had come across a full-page ad on the local newspaper, featuring the HP-35, 45, 65, and 80. The ad did not mention or even hint how much they were -- and a good thing too, or I would have been discouraged. As it was, I clipped the ad and stared at it often, wondering what all those buttons could possibly be for. I remember, for example, coming to the conclusion that the HP-65's RTN key must be "the memory" because "RTN" probably meant "retain." Boy, was I off-base!

At the time I was 19 and attending one of the local universities, studying to become a chemist. A classmate of mine brought one day a calculator he had, the TI Datamath. It was bulky and very limited, and the battery charge didn't last long, but it was interesting nonetheless and got to play with that one too.

An aunt of mine who lives in Los Angeles offered to give me a calculator as a gift, and asked me what kind would I like. By return mail (international calls were astronomically expensive for me) I candidly mentioned the HP calculators I had seen featured in the newspaper ad, concluding that a 35 or a 45 would be well received. Some time later I received a letter back; she informed me that the prices were prohibitive, but offered to send me a calculator of a different brand instead.

And so she did. I received it a couple of months later. It was a Rockwell calculator, model 262 if memory serves. It was no HP, but it was good enough for my needs back then. No scientific notation, 8 digits only, one memory, fluorescent display, but all the scientific functions I could possibly use in my studies. I was enormously thankful and said so. My mother then made a soft pouch for it. I don't remember if it was because it did not come with one, or because I lost the original.

Of course, now I came across TI's SR-50 and SR-51, and feeling awestruck about the latter. I had to have one. I asked around, and discovered that they were considerably less expensive than equivalent HPs, so perhaps I could afford one someday. That someday was the following year. In late 1975, my father traveled around the U.S. attending training seminars, and I asked him to bring me an SR-51.

He could not do it. When he came back, he handed me an SR-51A instead. Apparently the original model had been discontinued, but I didn't care; the 51A did the same things and looked even better. Now this was a calculator! An astounding array of built-in functions, including linear regression, and 3 memories! I read every page of the manual, pushed every key there was, and really got a lot of mileage out of the machine.

Late in 1976 my father discovered that a classmate of his (from his high school days) owned the company that represented Hewlett-Packard in Lima: Compania Electromedica. By this time my fanaticism with calculators had climbed to new heights, and I collected every leaflet, catalog, and advertisement I came across, comparing features and prices. That's how I discovered the HP-25. I decided that somewhere there was one with my name on it, and it was my moral duty to find it.

Because of my father's friendship with the company's owner, we got a good deal on an HP-25, and I rode home with my prize in a state of complete disbelief -- and delight. By then I had picked up quite a bit of programming skill, having read books on FORTRAN and BASIC, and practicing both whenever I could. This meant that, when I read the Programming section of the manual, I was not a complete neophyte. All I had to do was adapt what I knew to the features offered by the calculator. The manual was in Spanish, of course. In no time at all I wrote several dozen programs for the 25, collecting them in a booklet.

Around this time TI came out with the SR-52 and SR-56, programmables too, and not bad at all. But I decided that, if I ever went for another calculator, it would have to be an HP. Less than a year after buying the 25, HP released the HP-67. Keeping the 25 while buying the 67 was out of the question, so I sold my trusty 25 to a friend; that gave me a good chunk of the money I needed for the more expensive unit.

The problem is that they did not exist in Lima for some reason. A co-worker of my father, who traveled a lot, was approached to find out if he would be willing to buy the machine in Miami and bring it to Lima. He even agreed to let me have the calculator before paying him the whole amount -- which was $450, a huge sum for my family. Then he came back from one of his trips, and he gave me the 67. It was the summer of '77, and I spent days and weeks familiarizing myself with the 67.

I kept that 67 for over two years; that's when the HP-41C appeared, and it was love at first sight. I did not have to find a trusted friend to bring it to me, since now I lived in Los Angeles. My only problem was finding someone who would want my 67. But no matter -- I ordered the 41C and got it in December '79. Then I heard about Richard Nelson and the PPC, and joined the organization. I even had a very small part in the history of the PPC ROM.

Sometime in early 1983 someone broke into the room I was renting in a house and stole many things, including my loved 41C with Time Module and PPC ROM. Not much of a problem, since by then I could afford a 41CX; I bought one and plugged into it the second PPC ROM I received with my order (they were sold in pairs, and a good thing too).

In 1987 I bought an HP-28C and a 32S just because they looked interesting (I was too far gone to show better sense than buying calculators on the spot). Although I studied the 28C's manual with great care, I never really understood the machine well. The 32S was a different thing; this little calculator I really liked. I still have the 28C, and my father now has the 32S. My 41CX is long gone, and with it, the second and last PPC ROM I had. I think I sold the calculator to a friend of mine.

Many years later, in 1997, I broke down and, against my better judgment, bought a 48GX. As it happened with the 28C, I found it extremely hard to understand, and never liked it much. I really missed the 41CX, but there was nothing to replace it. Then, in early 2000, I gave the 48GX to my nephew and bought a 49G for myself.

But the 49G was hate at first sight. Not only it was even more complicated than the 48, but the keyboard was uncomfortably hard and (in my opinion) ill-designed. Heck, it did not even look like an HP. My 49G stayed unused for many months. Then one day I found the MoHPC in the Web, and discovered the Classifieds.

I am indebted to Tom Drewski for trading his HP-41CX for my 49G. I understand that his daughter is in college and using the 49G. As for me, once again I have a calculator I enjoy using, and use it I do. It gives me an odd feeling like... when you go back to an old neighborhood where you grew up and haven't visited for many years. Just looking at the 41CX brings back memories of earlier times.

Now if I could just find a PPC ROM...


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