Monday, October 28, 2013

HP calculators live on, small thanks to HP

The first pocket-sized scientific calculator in the world was the HP-35, invented by Hewlett Packard and introduced to the world in 1972. HP literally created the market for handheld scientific calculators. Although many worthy competitors arose, none could match HP's quality, reliability and overall superior design. HP was king of the mountain until Carly Fiorina chose to pull the plug on the calculator division sometime in the 1990s, and ceded the entire market to Texas Instruments.

Carly's excuse at the time was that "calculators are not profitable," which was an outright lie. We won't get into that here. That's water under the bridge. The geniuses who invented such dominant creatures as the HP-12C (the financial calculator that refuses to die), the HP-41 series and the HP-48 series, have moved on to other careers. So has Carly. Around HP, some people still spit after they say her name.

HP calculators have a vast and loyal fan base around the world. Some of those fans were later hired by HP to revive the calculator division, but it was too little, too late, and HP has never reclaimed the market. Like I said, that's a topic for another time, and besides, whining about it won't bring back the glory days.

One of the wisest things HP did, after announcing the dissolution of their calculator division, was release their ROMs into the wild. You can find ROM images, and maybe even source code, for many of HP's calculators online. I believe you can even find source code and emulators for the Saturn and other 4-bit CPUs at the heart of the calculators. (No, I won't include links. Go sniffing for them if you want them.)

Thanks to this wise and generous move by some key players inside HP (see the note at the end), their calculators live on. You can now have an HP calculator app on your iOS or Android device. These emulators work as well as the real things, including support for external storage and printers (on some apps).

My (free) recommendations for iOS: i48 (left) and Graphix48 (right).

My (free) recommendations for Android: Droid48 (left) came first. Droid48sx (right) is a beautiful follow-on product.

go48g is a really sweet alternative to Droid48. And if you're an HP-41 fan, go41c is a beautiful (and free!) HP-41 emulator.

On iOS, youcan also buy i41cx, an HP-41CX emulator.
iPhone Screenshot 1

Once you've made the leap from free calculators to ones you actually spend money on, your whole world opens up. You can get expandable versions of the HP48 and HP41 series. You can get the HP-12c and all of its sideways brethren. And you can get my personal favorite, possibly the best overall scientific calculator HP ever made, the HP-42S. What? You've never heard of the 42S? Well, that's another story for another time.

Wait! Don't spend your money yet! Here's an open-source version of the HP-42S emulator! It doesn't use a single bit of HP's ROM images; it merely duplicates the functionality. (Merely? That's a lot of mere.) For iOS (left) and Android (right).
iPhone Screenshot 1 Free42 - screenshot

Free42 is also available for Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems.

A note about those "key players": The HPers who released all of this code into the wild were not the movers and shakers at the top, who nearly drove this once-great company into the ground. They were a tiny number of HP engineers and engineering managers with a combination of passion, integrity and vision that is seldom seen inside HP anymore. I don't know whether they did it with the executive suite's blessing or not, but either way it was a bold move on the part of the engineers and the engineering managers, for which we thank them.


Van J Walther said...

Still have a few of these tucked away around the house. Nothing will ever replace the HP calculator. I should know. I designed the ROM for the Saturn Series.

Van J Walther said...

Still have a few of these tucked away around the house. Nothing will ever replace the HP calculator. I should know. I designed the ROM for the Saturn Series.

Sarah Elkins said...

Ha Ha, Dad thinks he still has some hanging around... Still using mine for chemistry this semester.

Laughed a little when Cheryl (your sis) pulled hers out to do some calculations for our house offer this week.

HP calculators forever! Getting one of these simulators asap!

Cat said...

What a great post. I bought a faithful 11C when I was in my electro-optics program many, many years ago. It was Junior College, and we all dreamed that someday, if we were smart enough, we might get a job at HP.

Sadly. That dream is long gone. But the calculator endures!