SmoothSpan Blog

For Executives, Entrepreneurs, and other Digerati who need to know about SaaS and Web 2.0.

eBook Replacing Scientific Calculator?

Posted by Bob Warfield on May 5, 2009

I’m going to date myself here, but the memories are just too fond.  Starting in high school, I was a total scientific calculator junkie.  You know, the programmable kind?  As a pubescent alpha geek, that was my iPhone of the day.  We were past the slide rule era and just pre-PC.  I did have a little CP/M system with a rompin’ stompin’ 4K of hand soldered 2102 RAM for those that remember that sort of thing, and the rich kid down the block had an Apple II that threw out so much RF interference he had to sit in one corner of his room with the Apple II and quint to see the TV monitor in the diagonally opposite corner. 

My buddies and I who couldn’t afford Apple II’s (we did manage Trash-80’s when those came out) were all programming these calculators to do all sorts of funky things.  Lunar landers games of varying sophistication, prime number calculation, iterative equation solvers, you name it.  I started with a Texas Instruments calculator, a TI-59.  I still remember opening the package.  It was probably the first thing I got in life that had all those little gadgets (chargers, memory cards, instruction manuals, yada, yada) and that had that wonderful “new consumer electronics” smell.  Nothing like the uber sleek Apple packaging an iPhone comes with, but for the day it was exhilarating to get a package like that.  In those days, a kid was doing good to get a Schwin bike as a gift, a Lionel train set if they were really lucky.  We didn’t hope for multiple game consoles, cell phones, and the rest of the stuff kids take for granted today.  The $299.95 TI-59 was quite an expensive luxury.


But I didn’t rest for long with it.  Eventually I came to embrace the amazing conceptual elegance of Reverse Polish Notation (you know, the calculator only the real geeks could understand how to work?) and that meant an HP.  HP’s fit, finish, and packaging were a whole level above that of the TI.  Texas Instruments may have invented the electronic calculator, but HP perfected it.  After having used the TI-59 for 2 years, I sold it to a friend and bought an HP-41C to take with me to college.


At the school I went to (Rice University), we divided the student body into two types:  Academs and SE’s.   Academs were Fine Arts majors of one kind or another, and Business majors were lumped into that category.  Rest assured that the HP-41C was not a machine for Academs.  They scarce seemed to use a calculator at all, perhaps the little HP-12C financial calculator (still a great little machine!).  SE’s were Science and Engineering majors, the Geeks, and we all had programmables, mostly HP’s if you were a really good geek.

Which brings me to Amazon.  There were always a lot more Academs running around than SE’s, even though my school was primarily an Engineering school.  The world seems certain Amazon is about to introduce a new Kindle intended for textbook reading.  Why not?  Seems like the ideal power tool for Academs.  At last, a knowledge slate able to convey a classical education and not just scientific notation.  The new machine will have 9.7″ screen instead of the current 6″.  Cool!

People wring their hands over Kindle pricing, but if you’ve been reading along you must realize that Kindle is bargain compared to the calculators I’ve been writing about.  We scraped our pennies together in times that were both leaner, and where pennies went a lot further, to pay darned near as much as the Kindle costs today for our little bundles of computational joy.  This doesn’t begin to describe the relationship between the cost of a textbook-sized kindle and the ridiculously expensive wood pulp tomes we used to pay for in the on campus bookstore every semester.  Maybe Amazon can actually cut those costs enough so students are net ahead on spending money.   If nothing else, they’ll head off back problems as students quit having to carry so much weight across campus in their backpacks. 


I think it’s fantastic that the Kindle will be serving the textbook market.  Some important questions remain: 

–  How do I highlight my textbooks?

–  How do I use it to check out books from the University Library?

–  Can I get all the scientific journals without paying the exhorbitant sums these periodicals charge?

Time will tell.

2 Responses to “eBook Replacing Scientific Calculator?”

  1. ajft said

    Add in, how do I get to use it if I’m not in the USA, and how do I do the equivalent of the three post-it notes and my index and middle finger as place holders for pages and sections I need to keep flipping back to review. Oh, and knowing how my text books were treated, is it water-proof, shock-proof, beer-proof and accidentally-stepped-on resistant?

  2. rnugent said

    Ahhh yes, I remember my 11C. The perfect marriage of iPhone cool style and RPN engineering power.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: