Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Happy 40th Birthday to the HP-35

Finally! I've got my hands on an HP 35 calcula...
The HP-35 scientific calculator
Image via Wikipedia
1st February 1972 marked a birth that would revolutionise mathematics education across the world. This was not, this time, the birth of a great mathematician, but of a machine. The first scientific hand-held calculator (HP-35) was introduced to the US market, and later to the UK. Costing $395, it was made by Hewlett-Packard and its name came from the fact that it had 35 keys.

The HP-35 measured 79 x 147 x 34 mm, pretty chunky by today’s standards, but ultra-sleek in its day, when a computer still filled a small room. It ran on rechargeable batteries, and its electronics used several integrated circuits. ‘Scientific’ meant the calculator was able to perform logarithmic and trigonometric functions with one keystroke. It featured a red LED display which could give scientific notation up to 10 digits, with 2 digits for an exponent (power of 10).

The price was reduced several times, eventually to $195 in the US. But this was, of course, still too high for the HP-35 to become a mainstream part of classroom teaching. Production of the HP-35 was stopped in Feb 1975, 3 years after its launch. 300,000 units had been sold.

The numbers and functions for calculations were entered in "Reverse Polish Notation". This would seem very strange to today’s maths students, since the operator always appears last: a calculation such as 3+5 was performed by typing “3 5 +”. It avoided the need for parentheses or an "=" key.

Further models from HP followed. The introduction of the HP-35, its descendants and similar scientific calculators by Texas Instruments soon brought about the demise of the slide rule in the classroom.

The appearance of the calculator gave rise to the “should we, shouldn’t we?” debate in the media and among educators, with some feeling strongly that the introduction of a calculating device would bring about a decline in students’ own calculating abilities. These arguments had little real relevance in the early days, since the cost, fragility, and short battery life of these early machines meant the calculator had limited use in the classroom, and was certainly not available to every pupil.

By the early 1980s, those deterrents began to decline. Solar-powered scientific calculators began to appear, with hard cases, costing around £20. The UK exam boards bowed to the inevitable and made them a standard piece of equipment in O-Level and A-Level mathematics. The calculator was here to stay.

Later, the first hand-held calculators appeared that could graph functions. Like their simpler counterparts, these calculators were too expensive to be widely adopted when they first appeared, but today many schools encourage their use, although they are still not all tolerated within examinations.

Nowadays, the line between a calculator and a handheld computer is very blurred. Some calculators such as the TI-89, the Voyage 200 and HP-49G are able to differentiate and integrate functions, solve differential equations and run word processing software. Other handheld devices can, of course, connect to the Internet. Whether such devices will ever be used in our exams, only time will tell.

An emulation of the HP-35 is available for the Apple iPad.