Stats Made Easy

Practical Tools for Effective Experimentation

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Calculators achieve ‘retro’ status – ‘70’s style available again from HP

I saw in the news recently that Hewlett-Packard (HP) has re-issued the first hand-held scientific calculator introduced in 1972 for what was then the huge sum of $395 – half a month’s salary for an engineer just graduating around that time. The price for their new retro calculator is $60, which would only set back about two hours' earnings of an engineer nowadays. The HP calculator that I first used at General Mills Chemical Inc. (GMCI) was shared by our entire group of process-development engineers. It was bolted to a table! I never took to HP's highly-touted reverse polish notation (RPN), so unless a really precise calculation would be of value, I stuck with my slide rule or pencil and paper.

Our marketing director saw the photo of me at my GMCI desk and guessed that it dated back to 1971. She and her staff came up with a fun, retro theme for announcing our newest versions of Design-Ease® and Design-Expert® design-of-experiment (DOE) software – V7.1. I really felt old having to tell her that the picture was taken in the late ‘70’s. In 1971 I was a senior in high school and pocket calculators were yet to be invented. The personal calculator pictured, from Texas Instruments I believe, did not do logarithms, so I continued to carry a slide rule into the ‘80’s for accomplishing this function.

When R. A. Fisher invented DOE in the 1920’s at Rothamsted Experimental (Agricultural) Station in England, computations were done by ‘calculators’ – a room-full of mathematically adept people (mainly female). Rothamsted did not get a computer until 1954, just after this photo of Fisher was taken with his mechanical calculator.

“Fisher never concerned himself much with electronic computers – I remember him referring to them as ‘meccano arithmetic’…”
-- F. Yates, The First Fisher Memorial Lecture on “Computers, The Second Revolution in Statistics,” March 23, 1966, British Museum, London (published in Biometrics, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Jun., 1966), pp. 233-251.)

The invention of response surface methods (RSM) by Fisher's successor (and son-in-law) George Box made computers more of a necessity. Today no one would consider doing DOE without one.

So, it seems that calculators are going the way of slide rules and dinosaurs. I quit using mine many years ago – not counting the handy accessory provided by Microsoft. However, calculator hardware is still hanging on as evidenced the American version of the television show The Office (inspired by the same-named British show): See in this educational article a photo of Dwight’s calculator encased in gelatin by his colleague Jim. In a later episode Jim tries this again on a new colleague, Andy – who rivals Dwight for nerdiness, but the prank backfires by creating a huge blow-up in The Office. (If you are an office worker, you have to enjoy this over-the-top stuff!) Evidently calculators are still very important for some folks.


  • At 12:32 AM, Anonymous Online calculators said…

    The Calculator Home Page at is a collection of resources related to Pocket calculators, online calculators, calculator software and units conversions. You can download the free version of Calc98 now, view the product documentation online, or Pocket PC version screenshots.


Post a Comment

<< Home