My Calculator and I are Feeling Obsolete

28 Jul 2004

Paul R. Potts

I’ve been cleaning out my posessions and auctioning them off in preparation for a possible move. Among the things I’ve gotten rid of: a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 100, two recent TI calculators (a TI-89 and a TI-83 silver edition), a Chapman Grand Stick, a broken original Newton MessagePad, a lot of miscellaneous audio and DJ gear, several ancient Macintosh computers, years and years of Wired and Mondo 2000 magazines, all my vinyl records including some rarities such as REM’s first album Chronic Town, Should Have Been Greatest Hits by the Tourists (Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart with a band before they became Eurythmics), all of Thomas Dolby’s vinyl albums and EPs including the European version of The Golden Age of Wireless containing the tracks “Leipzig” and “Urges,” singles and albums by some of his friends and collaborators including Lene Lovich and Adele Bertei, Torch Song’s Prepare to Energize EP (used in some early Orb tracks), all my commercially-recorded VHS tapes, and hundreds of books.

Today I attempted to fix one of my oldest posessions: a Radio Shack calculator circa approximately 1982, with a green LCD screen, labeled “Radio Shack LCD Scientific.” I got this for (approximately) my 15th birthday. It would have been expensive back then; perhaps $40 or more. It was a gift from my mother. I didn’t know much about the scientific functions it provided, but I spent a lot of time trying to understand them anyway. I was not able to find much information about this model, save that it seems to be a re-branded Casio fx-80.

I have already repaired this unit once, when a set of leaking batteries ate up the clips in the battery compartment and I had to clean that out and re-solder the wires connecting the battery clips to the circuit board. Today I tried to put new batteries in it but could not get a peep out of it; I re-tinned the wires and soldered them to the clips again, and used a pink eraser to clean the contacts on the on/off switch; nothing. The batteries overheated and began to melt, so something is either shorting completely or acting as a resistor. The chip might be fried. In any case, it needs more help than I can give it.

I’m feeling very reluctant, though, to toss it out. The prospect fills me with a deep sadness. This calculator has never had button problems like the new HP models. The on- off switch operates with a satisfying “click.” There’s no contrast adjustment for the yellow-green screen; it is always right. The paint and buttons are subtly tinted to look compatible with the screen color. The buttons sit on a very readable aluminum faceplate. The case is slightly wedge-shaped, so that it angles slightly towards you as it sits on your desk. The buttons come in two different sizes, so that the grid of scientific functions don’t seem to visually overwhelm the numbers and basic functions, and the scientific functions are laid out with an eye towards relative frequency of use.

I remember being attracted back then (at the age of fifteen) to the subtlety and beauty of the design, although I did not have the language of HCI and the subsequent years of experience evaluating and creating user interfaces. I guess people don’t really change that much.

The fx-80, also known as the Radio Shack EC-498, is a non-programmable scientific calculator. It supports the usual transcendental functions. It does degree-minute-second calculations; it handles polar coordinates; it even does basic stats, using a separate mode and an additional set of registers, even though it only has two or three memories. The designers came up with a very clever and subtle scheme to support multiple modes of behavior and hidden functions; it is mnemonic, and so effective that I can remember pretty much how it worked, over twenty years later. I will describe the user interface on my Wiki here.

Even though it is only an 8-digit calculator with a rather limited features set, I have a strong impulse to keep this one and auction off my TI-86. If only I could get it working. The TI can no doubt do degree-minute-second calculations, stats, and polar coordinates too; I just have no idea how to find that function without rummaging in the manual. And I read the manual at one point. When I push “stat” on the TI, it throws me into a bunch of nested sub-menus. The manual is long lost. I have the option of using the PDF manual available on TI’s web site, but somehow using a computer to figure out how to use a calculator seems like overkill.

I feel like the TI is an imposter, the Johnny-come-lately trying to humiliate the real calculator with its wads of RAM and menus and graphing abilities. But I’m not fooled. The antique is cool. The TI is just a hunk of rather ugly black plastic. Instead of serving as a useful calculator, it is really a slow and watered-down version of Mathematica. I own a copy of Mathematica; it is a great program, fantastically powerful. But if I wanted Mathematica, I would use Mathematica.

I will probably keep the TI, but I will miss my old calculator. I’d really like to get my hands on a functional fx-80, either marked with the Radio Shack logo or not. A whole pile of fx-82 variants followed the fx-80, but they didn’t necessarily get better… just gratuitously different, and uglier. See a gallery here.

Look at Casio’s calculators today, such as the FX-260 solar: they’ve dark gray plastic, and the same yellow and blue colors that TI uses for labeling. Nearly every key has extra labels. The subtle cueing for the inverse functions is gone: for example, the sine key now has “sin” on the key and “sin^-1” directly above it, like the TI. It embraces redundancy. Some of the original is still present, but the larding on of new features has required basic scientific functions to be demoted to shifted number keys. There is extraneous writing under the display, where it will catch your eye every time you move your eyes from the screen to the keys, and also some kind of color-coded legend describing the modes: a built-in cheat-sheet. A good design would render such a thing unnecessary, obviously. It is even uglier than the TI design. I’m sure it is much more powerful than the original, but I will miss the clean brushed-metal design of the original fx-80.

I try not to get attached to my material things. I know it all goes the way of all flesh. But sometimes it is hard. I was unhappy to have to toss out a skipping CD player from 1990 and a VCR from 1993. Ten years of service, or even twenty, doesn’t seem quite enough at my age. I understand the economic reasons for planned obsolescence; I just don’t like them. The calculator hasn’t worn out; it is hardly even scratched. But the innards were not built to last or to repair.

Twenty years goes by pretty quickly. I hear the mechanical Curta calculators still work really well. Some of them were produced in 1947. And don’t get me started on slide rules. How many of you have even held one, much less used one?

Now, a computer is obsolete in three, two, or even one year. My PowerBook G4, purchased in 2000, is on its last legs already. I’ve replaced various parts including the power manager board, power adapter, and built-in backup battery; it hasn’t worked right since it went out of warranty. Only adding loads of RAM has kept it able to run recent OSes at all.

After my VCR and another loaner VCR both stopped working (and I did my best to fix them; I got the loaner working again for a while, but something else failed), I went on a search for another VCR. I was looking for one that would last ten years or more, like my last one. It seems that such a thing does not exist anymore: that is, no matter how much you are willing to pay, no one builds a solidly-built VCR that can be repaired.

So, I finally broke down and bought a DVD player. I tried to pick one that received good reviews. It is pretty, but it feels flimsy, and most of the features are only accessible from the remote control. Does anyone believe it will still be operating in ten years?

Creative Commons Licence
This work by Paul R. Potts is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. The CSS framework is stylize.css, Copyright © 2014 by Jack Crawford.

Blog IndexWriting Archive