Your Own Sinclair Scientific Calculator

We’ve talked about the Sinclair scientific calculator before many times, and for some of us it was our first scientific calculator. If you can’t find yours or you never had one, now you can build your own using — what else — an Arduino thanks to [Arduino Enigma]. There’s a video, below and the project’s homepage on Hackaday.io describes it all perfectly:

The original chip inside the Sinclair Scientific Calculator was reverse engineered by Ken Shirriff, its 320 instruction program extracted and an online emulator written. This project ports that emulator, written in Javascript, to the Arduino Nano and interfaces it to a custom PCB. The result is an object that behaves like the original calculator, with its idiosyncrasies and problems. Calculating PI as arctan(1)*4 yields a value of 3.1440.

Special care was taken in the design of the emulator to match the execution speed of the
original calculator, which varies from acceptable to atrocious for trigonometric functions involving small angles.

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Teardown With A Twist: 1975 Sinclair Scientific Calculator

When writing a recent piece about Reverse Polish Notation, or RPN, as a hook for my writing I retrieved my Sinclair Scientific calculator from storage. This was an important model in the genesis of the scientific calculator, not for being either a trailblazer or even for being especially good, but for the interesting manner of its operation and that it was one of the first scientific calculators at an affordable price.

I bought the calculator in a 1980s rummage sale, bodged its broken battery clip to bring it to life, and had it on my bench for a few years. Even in the early 1990s (and even if you didn’t use it), having a retro calculator on your bench gave you a bit of street cred. But then as life moved around me it went into that storage box, and until the RPN article that’s where it stayed. Finding it was a significant task, to locate something about the size of a candy bar in the storage box it had inhabited for two decades, among a slightly chaotic brace of shelves full of similar boxes.

The Sinclair's clean design still looks good four decades later.
The Sinclair’s clean design still looks good four decades later.

Looking at it though as an adult, it becomes obvious that this is an interesting machine in its own right, and one that deserves a closer examination. What follows will not be the only teardown of a Sinclair Scientific on the web, after all nobody could match [Ken Shirriff]’s examination of the internals of its chip, but it should provide an insight into the calculator’s construction, and plenty of satisfying pictures for lovers of 1970s consumer electronics.

The Sinclair is protected by a rigid black plastic case, meaning that it has survived the decades well. On the inside of the case is a crib sheet for its RPN syntax and scientific functions, an invaluable aid when it comes to performing any calculations.

It shares the same external design as the earlier Sinclair Cambridge, a more humble arithmetic calculator, but where the Cambridge’s plastic is black, on the Scientific it is white. The LED display sits behind a purple-tinted window, and the blue-and-black keyboard occupies the lower two-thirds of the front panel. At 50 x 111 x 16 mm it is a true pocket calculator, with an elegance many of its contemporaries failed to achieve and which is certainly not matched by most recent calculators. Good industrial design does not age, and while the Sinclair’s design makes it visibly a product of the early 1970s space-age aesthetic it is nevertheless an attractive item in its own right.

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[Ken Shirriff] Completely Reverse Engineers The 1974 Sinclair Scientific Calculator

Wow. Seriously… Wow! The work [Ken Shirriff] put into reverse engineering the Sinclair Scientific is just amazing. He covers so much; the market forces that led [Clive Sinclair] to design the device with an under-powered chip, how the code actually fits in a minuscule amount of space, and an in-depth look at the silicon itself. Stop what you’re doing and read it right now!

This calculator shoe-horned itself into the market when the HP-35 was king at a sticker price of $395 (around $1800 in today’s money). The goal was to undercut them, a target that was reached with a $120 launch price. They managed this by using a Texas Instruments chip that had only three storage registers, paired with a ROM totaling 320 words. The calculator worked, but it was slow and inaccurate. Want to see how inaccurate? Included in the write-up is a browser-based simulator built from the reverse engineering work. Give it a try and let us know what you think.

Now [Ken] didn’t do all this work on his own. Scroll down to the bottom of his post to see the long list of contributors that helped bring this fantastic piece together. Thanks everyone!

[Thanks Ed]

 

Farewell Sir Clive Sinclair; Inspired A Generation Of Engineers

It is with sadness that we note the passing of the British writer, engineer, home computer pioneer, and entrepreneur, Sir Clive Sinclair, who died this morning at the age of 81 after a long illness. He is perhaps best known among Hackaday readers for his ZX series of home computers from the 1980s, but over a lifetime in the technology industry there are few corners of consumer electronics that he did not touch in some way.

Sinclair’s first career in the 1950s was as a technical journalist and writer, before founding the electronics company Sinclair Radionics in the 1960s. His output in those early years was a mixture of miniature transistor radios and Hi-Fi components, setting the tone for decades of further tiny devices including an early LED digital watch at the beginning of the 1970s, miniature CRT TVs in the ’70s and ’80s, and another tiny in-ear FM radio which went on sale in the ’90s.

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DIY Scientific Calculator Powered By Pi Zero

It’s the eternal question hackers face: do you built it, or do you buy it? The low cost and high availability of electronic gadgets means we increasingly take the latter option. Especially since it often ends up that building your own version will cost more than just buying a commercial product; and that’s before you factor in the time you’ll spend working on it.

But such concerns clearly don’t phase [Andrea Cavalli]. Sure he could just buy a scientific calculator, but it wouldn’t really be his scientific calculator. Instead, he’s taking the scenic route and building his own scientific calculator from scratch. The case is 3D printed, the PCB is custom, and even the software is his own creation.

His PCB hooks right up to the GPIO pins of the internal Raspberry Pi Zero, making interfacing with the dome switch keyboard very easy. The board also holds the power management hardware for the device, including the physical power switch, USB connection for charging, and TPS79942DDCR linear regulator.

The case, including the buttons, is entirely 3D printed. At this point the buttons don’t actually have any labels on them, which presumably makes the calculator more than a little challenging to use, but no doubt [Andrea] is working on that for a later revision of the hardware. A particularly nice detail is the hatch to access the Pi’s micro SD card, making it easy to update the software or completely switch operating systems without having to take the calculator apart.

After the kernel messages scroll by, the Pi boots right into the Java calculator environment. This gives the user a fairly standard scientific calculator experience, complete with nice touches like variable highlighting. The Mario mini-game probably isn’t strictly required, but if you’re writing the code for your own calculator you can do whatever you want.

Here at Hackaday we’ve seen a calculator that got a Raspberry Pi upgrade, a classic scientific calculator emulated with an Arduino, and of course we’ve raved about the NumWorks open source graphing calculator. Even with such stiff competition, we think this project is well on its way to being one of the most impressive calculators we’ve ever come across.

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Clive Sinclair, The Other Author

A reasonable selection of the Hackaday readership will have had their first experiences of computing on an 8-bit machine in a black case, with the word “Sinclair” on it. Even if you haven’t work with one of these machines you probably know that the man behind them was the sometimes colourful inventor Clive (now Sir Clive) Sinclair.

The finest in 1950s graphic design, applied to electronics books.
The finest in 1950s graphic design, applied to electronics books.

He was the founder of an electronics company that promised big results from its relatively inexpensive electronic products. Radio receivers that could fit in a matchbox, transistorised component stereo systems, miniature televisions, and affordable calculators had all received the Sinclair treatment from the early-1960s onwards. But it was towards the end of the 1970s that one of his companies produced its first microcomputer.

At the end of the 1950s, when the teenage Sinclair was already a prolific producer of electronics and in the early stages of starting his own electronics business, he took the entirely understandable route for a cash-strapped engineer and entrepreneur and began writing for a living. He wrote for electronics and radio magazines, later becoming assistant editor of the trade magazine Instrument Practice, and wrote electronic project books for Bernard’s Radio Manuals, and Bernard Babani Publishing. It is this period of his career that has caught our eye today, not simply for the famous association of the Sinclair name, but for the fascinating window his work gives us into the state of electronics at the time.

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Looking For Pi In The 8087 Math Coprocessor Chip

Even with ten fingers to work with, math can be hard. Microprocessors, with the silicon equivalent of just two fingers, can have an even harder time with calculations, often taking multiple machine cycles to figure out something as simple as pi. And so 40 years ago, Intel decided to give its fledgling microprocessors a break by introducing the 8087 floating-point coprocessor.

If you’ve ever wondered what was going on inside the 8087, wonder no more. [Ken Shirriff] has decapped an 8087 to reveal its inner structure, which turns out to be closely related to its function. After a quick tour of the general layout of the die, including locating the microcode engine and ROM, and a quick review of the NMOS architecture of the four-decade-old technology, [Ken] dug into the meat of the coprocessor and the reason it could speed up certain floating-point calculations by up to 100-fold. A generous portion of the complex die is devoted to a ROM that does nothing but store constants needed for its calculation algorithms. By carefully examining the pattern of NMOS transistors in the ROM area and making some educated guesses, he was able to see the binary representation of constants such as pi and the square root of two. There’s also an extensive series of arctangent and log2 constants, used for the CORDIC algorithm, which reduces otherwise complex transcendental calculations to a few quick and easy bitwise shifts and adds.

[Ken] has popped the hood on a lot of chips before, finding butterflies in an op-amp and reverse-engineering a Sinclair scientific calculator. But there’s something about seeing constants hard-coded in silicon that really fascinates us.