Nonpareil RPN HP-41 Calculator Build

The early HP Reverse Polish Notation calculators have a special place in the hearts of engineers and tinkerers as there are lots of projects involving them. They haven’t been produced in decades, but [Chris Chung] has used some open source code to create DIY hardware version of the HP-41 Reverse Polish Notation (RPN) calculator.

The open source code behind the calculator is the Nonpareil High-Fidelity Calculator Simulator, and [Chris] has used it along with a custom designed readout and PCBs to create a working prototype. The simulator uses the original byte code of the HP-41 so the its behavior is exactly the same as the original calculator.

[Chris] has designed the PCBs so that the buttons and the screen are separate and join together. This neat idea means that he can try out different screens or different button PCBs and mix-and-match to find the combination that works best. He’s also designed a 3D printed case for the calculator. He does prefer using the bare buttons on the board to the 3D printed ones he printed for use with the case.

We love calculators here so there have been a bunch of articles over the years. Check out the documentation that comes along with this open source calculator, or check out this pocket calculator that emulates two other pocket calculators!

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Build A Calculator, 1974 Style

Last month we touched upon the world of 1970s calculators with a teardown of a vintage Sinclair, and in the follow-up were sent an interesting link: a review of a classic Sinclair calculator kit from [John Boxall]. It’s a few years old now, from 2013, but since it passed us by at the time and there was clearly some interest in our recent teardown, it’s presented here for your interest.

It seems odd in 2017 that a calculator might be sold as a kit, but when you consider that in the early 1970s it would have represented an extremely expensive luxury purchase it makes some sense that electronics enthusiasts who were handy with a soldering iron might consider the cost saving of self-assembly to be worthwhile. The £24.95 price tag sounds pretty reasonable but translates to nearly £245 ($320) in today’s terms so was hardly cheap. The calculator in question is a Sinclair Cambridge, the arithmetic-only predecessor to the Sinclair Scientific we tore down, and judging by the date code on its display driver chip it dates from September 1974.

As a rare eBay find that had sat in storage for so long it was clear that some of the parts had suffered a little during the intervening years. The discrete components were replaced with modern equivalents, including a missing 1N914 diode, and the display was secured in its flush-fitting well in the board with wire links. The General Instrument calculator chip differs from the Texas Instruments part used in the Scientific, but otherwise the two calculators share many similarities. A full set of the notoriously fragile Sinclair battery clips are in place, with luck they’ll resist the urge to snap. A particularly neat touch is the inclusion of a length of solder and some solder wick, what seems straightforward to eyes used to surface-mount must have been impossibly fiddly to those brought up soldering tube bases.

The build raises an interesting question: is it sacrilege to take a rare survivor like this kit, and assemble it? Would you do it? We’d hesitate, maybe. But having done so it makes for a fascinating extra look at a Sinclair Cambridge, so is definitely worth a read. If you want to see the calculator in action he’s posted a video which we’ve put below the break, and if you need more detail including full-resolution pictures of the kit manual, he’s put up a Flickr gallery.

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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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Pocket Calculator Emulates Pocket Calculator

msp430 Calc Emu

[Chris] has built a pocket calculator that emulates… a pocket calculator. Two pocket calculators, in fact. Inspired by [Ken Shirriff’s] incredible reverse engineering of the Sinclair scientific calculator, [Chris] decided to bring [Ken’s] Sinclair and TI Datamath 2500II simulators to the physical world.

Both of these classic 70’s calculators are based on the TMS0805 processor. The 0805 ran with 320 11-bit words of ROM and only three storage registers. Sinclair’s [Nigel Searle] performed the real hack by implementing scientific calculator operations on a chip designed to be a four function calculator.

[Chris] decided to keep everything in the family by using a Texas Instruments msp430 microcontroller for emulation. He adapted [Ken’s] simulator code to run on a MSP430G2452. 256 bytes of RAM and a whopping 8KB of flash made things almost too easy.[Chris’] includes ROMs for both the TI and the Sinclair calculators. The TI Datamath ROM is default, but by holding the 7 key down during boot, the Sinclair ROM is loaded. The silk screen includes key icons for both calculators, as well as some Doge-inspired wisdom on the back.

All joking aside, these really are amazing little calculators. Children of the 60’s and 70’s will be taken back when they see the LEDs flash as the emulated TMS0805 performs algorithmic arithmetic. [Chris’] code is up on Github. While he hasn’t released gerbers yet, he does have images of his PCB layout on the 43oh.com forums.

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