In a recently updated post, [Codex99] has a detailed history of the HP-35 pocket calculator. Unless you are a certain age, you probably don’t think much of calculators. They are cheap and not very essential in this day of cell phones and PCs. But in the 1970s they were amazing technology and the desire of every engineer and engineering student.
The story opens in 1965 when Tom Osborne — who was not an HP employee — build a floating point calculator he called the Green Machine. Apparently, he had painted the balsa wood case green. He had been showing it around but failed to get any interest until he showed it to Bill Hewlett. Hewlett wanted it to do trig functions and offered him a six-week consulting gig to work on improvements.
HP engineer Dave Cochran helped out and also helped envision making the device keystroke-programmable. By 1968, this collaboration led to a 40-pound desktop calculator — the HP 9100 — that was the size of a typewriter. It could be yours for only $4900. Keep in mind, that same amount would buy two brand new cars in 1968.
For as busy as things can get at the grocery store on a typical afternoon just before the dinner hour, at least the modern experience has one thing going for it: it’s relatively quiet. Aside from the mumbled greetings and “Paper or plastic?” questions from the cashier, and the occasional screaming baby in the next aisle, the only sound you tend to hear is the beeping of the barcode scanner as your purchase is tallied up.
Jump back just 40 years and the same scene was raucous, with cashiers reading price tags and pounding numbers into behemoth electromechanical cash registers. Back then, if you wanted help with any arithmetic with more than just a few operations, some kind of mechanical calculator was your only choice. From simple “one-banger” adding machines to complex analog computers, mechanical devices were surprisingly capable data processing tools. Here’s a brief look at how some of the simpler ones worked.
It’s a little thin on documentation so far, but that’s because [Mark Miller]’s build is one of those just-for-the-fun-of-it things. He started with a bag full of NE-2 tubes and the realization that a 3D-printed frame would let him create his own seven-segment displays. The frames have a slot for each segment, with a lamp and current limiting resistor tucked behind it; with leads brought out to pins and some epoxy potting, these displays would be hard to tell from a large LED seven-segment. Rolling your own displays has the benefit of being able to extend the character set, which [Mark] did with plus-minus and equal sign modules. All of these went together into a two-banger calculator — addition and subtraction only so far — executed in relays and vacuum tubes. Version 2.0 of the calculator regressed to all-relay logic, which must sound great.
We heartily regret the lack of a satisfyingly clicky video, but we’ll give it a pass since this is so cool. We’ll be watching for more on this project, but in the meantime, if you still need to get your click on, this electromechanical BCD counter should help.
FPGAs are great fun, but sometimes you need a few starter projects under your belt. These projects might be something you could just as well do with a CPU, but you have to start somewhere. [LambdaPI] recently shared a 4-bit calculator created using an FPGA, and you can see it in the video below.
The calculator uses a Papilio FPGA board and a LogicStart accessory board for the display and switches. The Papilio normally uses schematic-based entry and Arduino code, but [LambdaPI] used VHDL. You enter the two 4-bit numbers on the 8 switches and then the joystick selects one of four operations (add, subtract, multiply, and divide).
There is some dispute as to which company invented the microprocessor, and we’ll talk about that further down. But who invented the first commercially available microprocessor? That honor goes to Intel for the 4004.
Path To The 4004
We pick up the tale with Robert Noyce, who had co-invented the IC while at Fairchild Semiconductor. In July 1968 he left Fairchild to co-found Intel for the purpose of manufacturing semiconductor memory chips.
While Intel was still a new startup living off of their initial $3 million in financing, and before they had a semiconductor memory product, as many start-ups do to survive they took on custom work. In April 1969, Japanese company Busicom hired them to do LSI (Large-Scale Integration) work for a family of calculators.
Busicom’s design, consisting of twelve interlinked chips, was considered a complicated one. For example, it included shift-register memory, a serial type of memory which complicates the control logic. It also used Binary Coded Decimal (BCD) arithmetic. Marcian Edward Hoff Jr — known as “Ted”, head of the Intel’s Application Research Department, felt that the design was even more complicated than a general purpose computer like the PDP-8, which had a fairly simple architecture. He felt they may not be able to meet the cost targets and so Noyce gave Hoff the go-ahead to look for ways to simplify it.
For many of us, a calculator is something we run as an app on our mobile phones. Even the feature phones of a couple of decades ago bundled some form of calculator, so that particular task has joined the inevitable convergence of functions into the one device.
To perform this feat he’s taken the cellphone module and one of the tiniest of Arduino boards, and fitted them in the space beneath the TI-84’s keyboard by removing as much extraneous plastic as he could. The calculator’s 4 AAA cells could not supply enough power on their own, so he’s supplemented them with a couple more, and replaced the alkaline cells with rechargeables. A concealed switch allows the cellphone to be turned off to preserve battery life.
The calculator talks to the Arduino via a slightly unsightly external serial cable, and all his software is handily available in a GitHub repository. His video showing the whole build in detail is below the break, so if you fancy a calculator with cellular connectivity, here’s your opportunity. Hang on — couldn’t you use a device like this for exam cheating?
We’re not sure what to make of this one. With the variety of smartwatches and fitness trackers out there, we can’t be surprised by what sort of hardware ends up strapped to wrists these days. So a watch with an RPN calculator isn’t too much of a stretch. But adding a hex editor? And a disassembler? Oh, and while you’re at it, a transceiver for the 70cm ham band? Now that’s something you don’t see every day.
The mind boggles at not only the technical prowess needed to pull off what [Travis Goodspeed (KK4VCZ)] calls the GoodWatch, but at the thought process that led to all these features being packed into the case of a Casio calculator watch. But a lot of hacking is more about the “Why not?” than the “Why?”, and when you start looking at the feature set of the CC430F6137 microcontroller [Travis] chose, things start to make sense. The chip has a built-in RF subsystem, intended no doubt to enable wireless sensor designs. The GoodWatch20 puts the transceiver to work in the 430-MHz band, implementing a simple low-power (QRP) beacon. But the real story here is in the hacks [Travis] used to pull this off, like using flecks of Post-It notes to probe the LCD connections, and that he managed to stay within the confines of the original case.
There’s some real skill here, and it makes for an interesting read. And since the GoodWatch is powered by a coin cell, we think it’d be a great entry for our Coin Cell Challenge contest.