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.

Continue reading “Teardown With A Twist: 1975 Sinclair Scientific Calculator”

Reverse Polish Notation and its Mildly Confusing Elegance

The best rummage sale purchase I ever made was a piece of hardware that used Reverse Polish Notation. I know what you’re thinking… RPN sounds like a sales gimmick and I got taken for a fool. But I assure you it’s not only real, but a true gem in the evolution of computing.

Best rummage sale find ever!
Best rummage sale find ever!

Sometime in the 1980s when I was a spotty teen, I picked up a calculator at a rummage sale. Protected by a smart plastic case, it was a pretty good condition Sinclair Scientific that turned out when I got it home to have 1975 date codes on its chips, and since anything with a Sinclair badge was worth having it became mine for a trifling amount of money. It had a set of corroded batteries that had damaged one of its terminals, but with the application of a bit of copper strip I had a working calculator.

And what a calculator! It didn’t have many buttons at a time when you judged how cool a scientific calculator was by the prolific nature of its keyboard. This one looked more akin to a run-of-the-mill arithmetic calculator, but had button modes for trigonometric functions and oddly an enter key rather than an equals sign. The handy sticker inside the case explained the mystery, this machine used so-called Reverse Polish Notation, or RPN. It spent several years on my bench before being reverently placed in a storage box of Sinclair curios which I’ve spent half a day turning the house over to find as I write this article.

Continue reading “Reverse Polish Notation and its Mildly Confusing Elegance”

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.

Continue reading “Pocket Calculator Emulates Pocket Calculator”

[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]