- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2003

I’m in love. This time it’s for real. A friend recently gave me a TI-89. It’s a high-end scientific calculator from Texas Instruments. I needed one like I needed green tendrils growing from my head. We columnists just don’t do much with hyperbolic tangents.

But it was a really neat thing. In fact, it was astonishing.

So what does the clever little box do? Buncha stuff. Got lotsa buttons. Does math glop: determinants, matrix inversion, differentiation, vector products, antiderivatives. Solves equations. Graphs. You can program it.

Now, if you’re 23, none of this is particularly interesting. You’re used to high-Mach invisible fighter planes, computers that are three times as fast every week, and little gadgets from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration crawling around on Mars looking for germs. You think the TI-89 is normal. You’re out of your mind.

If you are of an age to be retiring from NASA, you remember how things were in engineering school in 1965. Slide rules. A slide rule was a contrivance that had a strip that slid between two others and a little plastic collar with a line on it. It worked on the principle of semi-automated logarithms and you could multiply numbers with it. It was like thinking with chopsticks.

Guys in physics wore them in cases on their belts like short swords. There weren’t any calculators, quite yet. Integrated circuits weren’t good enough. They were getting better fast, though, and the foresighted saw that slide-rule stocks were a world-class bad investment.

The first calculator I ever saw was chained to a counter in the bookstore of the University of Texas in Austin. It could add, subtract, multiply, divide and exponentiate. It cost $450 in the 1970s. We thought, wow, hot stuff.

In high school in the 1960s I read a book called “Computers and Thought,” which said that symbolic integration — a calculus thing — was really hard with computers and maybe not possible. Some guys at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tried it. They had a program called SAINT, which didn’t work. Or not very well.

It wasn’t their fault. They were probably using an IBM 360 series computer, which had slightly more computing power than an MP3 player but less memory. Memory was kept in little ferric doughnuts with three wires running through them, so it cost a lot. Somebody had to stick the wires through. I learned to program on an IBM 1130, the little brother of the 360. You had to use punch cards to tell it what to do. It was pretty silly. It was what we had.

So this is why I’m in love with my calculator. It does integration within reason without breaking a sweat. In fact, it does hundreds of slick math-glop things. Like matrix multiplication, which used to take forever. Looking back at 1969, I don’t see how we got men on the moon without these things. Does anyone remember how lame the Apollo computers were?

Funny thing: Packing the computing power into a hand-held is not too hard. The tricky part is figuring out how to make 50 buttons (exactly what the TI-89 has) do hundreds of different things reasonably conveniently. It’s harder than it sounds. In this case, the beast is easy to use. Somebody smart spent a lot of time thinking about the interface.

No, I’m not secretly working for the PR department at TI. Hewlett-Packard probably has something just as good, and maybe Casio and all the gang. And I can hear the 23-year-olds saying, “Fred, it’s just a calculator.”

They’re right. These things are commodities, like bottle openers. Circuit City probably has a rack of them, packed in plastic see-through wrap that you need a band saw and three chisels to open. $150. Big deal.

But that’s what’s astonishing. I’m going to marry it. You’re all invited.

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