For the last generation of techies that grew up before PCs, calculators were a fascinating portal into the world of numbers. Last month, fresh reminders emerged that there’s still a community of netizens who have an abiding fondness for calculators — particularly the old ones used in high school math classes long ago.
When the Internet Archive published a new collection of calculator emulators, appreciative comments started pouring in.
An Archive.org user compared his own real-life TI-83 calculator to its new online counterpart, calling the emulation “amazing… The colors are spot on and feel similar to the real calculator.”
Another spotted the Texas Instruments TI-89 they had been using when they graduated with a mechanical engineering degree sometime around 1998 and posted that the emulator “works (and looks) exactly as I remember it.” And one commenter even revealed that they still use the TI-89 they bought in 2001 – every single day! (“You’re built like a tank.”)
Although they inevitably recalled that it wasn’t always used for math: “I remember playing Tetris and even Doom on it in high school.”
Revisit the calculators of your youth with @internetarchive’s new Calculator Drawer, full of free and publicly available digital emulations of calculators made possible by @mamedev_org! https://t.co/UHkx4xp72F #DigiPres #DigitalLibraries pic.twitter.com/UpfsPcfQtU
— Preservation Week (@PreservationWk) February 7, 2023
The launch of the Calculator Archive was celebrated with articles from Engadget, Ars Technica, The Verge and The Register, all proving that vintage calculators from decades ago still have their fans.
But this new online archive is just one of many ways to recreate the joys of portable computing and graphics. And in a recent blog post, Jason Scott, a software curator, touted emulation projects like this as “the future of software history.”
preserve the past
A longtime fan of vintage calculators is Eric Rechlin, a technical architect. Since 1997, more than 22 million people have visited his website, HPCalc.org, which hosts his own vast software archive for HP’s programmable graphing calculators. And there is also Rechlin’s collection of 280 HP calculator emulators (to run on a PC).
Rechlin points out that this is just one of many files of calculator storage he has seen over the years. “The browser-based online emulation of the HP 48G series has been available for a number of years,” Rechlin told me in an email interview.
When asked about the Internet Archive’s new collection, however, Rechlin admitted that “this is the first time I’ve used the largely forgotten but still historically important HP 38G in a browser.”
And if you want to browse the looks of these classic devices, there’s The Museum of HP Calculators, run by former Intel programmer David G. Hicks.
In an online biography, Hicks recalled saving his money to buy an HP-25 when he was 13 in the 1970s. In the 1990s, “I thought maybe this new web/HTML thing could be the ‘next big thing.'” After creating a website showcasing his old HP machines, “I was immediately introduced to E -Deluged with emails from other HP geeks who loved my museum but wanted to see more.”
So he said, “I gave in to the internet crowds and searched every HP calculator and updated the museum in roughly chronological order.”
The Internet Archive has a new calculator emulator that lets you use old calculators!! https://t.co/Aibj251Ab3 pic.twitter.com/78x5iwkoOh
— Jawa (@CharredJawa) January 31, 2023
The Internet Archive’s new collection, entitled The Calculator Drawer, lets visitors interact with the calculators. And for that, Scott gave special credit to the team behind the emulation software MAME, an open source project that has been rebuilding hardware systems for preserving classic games and other software programs since 1997.
Scott wrote that “the vast majority” of emulated games at Internet Archive use MAME – which is no surprise. Thanks to the ongoing work of hundreds of developers around the world, the MAME team can now emulate “tens of thousands” of machines, platforms and tools, Scott noted in his blog post. “The amount of arcade machines and computers they cover now is so vast that there’s a website to keep track of what they don’t emulate…yet.”
So Scott’s blog post welcomed emulated calculators into what he called “the emularity.” (The Internet Archive also houses two distinct collections containing thousands of arcade video games, as well as separate collections of games from home entertainment consoles and from handheld consoles.)
Currently, the calculator drawer consists of four calculators from Hewlett Packard, nine from Texas Instruments, and the adorable “Electronic Number Muncher,” a 1989 math game for kids that came in a yellow case with a smiling Hong Kong elephant from Vtech. Its black-and-white screen gave out equations for kids to solve – and featured a cartoon monkey dropping snacks into an elephant’s trunk.
But with over 10,000 views, by far the most viewed calculator seems to be the classic HP 48G+ (manufactured by Hewlett-Packard from 1990 to 2003).
calculators on cellphones
This isn’t the only way to recreate the experience of using a calculator. There are also phone apps that emulate classic calculators – and a recent discussion in Hacker News showed that many enthusiasts use them.
One commenter wrote that they miss the old-school buttons on a physical calculator, but “I still reach for my phone running an HP emulator to do calculations with what looks like a real calculator,” and called the experience “still preferable to the computer. (“So here I am with a computer and have been using computers daily for almost half a century and I’m still looking for a special thing to do certain kinds of calculations!”)
You are not the only ones. At least one programmer also wrote, “I still use a TI-89 emulator on my phone as my default calculator. It’s so much more powerful than the crap calculator apps that come with the phones.”
Several commenters expressed appreciation for the Internet Archive recreating their favorite old calculators online.
Nick Kosmatos, a software engineer, wrote: “My beloved TI-85 is here and brings back so many memories. It has served me well all my years at university and then some.” (Kosmatos still has an original TI-85 – first released in 1992 – but he reported that “its screen is a little broken, so it is good thing we have an easy way to emulate it.”)
Wes Turner, a web engineer, discovered the TI-83 Plus Silver they used back in high school and recalled that it was “the best calculator then approved for the program.”
In an email interview, Archive.org curator Scott told me he was pleased to see people on Twitter “reconnecting to their old machines. You can see people proudly taking pictures of calculators that they have on their desks.”
Scott confessed, when it comes to himself, “I never really took math in high school past 10th grade, so calculators were never a big deal or something I thought about a lot.”
But sooner or later the software curator would be thrilled by the widespread demand. “I happened to have a conversation with some people and they asked why we didn’t have emulations!”
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