## Hewlett Packard's Cult Calculator Turns 30 318

Posted
by
timothy

from the if-you-have-one-raise-your-hand-at-the-end dept.

from the if-you-have-one-raise-your-hand-at-the-end dept.

Hugh Pickens writes

*"The Wall Street Journal reports that Hewlett Packard's HP-12C financial calculator has remained outwardly unchanged since its introduction in 1981. 'Once you learned it on the 12C, there was no need to change,' says David Carter, chief investment officer of New York wealth-management firm Lenox Advisors, who has owned his 12C for 22 years and still keeps it on his desk. 'It's not like the math was changing.' The 12C, which costs $70 on HP's website, is HP's best-selling calculator of all time, though the company won't reveal how many units it has sold over the years. The 12C still uses an unconventional mathematical notation called 'Reverse Polish Notation,' which eschews parentheses and equal signs in an effort to run long calculations more efficiently."*
## Unconventional? (Score:5, Interesting)

The 12C still uses an unconventional mathematical notation called 'Reverse Polish Notation,'

I still use the HP-41CV I bought new, made in Corvallis, Oregon ($400 or so at the time, with a card reader). Iâ(TM)ve never been able to do any significant math on a calculator that

did notuse RPN.At least in the courses I took, most people preferred RPN.

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I thought those RPN folks were crazy until I had to write my own stack-based RPN calculator for a school assignment. There is nothing more awesome than being able to compute a quadratic formula without using grouping symbols.

## Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

There is nothing more awesome than being able to compute a quadratic formula without using grouping symbols.

Sex is more awesome.

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## Re:Unconventional? (Score:4, Informative)

And in Unixland, an RPN calculator is often only as far away as a shell prompt: dc [unix.com]

Very handy.

## Re: (Score:2, Troll)

Exactly, which is why RPN was such a Jedi masterpiece of hand-waving.

Problem: You're writing an expression evaluator on an early calculator engine with a really small stack, and/or you're too lazy to code an expression evaluator that understands order-of-operation conventions.

Solution: make the

userdo the recursive-descent grunt work.Field goal: pitch this bit of engineering laziness as a

feature, and watch people start a cult around it.My hat's off to HP for this one. That marketing guy/gal must've gone

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## Re: (Score:3)

As does Droid48, naturally, since it is emulating an HP48.

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Yes, and this hybridized notation is responsible for the confusion around expressions like

6/2(1+2). Some people think the answer is9, others say1. If you bring to bear a fair amount of knowledge about precedence and associativity of the operators involved, you find the correct answer is9.It is clear that the operation in parenthesis occurs first so

6/2(1+2)becomes6/2(3)or6/2x3. The question then is do you multiply or divide first. The precedence I learned in school was multiply, divide, add, subtract (mnemonic "My Dear Aunt Sally") so that would be6/6or1. If you had proper typesetting (ala TeX) this wouldn't be ambiguous, but since it is inline you can't really tell. I would argue that in this case operator precedence rules prevail.## */ same precedence. L to R or R to L is ambiguous (Score:2)

It is clear that the operation in parenthesis occurs first so

6/2(1+2)becomes6/2(3)or6/2x3. The question then is do you multiply or divide first. The precedence I learned in school was multiply, divide, add, subtract (mnemonic "My Dear Aunt Sally") so that would be6/6or1.I was always taught that multiplication and division were of equal precedence since they are equivalent operations algebraically. Dividing by 2 is the same as multiplying by half. Addition and subtraction also have equal precedence since adding -2 is the same as subtracting 2. I wasn't taught any mnemonic. (Mnemonics can be useful if correct but I'd call that one silly).

So if you want to be algebraically consistent, precedence isn't the real issue at all. The real issue is whether you calculate left to righ

## Re: (Score:2)

It is clear that the operation in parenthesis occurs first so 6/2(1+2) becomes 6/2(3) or 6/2x3. The question then is do you multiply or divide first. The precedence I learned in school was multiply, divide, add, subtract (mnemonic "My Dear Aunt Sally") so that would be 6/6 or 1.

That mnemonic helps remember the order of operations, but is not absolute, as multiplication and division are on the same level of precedence. One does not come before the other and has nothing to do with which you perform first. Rather, you do the operation which appears first starting on the left side (division is left-associative).

In this case, the statement 6/2(3) is equal to (6/2)(3) = (3)(3) = 9.

## Re: (Score:2)

If you want to illustrate precedence errors pick an example like 2+3x5. Proper precedence (multiply first then add) = 17. Not using precedence, evaluated left to right, (common error) = 25.

RPN won't prevent you from doing it wrong, but it does make it easier to do it right.

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I never had one. I never used TI either. I find both a bit painful to use myself. Instead I had (in high school/college) a Sharp EL-5100 "equation writer". Type in your equation, then press equal. If you make a mistake or typo you can edit it before pressing equal. Most other calculators require you to start over if the key you pressed 20 keys ago was wrong.

Of course, the HP-41 series that so many geeky young pre-engineers wanted were extremely expensive. Budget plays a big part in choosing a good sc

## Re: (Score:2)

Long live the 48. My favorite is my 48gx, and my backup is a pale 35s. (Curse be to (s)he who designed the 'enter' key on the 35s.) It's a nice, small benefit to running a course somewhat different from most. My calculators use RPN, and my computers read the keyboards as dvorak by default. Those who know me cringe at the notion of borrowing a computer or calculator from me.

I really must agree with you about the learning curve. The first time that I used RPN, a light bulb came on (and immediately burne

## RPN hand calc is not the best way anymore. (Score:4, Interesting)

As long as calculus isn't involved, a spreadsheet is best. I did an Astronomy masters (finished 2002) and significantly cut down my time doing assignments involving simple algebra by using a spreadsheet. It was a distance course. We also had open book exams, and were permitted to use any calculation tools we wished. The only rule for assignments and exams was no collaboration.

Advantages of a spreadsheet: Repeatable. You can see your work and modify or correct mistakes at will. Graphs are limited but easy. Both statistical and scientific functions. Time saved can be used to do simple checking (plugging the answer back into the question).

Reverse polish is good on old style calculators for exactly 2 reasons:

1) You have the limited input and output of a calculator keyboard and screen.

2) You more closely mirror what a turing machine/computer is doing, so if you're trying to understand one it's a good way to get closer to the architecture

Reason 1 disappears if you spend most of your time sitting in front of a relatively modern computer.

Reason 2 has less to do with the calculation than it has to do with IT and computer science. And once you have a good understanding, you're just reinforcing that same knowledge.

Spreadsheets are excellent but have no native ability to solve or graph calculus equations. For that I would use a math package. Octave and SciLab can be had for free. Matlab, Maple, and Mathematica for more money if you're serious.

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I can't disagree with you much, but for my work, I may need to perform field calculations that require an immediate guesstimate. For that, I can use an 8 oz calculator which turns on instantly, or a 5 lb laptop that takes 2 minutes to get to a spreadsheet. . . .And my employer refuses to supply a laptop.

I like to double-check myself with spreadsheets, and for fun, wrote a vba rpn calculator. I also build some rather extensive statistical models with spreadsheets with a level of detail that would take a y

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## Well, I feel old. (Score:2)

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Oh, and if you could see your way to getting off my lawn, I'd appreciate it.

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## Long Live the HP-48 (Score:3, Insightful)

This is the scientific version of the same calculator, complete with RPN, a stack, plotting functions, matrix functions. I've had mine since 1991. It's a shame they tried to replace it with one that is crap.

Tamran

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## Re:Long Live the HP-48 (Score:4, Informative)

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I always wanted the 15C. A guy in my Physics class had one. When I offered to buy it from him, he said initially yes, but then he became attached to it because I told him it was a piece of art.

IIRC, its numerics algorithms were designed, at least in part, by renowned numerical analyst/expert Prof. William Kahan.

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I've had mine since 93. Still works and I still used it as my main calculator up until a little over 18 months ago when I downloaded the m48 app for my iPhone. I use it with the iPhone calc skin, but it still gives me a mock up of the HP48 screen, still used RPN, and since I used basic math most of the time works wonders for quick calculations.

The best part is when I give it to friends and they try to add 1+1 by typing One, Plus, One and get an error instead of 1 enter, 1 enter, +

## you would think (Score:5, Informative)

You would think given that calculators still sell pretty well and this one is doing good for 30 full years that HP would maybe consider that they made a mistake in essentially killing off this line. Wouldn't it be wonderful it HP put out hand device for engineers as far advanced a the HPs were then?

Anyway the scientific version of the 12c is the 15c: http://www.hpmuseum.org/hp15.htm [hpmuseum.org]

And my love was the 28S. http://www.hpmuseum.org/hp28c.htm [hpmuseum.org]

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Whoa. I've had a HP-15C for 20 years. I never realized it was so kick-ass. I wish I knew how to use it properly.

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If only 20 years you got it as a hand me down. By the time you got it, it probably wasn't worth it. The 15C is nowhere near the 48's which is what was current then.

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Spreadsheets have been getting worse computationally for almost 20 years. Algebra systems I haven't played with much since 2000 but they have definitely gotten better. And TI has finally brought an algebra system calculator combo out after all this time.

## Neat (Score:3)

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Now bring back one of the models the scientists/engineers will care about, like the 15C or 42S.

Actually, it makes more sense to do what they did - bring them back as smartphone apps [cnet.com].

## A single app for Scientific, Business and Hex (Score:2)

Now bring back one of the models the scientists/engineers will care about, like the 15C or 42S.

Actually, it makes more sense to do what they did - bring them back as smartphone apps [cnet.com].

I may be biased but I think it makes more sense to put the functionality of various traditional handheld calculators into a single app. Perpenso Calc for iPhone [perpenso.com] optionally supports RPN and offers scientific, statistics, business, hex and bill functionality. More importantly you have the option to use a modern worksheet format for the time value of money, cash flow, amortization, break even, and profit margin calculations; or use the traditional button based approach if you prefer.

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Yay for the 42S. I never really grokked RPN before I got the 42S with it's two rows of output - 20yrs ago in my first year of engineering. Once I could see (and more easily track mentally) the two values the operator was going to work on and how they popped off the stack, it all instantly fell into place and made perfect sense.

They had awesome manuals too. I remember writing a program for figuring out 2nd moments of intertia and centroids of composite shapes where you entered a sequence of dimensions for th

## 15c (Score:3)

If you find one in the wild, and don't have a personal use for it, Ebay it. Those things are worth their weight in gold. Sold one for almost $200.

## Re:15c (Score:5, Funny)

If you find one in the wild, and don't have a personal use for it, Ebay it. Those things are

worth their weight in gold. Sold one for almost $200.You got ripped off - gold is around $1475/ounce, your 4 ounce calculator should be worth around $6000.

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He meant it was worth it's weight in gold, for exceedingly low concentrations of gold per ounce of material.

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He did say weight, not mass, so maybe he is on the moon?

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Presumably the calculator and gold would both be lighter on the moon.

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You got ripped off - gold is around $1475/ounce, your 4 ounce calculator should be worth around $6000.

A 12C would have told him that.

## Always have a phone, maybe not computer (Score:2)

Why do people cling to seriously outdated technology, that by today's standards is just a sorry joke of crappiness? Sure, back then it may have been awesome. But please, compare it to Qualculate! or even a full-blown suite like Mathematica on a small portable computer!

The problem is that like traditional handheld calculators, people do not always have their laptop/notebook with them. So applications like Perpenso Calc for iPhone [perpenso.com] are very useful because people will tend to always have their phone with them. With this single app you can make sure you always have the functionality of scientific, statistics, business and hex calculators with you.

## Re:Always have a phone, maybe not computer (Score:4, Informative)

As someone who posted up-thread about still using his 30 year old HP scientific calculator, and who

alsohas Mathematica installed on his small portable computer (a 13 inch TimelineX), I can address this. Each tool has its own area of ideal application. I can crunch through some rapid calculations with my little calculator much more easily than I can boot my laptop. load Mathematica, and enter the same series of numbers and operations in it, even if Ihavemy laptop with me. Pressing the sin button on my HP is faster than typing Sin[ ] on a keyboard.## Re: (Score:2)

Can you put your small personal computer running Mathematica in your pocket? How long does it take to start up? How long before you need to recharge it?

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Can you put your small personal computer running Mathematica in your pocket?

My phone has Wolfram Alpha.

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Your comparison is stupidly arrogant (if such a thing exists...) Let me draw it for you: a chainsaw to a common saw. They are built for different things. You don't need Mathematica when you just want to simulate scenarios for a down payment in front of the salesman in the dealership.

That would be moronic. It would show instantly that you don't grok the 12C. That you live up in the clouds. That you can't cook. That you don't get pussy. That you don't have real money. It means you're an instant goner.

Also, yo

## That takes me back (Score:2)

My grandpa had an RPN calculator made by Novus. I don't remember which model but it came out in the mid-70s. I remember playing with it when I was a kid. CSB

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Slide rule? Luxury! We had to share an abacus for the whole class. It only had 3 beads.

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You don't trust anyone who isn't American?

Actually that kinda makes sense now that I've said it out loud...

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## "in an effort to" appear clueless (Score:2)

RPN is not a notation. It's a straightforward implementation of stack-based expression evaluation.

In RPN (restricted to binary operators) any sequence is valid where at each binop the number of preceding operands is greater than the number of operators.

R = v1 v2 binop1 v3 binop2 v4 binop3; ...

R = v1 v2 binop1 v3 v4 binop2 binop3;

R = v1 v2 v3 v4 binop1 binop2 binop3;

In linear notation, without parentheses, your ordering options are limited:

R = v1 binop1 v2 binop2 v3 binop3 v4;

Linear order implies structure

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Since when is math English?

Math isn't even "the universal language".

Even among mathematicians.

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What does the "N" in "RPN" stand for?

Lighten up, Francis

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You are using the commutative law there. Replace the numbers with matrices (non commuting) and you would get 2 different answers.

## rpn and trees (Score:2)

## unconventional mathematical notation (Score:2)

My foot it is. All depends on what career you are in if its 'unconventional' or not.

Strange thing is these cost as much as they did when i bought mine 20 + years ago.. They should be cheaper now, so what is up with that?

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Strange thing is these cost as much as they did when i bought mine 20 + years ago.. They should be cheaper now, so what is up with that?If you figure $61 based on a google search [google.com], and calculate the inflation-adjusted price [westegg.com] then you see that it's only actually $35.71 in 1990 dollars. So they have become significantly cheaper.

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## Only old finance guys use them (Score:3)

Look at any business school class these days any you will not find very many HP-12Cs or TI BA-IIPlus calculators anywhere. Most serious number crunching is done on a spreadsheet so the only use for one is if you are in a meeting or need to do a very quick calculation when a computer isn't readily available. (happens now and then) The HP-12C is a fine piece of equipment but if you have a spreadsheet available it's kind of like using a slide rule. Sure it works but it probably isn't the best tool available most of the time.

I'm actually a certified accountant. I have one of the TI BA-IIPlus calculators and the only time I have used it in the last 8 years was to take a certification exam. (they only allow those two calculators in the test) Otherwise it sits in a drawer and gathers dust. Frankly I can't imagine I'm going to use it in the next 8 years either. For reasons I cannot fully grasp a lot of accountants still insist on using paper tape calculators to add up long strings of numbers even though they have a spreadsheet available on their computer. I can't begin to count the number of times I've seen accountants repeatedly type in long strings of numbers because of typos. Strange people who aren't willing to change with the times. I'm waiting for one to ask for the "4:30 autogyro to Siam [wikipedia.org] one of these days.

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The HP-12C is superior to Excel when it comes to performing quick financial calculations. The RPN allows you to enter in formulas without worrying about matching parenthesis and formatting the cells, while it contains all the essential formulas you need with none of the bloat.

You can't hack numbers together as fast and efficient with any other calculator or computer program out there, which is why the HP-12C is still popular after all these years.

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Most serious number crunching is done on a spreadsheet...

You, sir or madam, owe me a new monitor and beverage. Although the sad thing is that I believe you...

## Good for science and engineering, too (Score:2)

It may have been designed for financial calculations, but it holds its own for science and engineering tasks, too. A lot of problems in a lot of fields lend themselves very naturally to RPN workflows.

I learned to use these from my dad - he still has his, and I'm not sure there is any so-called feature that could ever make him give it up. Even when I was required to have a TI graphing calculator for classes, I found myself using it in RPN-style due to having learned to use the old HP (the last result is st

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I still pretty regularly use Pcalc. I also use the command line "e" for that sort of mini calculation. If I want to step up GHCI is pretty awesome.

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I've never met an app that felt as natural for handling pure computational tasks, and I have never needed to place a call from my calculator. Sometimes, purpose-built hardware is just better.

It's called a spreadsheet. Repeatable. Entered formulae can be reviewed for errors or modified at will. Graphs are limited but good for what they do. Sorry no calculus, imaginary numbers, matrix algebra or other specialised or advanced math. Now I won't deny that spreadsheet use from a phone sucks, but I'm surprised so many people still cling to their old gadgets when there are infinitely better solutions.

## Git off my lawn (Score:2)

## I will never forgive Carly Fiorina (Score:3)

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FTFY

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There was some design work done on the 49G, but IIRC, it was mostly cosmetic (although the layout did allow them to increase the total number of keys while appearing

lesscluttered than the 48). Under the hood, it was basically the same as the 48, except instead of an expansion slot and IR port, it had an extra 1.5 MB of flash memory hardwired in. The main improvement was software, and that was mostly cribbed (presumably with permission and/or help) form andre schorlrl's HP48 programming/hacking forum, wh## Re: (Score:2)

Everyone said it. She gutted HP. HP was an engineering company when she got there that made great devices in many areas. I can understand going where the money was, but I wish they had sold off the engineering divisions to someone who was interested in those more niche markets.

## Re:I will never forgive Carly Fiorina (Score:4, Insightful)

>A quick buck and an increase in stock value means EVERYTHING to a non-engineer CEO who is only going to be there for 5 years

The thing is that the day after she left, the market cap of HP bounced up 3Billion. Yes, with a B. This means that the market thought that Carly was worth a *negative* 3 billion dollars.

Then she had the audacity to go crying on 60 Minutes about how the culture at HP was demeaning towards her.

--

BMO

## How did you keep your 41 working? (Score:2)

My 41CV died a couple of years ago, and I packed in the hell box. Display bled out and was unreadable, and I didn;t bother to get it repaired.

And I have a bunch of modules for it, financials mostly. And the wand, card reader/writer, blank overlays by the pound, stacks of solution books. I worked for a dealer... I also had a 67, but traded it in for th 41CV. And I had use of a 97 in between, but I never got very good at using it.

But - using the 41CV for balancing my checkbook was a blast. Organize it cor

## Obligatory M-x calc (Score:2)

Thankfully, those of us who use emacs just run M-x calc to get back to an RPN calculator which actually calculates numbers. (It's pretty much the main reason why my 48gx sits on my shelf waiting to be used.)

## Like a screwdriver (Score:4, Interesting)

This calculator is like a screwdriver: a perfect fit for the task.

The Platinum shipped with a bug. The 12C...well, there are no bugs.

RPN is great. Once you get used to it, you never look back. BTW, RPN is what the Forth programming language uses.

When doing financial calculations or shopping I always take it with me. Also to the bank. It creates an instant bonding between you and the manager (those initiated in HP 12C's RPN).

HP calculators, IIRC, were used to calculate the orbits in some early space program missions (YouTube). I think it's safe to say that the 12C is more numerically trustworthy than some Pentiums that came out....

## The "C" suffix and programming memories (Score:4, Informative)

The "C" suffix stood for "continuous memory", meaning that programs and data did not disappear when the calculator was shut off. Like what every calculator does today. Before then, however ...

My first HP was the HP-25, a glorious invention when it came out in 1975. It had 49 programming steps, and the program had to be re-entered from the keyboard, line-by-line, every time the calculator was turned off. My first real programming success came when a high school math teacher, trying to show how hard it was to determine whether a given number was prime or composite, asked my class to determine whether the number 300,000,007 was prime or not. (Thirty-five years later, I have not forgotten that number, and don't think I ever will.)

I was able to program a test for primality into the HP-25. It was brute-force, of course -- checked for an integer result when the argument was divided by two, and then every odd number from three up to the square root of the argument -- but it worked, and I was able to show that 300,000,007 was prime. The teacher was impressed, both with the calculator and with the fact that such a large number that she picked out of the air at random turned out to be prime. (I don't think she new or cared about programming.)

I love that calculator. The HP-25C came out the following year, and the HP-25 became an orphan, but I still have it -- along with an HP-48G+ purchased about 12 years ago. (Finding a new calculator with RPN turned out to be harder than I thought.)

## Still miss my old 48SX (Score:2)

## There's a big problem with the "new" 12-C (Score:3, Informative)

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## Obligatory (Score:2)

http://xkcd.com/645/ [xkcd.com]

## RPN forever (Score:3)

I first learned RPN in the seventies on my first calculator, an HP 45. When it was stolen in the eighties, I got an HP 16c which I still have and which still works flawlessly. At work I mostly use RealCalc on Android with radix and rpn modes turned on, but I also keep a 48C in reach. I *can* operate a regular calculator, but RPN makes so much more sense to me.

My daughter took to RPN easily at 13 years old, but it confused her teachers so she had to go back to conventional notation.

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I still have an HP11c..Ditto - and I still use it! It is now 30 years old!! I can only effectively use RPN calculators - it is how I think.

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I can only effectively use RPN calculators - it is how I think.So, when you write a program, do you use forth, or do you recompile the expressions into a parenthesized tree form in your head before you type them in?

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I can only effectively use RPN calculators - it is how I think.So, when you write a program, do you use forth, or do you recompile the expressions into a parenthesized tree form in your head before you type them in?

I don't use a calculator to write programs - I use them to solve problems. I think about the terms in a problem exactly the way RPN handles them - do you think up parenthesis in your head when you are mentally calculating something?

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It's simple to solve for x using RPN:

Now perhaps your argument is that that required thought, but what else is the point of doing algebra problems without thinking about what precisely is being done?

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you're not doing the stack right either.

It would be

On the HP48, this would put a symbolic equation on the stack (and it'd be formatted mostly as you expect...) you'd then enter another x and drill down through a few menus to reach the [solve] button, which would take the two items on the stack (an equation, and the character, "x") and solve the equation for the "x", if it could. It had a number of symbolic manipulations available to it, and I think there might even have been a numeric sol

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Arg..

Tried to get too clever for my own good there...

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That's an algebraic equation. Obviously algebraic notation is better for expressing algebraic relationships. RPN is better for numerical methods.

I.E. RPN for arithmetic, vector calculation, matrix algebra....

Where RPN though would kick ass is '2+x-4=3*x' [STEQ] [shift x]

would activate a solve for x function. You can see the whole equation just becomes a single argument in the RPN calculator which is jumping up a level of abstraction.

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My 16C saw hard usage in the eighties when I did military electronics. It does still work, but I'm afraid to carry it around because if I lost it I couldn't possibly replace it.

These days I make do with RealCalc for Android with RPN and Radix modes turned on. It's not exactly the same, but it's free, usable and always on me.

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Don't forget chemistry. They had terrific tools for chemists.