[SIGCIS-Members] HP programmable calculators: economy of programmed cards?

Michael McGovern mikeymcgovern at uchicago.edu
Mon Dec 9 08:32:11 PST 2013

Hello all,

I am an MPhil student at Cambridge in the HPS department working on our
science museum’s calculator collection (the Francis Hookham Collection of
Handheld Calculators) for a short essay. In working through the collection
of calculators and associated ephemera, I have become very interested in
HP’s programmable calculators, particularly the HP-65 and subsequent
developments in which programs could be written stored on magnetic cards,
sent to and ordered from a user library, and also purchased in packages
from HP. Given the recent de-emphasis on computation as calculation, this
is a fascinating instance in which calculation itself helped create a form
of social organization; calculators were not about simply crunching numbers
but sharing and writing programs.

I was wondering if anyone on this list a) used these calculators and their
magnetic cards or b) know of anyone who might be willing to discuss with
me. I am trying to answer the following questions about the magnetic cards
and these calculators:

1) How common were they to have? HPs were notoriously expensive and their
being programmed in RPN may have led certain groups to turn to other
companies like TI. I don’t know how much discussing RPN would figure into
this account but I am interested in programming language
entrenchment/preferences as well.
2) What was the incentive to enter programs into the HP user library? Was
it financial? Did people code programs on spare cards and send them to each
other? Was it enough to buy the various packs that HP marketed (Statistics,
Flight, Medicine, etc.) or was this seen as facile/not trustworthy?
3) If you yourself worked with these HP calculators with magnetic card
readers in the ‘70s and ‘80s, where were you working and to what extent was
it desirable to shop for programs rather than simply writing them yourself?
I am interested in how different calculators were used infrastructurally
but also understand that it was often a source of personal satisfaction and
intrigue, as can be seen in the case of Francis Hookham who collected so
many calculators!

Thanks so much for hearing me out and I hope to hear from some of you!

Mikey McGovern
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