Still cool enough for school

During my stint as a U.S. Navy photographer in the early 1970s, I was selected to attend a summer-long photographic quality control course at the Rochester (New York) Institute of Technology. I have only the vaguest recollection of my immediate supervisor asking me whether I had an interest in the course, and I must have responded with something more positive than a shrug of my shoulders because it wasn’t long before I was fully engaged in one of the most intense experiences of my adult life.

Did I say intense? Yes, I did!—but even that doesn’t begin to describe how intimidated I was by the curriculum, the teaching staff , and, even, most of the other students. Every topic, every assignment was a challenge I was afraid I could not conquer and, left to my own devices I’m sure that would be true. The only thing that allowed me to successfully complete the course was the peer-based study groups that developed.

Difficulties notwithstanding, the point of this post is something that is probably idiosyncratic to that time, place, and circumstance. It was 1973, the very dawn of the consumer electronics revolution. Early on in the course, we did our calculations on slide rules, but it wasn’t long before our instructors introduced us to scientific calculators. Slide rule guesstimates were suddenly a thing of the past as these wallet-sized devices could easily and quickly calculate square roots, logarithms, etc. Needless to say, the students enthusiastically embraced the new technology and developed a certain amount of proficiency with the calculators over the remainder of the course.

Imagine our dismay when, as we concluded the course, we were informed that the electronic calculators we had learned to love were not ours to keep, and we had to suddenly readjust ourselves to old-fashioned slide rule calculations.

Looking back, I’m not surprised we weren’t allowed to keep the calculators. A 1972-1973 HP-35 scientific calculator cost nearly $400. Of course, as with most other cutting-edge technologies, the price for the product decreased significantly as newer, faster, or more fully featured devices were released. One indication of reduced cost is that the next year’s class did get to keep the calculators they used during the course.

It turns out the product has quite a following even all these years later. In 2007, Hewlett-Packard released the HP-35s to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the product. It has a similar look and feel to the original though it does boast some “under the hood” improvements including additional functions, faster processing speed, and more memory than the original. The 35s is still available and can be found for as little as $50—quite a difference compared to its first generation predecessor!

This, then, is my response to “too cool for school,” this month’s Storytelling Sunday prompt. Click here for Sian’s own story and for links to other interesting and entertaining reads. And, of course, you are welcome to add your own story to the link party.

8 thoughts on “Still cool enough for school

  1. Oh, I remember slide rules 🙂 My high school math teacher had one as big as the chalkboard, hanging at the front of the room which he used to demonstrate our calculation lessons. When I think back to all the changes that have occurred in my lifetime, I am amazed by the electronic revolution and how it has transformed our lives. Another interesting essay!

  2. Wanda, cool story, it made me dig into my desk and drag out my Sharp ELSI Mate EL 335S calculator. I used this calculator to perform the economic evaluation of a multi million dollar contract in 1984. Still works great. — have a great day, Bill

  3. You are absolutely right – something about the story of the calculator really does sum up the early 70’s. You took me right back – I can remember my brother spotting one in a shop window in town and begging for it for his birthday. Of course we had to wait for the price to come down! A wonderfully observed story Wanda.

    You asked if school meals here have improved. Yes! they definitely have. In those days we couldn’t choose to bring a lunch with us – well, the school meals are so good now that my two prefer to eat in the canteen and not bring food from home

  4. Great story. I well remember slide rules, my brothers used them. However, by the time my daughter went to college, calculators were in full use. I don’t think she had ever heard of a slide rule much less know how to use one.

  5. What an interesting story, Wanda. It is extraordinary to think that such a product would now be cheaper than the original, though this seems to be the case with some technology. Though you had to revert to the old fashioned way, I bet that has stayed with you all these years. If technology broke down, you would still be able to do the calculations. Rather like sailors; best to learn how to plot the course rather than just depend on a sat-nav. Definitely still cool enough for school. Irene

  6. Oh that is a wonderful story – I remember being shown some of the early calculators by my Dad when I was first getting them at school. When Wookie & I went to the computer museum we showed the kids the display cases of old calculators amazing how large they were compared to the one on the iphone.

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