back to article Google chap reverse engineers Sinclair Scientific Calculator

A Google employee named Ken Shirriff has delved into computing history by reverse-engineering the code running Sinclair Radionics' 1974 scientific calculator. Shirriff's story of the calculator's genesis notes that in the early 1970s a scientific calculator was an expensive and extraordinary tool for which the likes of HP …

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  1. Gareth Perch

    For those that, like me, have just woken up and are a bit confused: "Shirriff retells the story of the calculator's genesis by *noting*"

    1. LaeMing
      Happy

      I think he may also be a Google 'employee', not 'employer'.

      The article author must be amongst those who just woke up!

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Unhappy

    Sadly

    The halcyon days of cool geekery like this are well past...

    Shame.......

    1. C 18
      Meh

      Re: Sadly

      Eh, but, isn't reverse engineering the damn thing cool geekery itself?

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Sadly

        I was hoping that whoever wrote the original implementation would be on el'reg

    2. Tom 13

      Re: Sadly

      Yeah, apparently these days we'd all be satisfied if we could just find a few good passable proofreaders.

  3. jake Silver badge

    Been there, done that. In 1985.

    You can still find my code in the Slackware codebase, if you know where to look.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Been there, done that. In 1985.

      Presumably whilst fighting of grizzly bears with the other hand...

      1. jake Silver badge

        @AC: 08:31 (was: Re: Been there, done that. In 1985.)

        Idiot.

        I mean, really, what more can I say?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: @AC: 08:31 (was: Been there, done that. In 1985.)

          Hopefully nothing.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: @AC: 08:31 (was: Been there, done that. In 1985.)

          @jake - please stop being an arse. If you really did do the same in 1985, post a link to it for us all to see, or stfu.

          1. Dave 126 Silver badge

            Re: @AC: 08:31 (was: Been there, done that. In 1985.)

            Exactly. Posts along the line of "I did X way back in Y" are interesting if they contain some details; indeed, it is in hope of finding comments from those more experienced and wiser than myself that I read the Reg comments section in the first place.

            However, if a RegReader makes reference to something interesting but provides no further detail, then it can only really frustrate us fellow commentards, in much the same way as reading an intriguing headline but then finding the article locked behind a paywall.

            1. Jared Hunt
              Angel

              Re: @Dave 126 (was: Been there, done that. In 1985.)

              Dave, who needs details when you've lead such a rich and varied life as Jake here?

              Jake Breeds & trains Cop dogs & horses and is Qualified to Judge Best In Show at American Kennel Club shows

              Has friends in South Korea

              Was a friend and neighbour of Steve Jobs and has his signature carved in his picnic table

              Worked on spacecraft software/firmware

              Mentored the founders of Google

              Helped work out how to transfer the existing NCP ARPANet to the existing TCP/IP network

              Has been Usenet & Mailinglist moderator for 30 years

              Is a qualified pilot

              Does track day driving

              Has done arctic survival training and has eaten Lemming

              Knows FORTRAN and COBOL

              He ego-surfed the OSX source & found shit he re-wrote from AT&T source nearly 25 years ago

              Has been making money from his knowledge of the PDP11 family since 1979

              Has an extensive gun collection, was shooting gophers before he was in kindergarten and can fire his Great Grandfather's Kentucky over twice a minute

              Watched a guy get killed by a claw hammer thrown from 35 feet up in Humboldt County

              Watched a friend once won a bar bet by sticking 7 of 10 Craftsman brand screwdrivers into a straw archery butt at 15 yards in under 15 seconds

              His kid/daughter (varies) is the Senior Member of the Technical Staff in a Fortune 150/250 (varies) corporation. She owns 6 horses, and is quite competitive in hunter/jumper, eventing & dressage

              Can and has lived off the land, Makes road kill sausages several times a year, Owns a couple acres of Merlot grapes here that have Eucalyptus genes and grows Gravensteins (15 acres, originally planted by his great-grandfather)

              Got kicked out of "Sunday School" when I was roughly 8 years old

              Owns an outdoor 1875 stone bread oven

              Owns a drilled-into-the-rock iron-ring tidal mooring on the Noyo River in Northern California. His Great Grandfather claimed it in 1872

              Runs several "at risk yoof" camps every year.

              Is a locksmith. Learned to pick locks before he was a teenager. Can open most house-hold doors with no more than a safety-pin & a bobby-pin.

              Once could have shot the an intruder he had at chez jake, but when he got down to the kitchen, where he was, instead calmly put down his Kimber & picked up the phone & called the non-emergency police line. When they arrived, called off the dogs & he was transported to the hospital to stop the bleeding.

              Can still read text/code on cards and tape, and sometimes "think" in octal and hex. A partially sighted friend can read punched paper with her fingers, similar to braille.

              Accepted 7 contracts in the last 18 months pulling corporations out of the clouds. It's actually quite lucrative (apparently)

              Has never has used google/youtube. Ever.

              I for one think we have a great deal to learn from this man.

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                @Jared Hunt

                As long as that list is... it's not quite complete

                1. Jared Hunt
                  Thumb Up

                  Re: @Jared Hunt it's not quite complete

                  I'm sure it isn't. I got bored after reading a couple of hundred posts. I'd be keen to see the complete version ;)

                  1. Anonymous Coward
                    Anonymous Coward

                    Re: @Jared Hunt it's not quite complete

                    There is no complete version. The list is infinite, there is literally nothing he hasn't done.

                    1. Anonymous Coward
                      Anonymous Coward

                      Re: @Jared Hunt it's not quite complete

                      I bet he even trolls himself via these Anonymous Coward posting, just so he can add "internet troll" to the list.

                      Maybe I am him

                      maybe I grok trolling

                    2. fearnothing
                      Joke

                      Re: @Jared Hunt it's not quite complete

                      Jake is Chuck Norris. It's the only logical conclusion.

                      That said, the CV posted earlier is clearly not his. His CV would read simply:

                      "I am Chuck Norris."

              2. John Smith 19 Gold badge
                Happy

                Re: @Dave 126 (was: Been there, done that. In 1985.)

                Not to mention HR conslutant.

              3. jason 7 Silver badge

                Re: @Dave 126 (was: Been there, done that. In 1985.)

                Does come across rather Walter Mitty.

                Pinch of salt.

                1. jake Silver badge

                  You lot really have issues.

                  Some of us have actually been there & done that.

                  Carry on, all.

                  1. cyborg
                    Trollface

                    Re: You lot really have issues.

                    "Some of us have actually been there & done that."

                    Could you name someone who has?

                    Thanks.

              4. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: @Dave 126 (was: Been there, done that. In 1985.)

                You forgot his MBA :)

              5. codeusirae

                Yet more Jake quotes.

                Has several degrees including the MBA ("I got mine in about 18 months").

                Attended Stanford University and was admonish by the Deen for correcting the Professor in class.

                Was a TA for the Google founders.

                Worked on transfering NCP ARPANet to TCP/IP.

                Was a personal associate with Steve Jobs.

                Steve Jobs carved his name into Jakes picnic table.

                Is a trained pilot, "I got my ticket off of Sutton Bank in the early 1970s, and am still a member of The Yorkshire Gliding Club".

                Been contributing to the Linux kernel for about 21 years.

                Worked at DEC when Ken Olsen fired someone for 'walking' the washing machine sized disk drive across the floor.

                Sat on "various panels of industry professionals MS brought in for input (large, medium, small and home) in the couple decades prior to 2000".

                Posesses multiple server "boxes" in different locations, Palo Alto, New York, at Sun, Palo Alto, Edinburgh, Auckland, Duluth and Nyack.

                WTC: "Had gear on top of both towers, and in the basements of both (and at Sun, on floors 25 and 26 WTC2)".

                WRC, helped with the rescue: "A couple dogs I had trained were involved in the search and rescue effort".

                WRTC, rebuilt the infrastructure: "a couple dozen of us were awake for about a week, cat-napping occasionally, rebuilding the logical infrastructure manually".

    2. Comments are attributed to your handle

      Re: Been there, done that. In 1985.

      You certainly have done a lot of ego stroking, jake, but not a lot of proof-providing.

    3. JeffyPoooh
      Pint

      Re: Been there, done that. In 1985.

      Writing code in 1985?

      Noobie.

      1. Chris Miller

        Re: Been there, done that. In 1985.

        jake applied to work for my (entirely fictional) Silicon Valley startup. I retained a copy of his CV:

        I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Kenyan refugees. I write award winning operas and manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for 3 days in a row.

        I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed and I cook 30 minute brownies in 20 minutes. I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love and an outlaw in Peru. Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants. I play bluegrass cello, I had trials with Manchester United, I am the subject of numerous documentaries.

        When I'm bored, I build large suspension bridges in my garden, I enjoy urban hand gliding. On Wednesdays, after school, I repair electrical appliances free of charge.

        I have been awarded both the Fields Medal and the Nobel Prize for Literature. I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst and a ruthless bookie. I have provided confidential intelligence advice to the last four Presidents.

        Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear. I don't perspire. Last Summer I toured Eastern Europe with a travelling centrifugal force demonstration. I run the 100m in 9.65 seconds. My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles.

        Children trust me.

        I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy. I once read Paradise Lost, Moby Dick and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening. I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket. I have performed several covert operations for the CIA. I sleep once a week; when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair. While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery. The laws of physics do not apply to me.

        I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic and my bills are all paid. On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full contact origami. Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down.

        I have made extraordinary four course meals using only some vegetables and a Breville Toaster. I breed prize winning clams.

        I have won bullfights in Madrid, cliff-diving competitions in Sri Lanka and chess competitions at the Kremlin. I have played Hamlet, I have performed open-heart surgery and I have spoken with Elvis.

        1. Comments are attributed to your handle
          Coffee/keyboard

          Re: @Fictional CV

          Seems legit.

          1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

            Hey!

            I also know (knew) FORTRAN, nothing wrong about that. But COBOL, is that where the 13th colony got lost or something?

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Been there, done that. In 1985.- (entirely fictional)

          Seems pretty par for the course for the CV of anyone under 25, these days.

          Though to be fair there was the middle aged guy who applied to us once for a sales job, and I had to phone him up and ask him "with this CV, why aren't you running Unilever?"

        3. Martin H Watson

          Re: Been there, done that. In 1985.

          bluegrass cello! Excellent!

    4. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
      Trollface

      Re: Been there, done that. In 1985.

      1985? Slacker. I did it in 1965. I think the source is still on GitHub somewhere. But you'll have to email the admin and ask for the punched tape to be threaded in before you try to download it.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    what?

    I'm still saving up for my wrist radio!

  5. Neil Barnes Silver badge
    Boffin

    The perfect calculator!

    You think not? How many of the kids at school ever borrowed it a *second* time?

    My first calculator... and the RPN led me eventually to Forth and the three or four HP calculators I still use. *Loved* that odd red/purple colour in the LEDs.

    Though the maddest thing I ever did to it was to dismember the thing when the keyboard finally died, and use it as a co-processor for (ahem) a Sinclair MK14... with transistors being driven to simulate keypresses and a small amount of hardware to decode the multiplexed LED output. Still got the MK14 but the Scientific is long in silicon heaven.

    It would probably have been quicker to have written the routines directly. My word it was sloooooooooooooooooooow!

    Kudos to Mr Shirriff.

    1. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: The perfect calculator!

      How many of the kids at school ever borrowed it a *second* time?

      I was going to say the same; the most frequent refrain after "lend us your calculator" was "where's the equals button?"

      I still have mine. I think it's a lovely design but, beyond having to grapple with RPN, it had two problems; poor battery contacts and the sliding power button had prongs sliding over PCB tracking which were not good at withstanding wear.

      1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: The perfect calculator!

        My Mum bought me the kit, it still works today although I have had to resolder both the battery contacts and repair the sliding switch. The transfer with Pi/e/etc. on it has worn off, but the rest of the case is in good shape.

        A little later one of my friends got the upgraded Cambridge Scientific (faster, and not RPN) and his came in a hard plastic case instead of a purple cloth bag. I wrote to Sinclair asking if it was possible to buy a case, and they sent me one for free :) Nice service.

      2. Stoneshop Silver badge
        Boffin

        Re: The perfect calculator!

        I was going to say the same; the most frequent refrain after "lend us your calculator" was "where's the equals button?"

        One particularly obnoxious and ignorant twit, whose sense of entitlement apparently extended to me supplying him with a calculator, took about five minutes of key-pounding (this was an HP29; it could take the abuse) before latching on to the lack of the equals key. He then demanded "a normal calculator".

        "Here, have my slide rule".

        1. Thomas Gray

          Re: The perfect calculator!

          "Here, have my slide rule"

          Which, in effect, the calculator was. 3dp accuracy, RPN, everything in exponent form. About as accurate (probably as fast) as a 24" slide rule, but a little more pocketable.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The perfect calculator!

      How many of the kids at school ever borrowed it a *second* time?

      I had loads of fun in school with my dad's hand-me-down HP scientific calcs.

      One of the best things was to put it in octal mode before someone borrowed it:

      "4 * 25"

      "124"

      *anywhere from two minutes to one day later*

      "Hey, what's up with your stupid calculator?!"

      Hex was pretty cool for that, too:

      [guy] "Uh, I think this thing is broken - it says that nine times seven is 3F?!"

      [me, switching mode surreptitiously as I take the calculator from him] "Uh, no, it says 63. Are you feeling all right?"

      [guy] ****?

      I amused quite a few kids for a long time by writing a program for the HP 12C which was essentially a random number generator, but by dint of technobabble and force of will I convinced people that if they typed yes or no questions into the calculator in a certain way (using numeric substitution for letters) that it would answer correctly. People took it surprisingly seriously; had I been cannier, I could probably have printed money... Oh well.

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

  6. This post has been deleted by its author

  7. James 47

    Suffice it

  8. Julian 4

    Squeezetastic

    The Sinclair Scientific was a true engineering triumph: squeezing the UI and operation of a scientific calculator into just 320 x 11-bit program steps written in just 3 days from a hotel in Texas (how on earth did they test it?).

    But it explains why Sinclair thought floating point would be trivial for his series of computers: if you can fit it into <0.4Kb* then it should have been no problem fitting into his second computer (as he promised) given its expansive 4Kb Super-ROM... but users had to wait for the 8K ROM ZX81 before that kind of luxury became available (the MK14 was his first computer).

    Ken's post is brilliant, all the more amazing for the fact that we now know more about the Sinclair Scientific then we ever did, 39 years after it came out; and gain a better insight for why Sir Clive Sinclair was seen as the (eccentric) 1970s genius instead of the 80s techie front-man. Digital archeology at its best!

    -cheers from Julz

    [* 320x11-bits is about 440 bytes]

  9. zebthecat

    Ahhh, RPN and the shunting yard....

    ...brings back bad memories.

  10. Young codger
    Meh

    Luxury!

    Four function calculator? When I were a lad we had to do trig on our fingers!

    1. LazyLazyman

      Re: Luxury!

      Fingers! The luxury! When I were a lad our fingers were worn down to stumps from workin' in mine 25 hours a day! We had to do integration using naught but a bit of slate and a stick and if we got it wrong our da' would beat us to death, and we would still be up in mornin' down pit minin' hot lava for lava mills!

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Luxury!

        Stick and a full piece of slate he says........Eeeeeeeeh, hark at it!

        I used to dream of a stick and a bit of slate. When I was a lad, all we had was nowt but a bit of mud to grub about in and we were glad of it letmetellyou.

      2. Flywheel Silver badge

        Re: Luxury!

        Slate and Stick? By 'eck.. that sounds like real luxury to me! When I were a lad we'd worn all our limbs to stumps down't t'pit and we had to call out the numbers to a crippled lad in't village who'd add it up for us. Tha knows..

        1. g e
          Coat

          Re: Luxury!

          By 'eck you lot had it like the Queen. We longed for limbs and our parents all died long before we were born...

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Luxury!

          Mud! Stumps! Village Idiot...

          Eeeh the luxury you lot had, we used to dream of finger stumps, we'd eaten our fingers long before then to stave off the cold.

          Mud was something only the posh people had, we had to make do with rocks, no water mind you, couldn't afford it, we'd bash them together to try and get some protein out of them, made a loverly gruel and kept you regular,

          And I was the Village Idiot....

  11. Neil 44

    Soldering exercise

    I remember building mine - only way I could afford it!

    I also remember having a transformer in a box with a small PCB and a reused earphone lead that plugged into an additional socket to power it from mains.

    People used to laugh at the "almost accurate" answers (2/2*2 didn't come back as 2 from what I remember)

    1. Elmer Phud

      Re: Soldering exercise

      The QL had a 12 semitone octave . . .

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Soldering exercise

        What's wrong with that. . How many would you have expected it to have?

    2. Steven Jones

      Re: Soldering exercise

      I seem to remember that I got my self-build kit through a cheap offer in Electronics Today International. I was in my first year studying physics at Imperial College at the time, and everybody lusted after the HP calculators in the labs (solidly fixed in their cradles with security cables).

      Of course the Sinclair shared RPN with the HP, but, besides lack of functions, suffered from lack of accuracy (only about three-and-a-half significant figures could be relied upon in practice). From what I recall, and involved some very convoluted exercises to do something as simple as produce the inverse of the number currently displayed. Of course, in a year or so, you could buy fully-fledged scientific calculators for pocket money.

    3. Ian 55
      Childcatcher

      Re: Soldering exercise

      Yes, even the later ones - I had a Sinclair Cambridge Programmable - were pseudo-random number generators, accurate only to very few SF. They were slide rule replacements, but pretended they were more accurate than that.

  12. Tony Green

    A bargain as a kit

    It was fifty quid if you bought the ready-made one. But you could buy a kit and build it yourself for £16, which as an apprentice telephone engineer at the time was the same as my weekly gross wage. And extra geek points (before we'd even HEARD of geek points) for having built it yourself.

    Funny thing about its use of RPN was that although it was hard to get used to, once you did it was very hard to get used to "normal" calculator operations. Rather like the way I now instinctively find myself using vi key-sequences whatever I'm editing in.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: A bargain as a kit

      ... like the way I now instinctively find myself using vi key-sequences whatever I'm editing in.

      Yay! I'm not the only one :-D

      1. Jonathan Richards 1
        Happy

        vi problem...

        > Yay! I'm not the only one :-D

        E492: Not an editor command: -D

        :q!

      2. PJI
        Happy

        Re: A bargain as a kit

        What, are there other editors with different instructions? Well, there is cat(1) if ed(1) / vi(1) are not available. No joke, I have had to create a config. file thus. It worked.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: A bargain as a kit

          there is cat(1) if ed(1) / vi(1) are not available.

          You missed the ultimate bare bones editor 'echo'.

          1. Swarthy
            Thumb Up

            Re: A bargain as a kit

            My *nix creds don't run that deep. But I can sympathize with 'edlin' and in some extreme cases - 'debug'

            ...sometimes the memories of creating a website via debug still wakes me up at night, but I did win the bet.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: A bargain as a kit

        No, you're not the only one.

  13. Brian de Ford

    As all Sinclair products, it was a pile of shite.

    Yeah, you can find bigger piles of shite to compare it against and then it looks good, but it was a pile of fucking shite. An incredibly clever pile of fucking shite, but still a pile of fucking shite.

    1. hplasm Silver badge
      Meh

      Shutit-

      Sir Sugar.

    2. Jim 59

      Yeah obviously and Stephenson's Rocket was a POS too I mean top speed 15 mph the guy is having a laff, I don't even know why he is a selebrity

    3. Anonymous IV

      @Brian de Ford

      I commend your well-reasoned, insightful and thoroughly researched comment.

      OR

      Why did you bother?

    4. Ian 55
      Pint

      Despite all the downvotes, you are right - see the Black Watch (almost impossible to build yourself because of how tightly the components were squeezed in, and with a MTBF of about five minutes, you stood a 50-50 chance of exhausting the battery before it died forever), the calculators with nearly but not quite all the precision and speed of doing it via a slide rule, the much-loved but compared to an Apple ][, Atari 800 or BBC Micro really rather crap home micros, or projects like the MicroDrive or the washing machine on wheels...

      .. but they are still loved. It's clearly not just Apple that has the fanbois, and Sinclair stuff was cheaper.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        You do have to admire the sheer chutzpah of a guy who'll save money by digging up and using ICs that another company had decided were only useful as driveway fill.

        Actually, now that I think about it, I wouldn't be too surprised if that's where all of these Atom CPUs have been coming from...

  14. Martin 15

    One in front of me now.

    There's one on the shelf in front of me now. Complete with it's cloth "bag". I can't pluck up the courage to put some batteries in and see if my soldering has survived the test of time.

    1. Alan W. Rateliff, II
      Paris Hilton

      Re: One in front of me now.

      I know that feeling. At the same time, though, if you cannot build up the courage now, will you ever? If it's left behind after you, would you prefer that someone with noob hands give a go at it, supervised only by your spiritual presence?

      If it's meant to be just a display piece, no problem. But I can feel the niggling in your heart. Deep down in some deep corner of your psyche, eating away... no, screaming... at you every time you lay your eyes on its wondrously beautiful and tantalizing enclosure, even just out of the corner of your eyes, until one day you realize that while in those boring meetings you're doodling it, tracing its silhouette over and over again on your note pad. You start seeing it everywhere you look. It haunts your daily existence. The batteries... they're so close, and yet the distance you put between them is agonizing.

      Dude... I know that feeling.

      Paris, hooked on a feeling.

  15. Mr C

    long lost art of efficient programming

    I enjoyed reading the paper, its nicely written, and it has a nice debugger if you're into that kind of thing.

    Loved the part where it says "Calling NORMALIZE would have fixed this, but there wasn't space for the call" which just shows how tight everything was back then.

    Today you'll be hard-pressed to find people that are adept at designing efficient algorithms of any kind.

    "Install more memory" seems to be the mantra by which many designers live these days.

    "Get a faster CPU" or "Get a bigger HD" also is exceedingly popular.

    I miss the old days

    1. JDX Gold badge

      Re: long lost art of efficient programming

      Clever efficient programmers are all over the place still. But clever, efficient programming is a tool to use when needed rather than all the time - if your input requirements mean a simple O(N^2) solution is perfectly fine then why spend an extra two days writing a convoluted O(NlogN) one. They didn't do this for fun back in the old days, but because it was essential - nowadays we still do it when it's essential.

      You don't rebuild your Ford Focus engine and tune it because it doesn't actually make your commute to work any quicker. But you do your track car.

      1. Jim 59

        Re: long lost art of efficient programming

        @JDX true but the mega-corps just rely on Moore's law to make their mega-inefficient code actually work. This is why knocking up a quick CV on your 2013 laptop looks and feels largely the same as knocking up a quick CV on your 1993 pc, just the code is 1000 bigger and 1000 slower but the hardware is also 1000 times faster.

        If Windows 8 was written with the same level of dedication as that calculator, it would have enough power to go into orbit. Unfortunately is would also take 100 years ti write.

        1. Mr C

          Re: long lost art of efficient programming

          I remember this application which was popular in the 80ies-90ies, "Norton Commander" or NC for short.

          A kind of file explorer back in the DOS days based on a character GUI.

          I remember everyone using it, but over time it grew and grew and got bloated until it didn't fit on a floppy any more.

          Then someone walked in with something called "Volkov Commander" -VC for short

          Now, this was a 100% rip-off from the original, except that it was written by some Ukrainian dude (if memory server), and in the Ukraine back in those days they didn't have the PCs we had here in the west, so that poor guy on his crappy machine decided to write his own version that worked on machines with low specs.

          I have never forgotten, and each time something like this comes up i remember VC!

          1. Moonshine
            Pint

            Re: long lost art of efficient programming

            I concur with all this. Back in those days programs weren't "written", they were crafted. Another example that springs to mind is ZX81 Chess (1K).

            See http://users.ox.ac.uk/~uzdm0006/scans/1kchess/

    2. JeffyPoooh
      Pint

      Re: long lost art of efficient programming

      Anyone else remember the 'One Liners' programming contests of 30+ years ago? One line of BASIC being about 240 characters, varying slightly depending on which brand of affordable pre-PC home computer you had in the very late 1970s or early- to mid-1980s.

      I wrote a cute little video game (one line!), and also a (text) adventure game *engine* (one line!, but needing an additional DATA statement for each dark and scary room).

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    When Sinclair was a genuis ....

    ISTR the chip at the heart of one of his calculators was a power hungry beast that Texas Instruments insisted could not be run of a battery.

    Sinclair devised a chopper circuit to power the chip only 10% of the time - thus allowing it to be powered by a battery.

  17. The Axe

    Still got mine

    Mine's buried away in the loft but I do remember it working till the last drops of power in its PP3 battery died. Should try and dig it out. Probably worth, ooh, 99p now?

    1. no-one in particular

      Re: Still got mine

      Wasn't the one with the PP3 battery the successor to this?

    2. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Still got mine

      I'll give you 99p for it. Since I found out my still working MK14 would fetch £600 on ebay!

    3. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge
      Thumb Down

      Re: Still got mine

      Didn't use a PP3, it took 4 AAA cells.

      1. MrT

        PP3...

        ... I had an old HP LED calculator - wedge shape, clicky buttons like an Oric 1 IIRC - that took 6xAAA, but worked just as well with a PP3 wired up across the first and last contact and fixed with black insulation tape on the top behind the screen. A bit cheaper to power than finding the right cells.

        I later replaced it with the powerhouse that was the original Casio fx-82 ... and remember the cold flush of jealously when later beaten by fx-100 users on the "1++1=========(etc...)" race to 100.

  18. Tom 7 Silver badge

    Looking at the page, and the linked calculator chip*

    I would recommend this to any programmer or would be programmer as to what you can do with

    old hardware and some motivation.

    And the simulation engine shows you can do an IDE in the browser.

    *(http://righto.com/ti)

  19. Qwelak

    Haven;t got a sinclair but..

    I did find whilst clearing my house out for a move an old Texas Instruments Ti 1250 calculator from c1976.

    Put batts in switched on and the old red LED display lit up perfectly and the thing still works. a blast from the pasr.

    Qwelak

  20. Nigel 11

    $400 for the competition??

    I can't remember the exact year, but I remember that when I was in the market for my first scientific calculator (as a schoolkid), the competition was between the Sinclair and the Commodore SR-36 at about twice the price. I bought the Commodore (for a vaguely-remembered £59? ), and never regretted it. Everything worked perfectly right through to about 2005(*), during which time I never felt a need to buy another calculator. I think it was the keyboard which proclaimed "quality" just as the Sinclair one proclaimed "cheap, nasty".

    The Commodore SR-36 was a real class act.

    (*) except the rechargeable battery, whch I had to replace a couple of times (screwdriver and soldering iron required).

    1. MarketingTechnoDude

      Re: $400 for the competition??

      I remember the Commodore calculator as well. Dad bought one for his building business.

      Made in the UK at a factory at Egglescliff in the North East of England.

  21. Quentin North

    Divide by zero

    Pleased to see that the emulator has the divide by zero bug, although does not emulate it correctly. Divide by zero was possible on the Sinclair scientific resulting in the display of a count down or general numerical iteration. From memory this never stopped until you powered off, but the emulator seems to reach an input state after a short series of iterations.

  22. GregT

    Still working, still quirky as they ever were

    For a trip down memory lane see my pic of the scientific and standard calculators here:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/somersetman/4037850828/.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Boffin

    RPN is it? Let me break out my Forth compiler

  24. Mage Silver badge
    Coat

    Roundworld's Bergholt Stuttley Johnson

    Almost every Sinclair Product had a touch of genius but fatally flawed. If the design didn't have a flaw then it would be a failure due to poor production (Amstrad was horrified at the Production when he bought them).

    Micro Smallest Radio (which wasn't even before it came out). TRF Reflex.

    Grossly exaggerated specs of sub spec IC10 (Plessey) and IC12 (Texas)

    Watch almost impossible to fit in case

    Three iterations of pocket TVs with different flaws (oddly the first one the main flaw was too expensive, rare for Sinclair 2nd flaw battery. Last model was obsolete at release by LCD and Sony had better "flat" CRT to market first).

    Wobbling RAM packs

    QL "tape" cartridges

    C5 bike using Washing machine motor.

    We need people like Sinclair, but with better attention to Production Engineering and Quality.

    1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

      Re: Roundworld's Bergholt Stuttley Johnson

      We need people like Sinclair, but with better attention to Production Engineering and Quality.

      Probably, but without Sinclair leading the way a lot of such people would never have had the encouragement they needed.

    2. Neil Barnes Silver badge
      FAIL

      QL "tape" cartridges

      No names, no pack drill, but I heard this from the guy who was there...

      "Make us a tape tester"

      "OK"

      "Er, it's failing too many"

      "That's because they're failing"

      "I know, let's just loop the test until they pass, or all the oxide wears off the tape..."

  25. Chris Evans

    My Dad bought me a non scientific calculator on HP!

    I think it was in 1972 my Dad bought me a non scientific calculator on Hire Purchase from Dixons! Well it was £49.95!

    IIRC it only did: add, subtract, multiply & divide.

  26. Alan Sharkey

    Well, I found the article interesting.

    Back in the old days, I used to have to program everything to fit in 32K of memory (old DG RDOS). It was amazing what you could do if you had a modicom of knowledge about the processor and registers.

    And yes, I did do RPN programming so the end user could enter their own formula (for oil well pressure analysis) and it would RPN it to act on the the data gathered. I was quite proud of that considering I wrote it back before we had spreadsheets.

    Alan [No there are no links - it was way before we had any internet]

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    splendid work

    Hats off to both the Sinclair bods who came up with the solution in the first place and to the chap who managed to reverse engineer the code, by just looking at the chip. Just when you thought you knew a thing or two, people like this give you a wake up call. Have beer on me.

  28. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    Wow. I thought the *hard* part was getting it to run for the length of time on 2 AAs

    Basically by delivering short pulses at around 200Khz to the chip as (IIRC) this puppy is NMOS, not CMOS

    I think that qualifies it for being the worlds first battery switched mode PSU in a consumer product (but I cannot swear to it).

    I thought they just bought the chip and stuck in the board. I'd no idea the chip was even programmable.

  29. Thomas Gray

    C5 motor

    Wasn't from a washing machine, but from a torpedo motor manufacturer http://www.sinclairc5.com/facts/motor.htm

    Just because the thing was assembled by Hoover, didn't mean they used the same components.

  30. Andus McCoatover

    Still got one, somewhere...

    Helped me through my City&Guilds telecomm Full Tech. Cert. exam.

    (Although my Grandfathers 'slip-stick' - slide rule - was what I used for the exams. More accurate, if my glasses were clean...)

    Now, all I need is to find new batteries for my still-functional RPN Hewlett-Packard HP35 (Still with original leather pouch)

  31. Alan W. Rateliff, II
    Paris Hilton

    I know that feeling. At the same time, though, if you cannot build up the courage now, will you ever? If it's left behind after you, would you prefer that someone with noob hands give a go at it, supervised only by your spiritual presence?

    If it's meant to be just a display piece, no problem. But I can feel the niggling in your heart. Deep down in some deep corner of your psyche, eating away... no, screaming... at you every time you lay your eyes on its wondrously beautiful and tantalizing enclosure, even just out of the corner of your eyes, until one day you realize that while in those boring meetings you're doodling it, tracing its silhouette over and over again on your note pad. You start seeing it everywhere you look. It haunts your daily existence. The batteries... they're so close, and yet the distance you put between them is agonizing.

    Dude... I know that feeling.

    Paris, hooked on a feeling.

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