Internet Archive’s Virtual Retro Calculators Fuel Nostalgia
For the last generation of techies who grew up before personal computers, calculators were a fascinating portal into the world of numbers. Last month saw new reminders that there’s still a community of internet users who have a lingering fondness for handheld calculators — especially the vintage ones that they’d used in those high school math classes of long ago.
As the Internet Archive released a new collection of calculator emulators, appreciative comments started rolling in.
One Archive.org user compared their own real-world TI-83 calculator with its new online doppelganger, calling the emulation “amazing … The colors are spot on and feels similar to the real calculator.”
Another spotted the Texas Instruments’ TI-89 they’d used when getting a mechanical engineering degree sometime around 1998, posting that the emulator “works (and looks) exactly as I recall.” And one commenter even revealed that they’re still using the TI-89 that they’d bought back in 2001 — every single day! (“They are built like a tank.”)
Although inevitably, they also remembered that it wasn’t always used for mathematics: “I remember playing Tetris and even Doom on this in high school.”
Revisit the calculators of your adolescence with @internetarchive ‘s new Calculator Drawer, full of free and publicly accessible 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 by articles from Engadget, Ars Technica, the Verge and the Register, and it’s all proof 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 a handheld calculating and graphing device. And in a recent blog post, Jason Scott, a software curator, heralded emulation projects like this as “the future of software’s history.”
Preserving the Past
One long-time fan of vintage calculators is Eric Rechlin, a technical architect. Since 1997, more than 22 million people have stopped by to visit his site, HPCalc.org, which houses his own giant archive of software for HP’s programmable graphic calculators. And there’s also Rechlin’s collection of 280 emulators of HP calculators (to be run on a PC).
Rechlin points out that it’s just one of many acts of calculator preservation he’s seen over the years. “Online browser-based emulation of the HP 48G series has been available for quite a few years now,” Rechlin told me in an email interview.
Though when asked about the Internet Archive’s new collection, Rechlin acknowledged 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 look of those 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 pennies as a 13-year-old in the 1970s to purchase an HP-25. By the 1990s, “I thought that this new web/HTML thing might just be the ‘next big thing.'” After creating a site showcasing his vintage HP calculators, “I was immediately deluged with email from fellow HP calculator lunatics who loved my museum but wanted to see more.”
So, he said, “I gave in to the Internet masses and sought out every HP calculator made and updated the museum in roughly chronological order.”
— Jawa (@CharredJawa) January 31, 2023
The Internet Archive’s new collection — titled “the Calculator Drawer” — lets its 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 since 1997 has been recreating hardware systems for the preservation of classic games and other software programs.
Scott wrote that “the vast majority” of emulated games at Internet Archive are using MAME — which isn’t a 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 now cover is so huge, a site exists just to keep track of what they don’t emulate … yet.”
So Scott’s blog post welcomed the emulated calculators into what he called “the Emularity.” (The Internet Archive also hosts two different collections with thousands of arcade videogames, plus 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 delightful “Electronic Number Muncher,” a 1989 math game aimed at kids that came in a yellow case with a smiling elephant manufactured by Hong Kong-based Vtech. On its black and white screen, it dispensed equations for children to solve — and showed a cartoon monkey who dropped snacks into an elephant’s trunk.
But with over 10,000 views, by far the most-viewed calculator appears to be the classic HP 48G+ (produced by Hewlett-Packard from 1990 until 2003).
Calculators on Phones
It’s not the only way to recreate the handheld calculator experience. There are also phone apps that emulate classic calculators — and a recent Hacker News discussion revealed that many aficionados are using them.
One commenter wrote they miss the old-school buttons on a physical calculator, but “I still reach for my phone, which has an HP emulator running, to do calculations with what looks like an actual calculator,” calling the experience “still preferable to the computer. (“So, here I am, with a computer and having used computers daily for close to half a century, and still grabbing for a dedicated thing for doing certain types of calculations!”)
They’re not the only one. At least one programmer also posted that “I still run a TI-89 emulator on my phone as the default calculator. It’s so much more powerful than the crap calculator apps that come with the phones.”
Several commenters expressed their appreciation that the Internet Archive recreated their favorite old calculators online.
Nick Kosmatos, a software engineer, posted: “My beloved TI-85 is there and brings back so many memories. It served me well all those years at the university and then some.” (Kosmatos still has an original TI-85 — first released in 1992 — but he reported that “its screen is somewhat broken, so it’s good that we have an easy way to emulate it.”)
In an email interview, Archive.org curator Scott told me he was gratified to see people on Twitter “reconnecting with their old machines. You can see people proudly taking photos of calculators they have at their desks.”
Scott confessed that when it comes to himself, “I actually never took math past 10th grade in high school, so calculators were never a big deal or something I gave much thought to.”
But sooner or later, the software curator would catch the enthusiasm just from popular demand. “I happened to have a conversation with some people and they asked why we didn’t have any emulations up!”
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