May 24, 2007
On May 24 1977, Texas Instruments introduced TI-59. So today we celebrate the 30th birthday of this great calculator or, should I say, personal computer.
Happy birthday, dear TI-59, happy birthday to you!
The TI-59 flyer said: 'The super-powerful card programmable with TI's revolutionary plug-in Solid State Software modules... The programmable 59 is truly computer-like. You have up to 960 program steps, or up to 100 memories to work with. And, when integrated with The Master Library module it delivers up to 5000 program steps'. Nearly 5 kilobytes. Wow!
Or to quote from the original press release: 'In order to encourage interest in programming and computational problem solving, Texas Instruments introduced a number of new general purpose and specialty calculators... Nearly 400,000 people purchased programmable calculators in 1976, and over 3 million people would be buying programmables by 1979'.
I was one of those 3 million people. TI-58 was my first personal computer, and it made me choose my profession. I saw it in a store window on Friday, July 20, 1979 and could barely wait for the weekend to pass. I bought it on Monday with the manual in Italian, the language I do not speak. Also, I did not know anything about programming - I just felt that this is sooo interesting. With the whole summer hiatus ahead of me, I worked with my calculator, day by day, night by night. I was so naive - I remember reading about 2nd Op 19 which 'sets flag 7 if an error exists in a program'. So I loaded my best program, executed Op 19, and was very proud to see that flag 7 was not set. But then I deliberately made some logical error in the program and the flag was still reset... Hmmm [If you forgot, Op 19 sets flag 7 if the display is blinking, due to division by zero or some similar error; something like ON ERROR GOTO in BASIC. It certainly does not seek for logical errors in the program].
DSZ was the last instruction I mastered (boy, it was a tough one), and I remember feeling a bit disappointed - was that really all? No more instructions? But I also remember coming to school in September and proudly showing my first programs (Mastermind, NIM, Poker...) to my schoolmates. They were impressed. Or at least I thought they should have been.
Fortunately, there was more where TI-59 came from. Page A6 of the manual (by the end of the year I somehow obtained the English version) said 'You can write to Consumer Relations Department, P.O. Box 53, Lubbock, Texas 79408'. And I did - there was no e-mail and no word processors at that time, so I had to type both the letter and my best programs I intended to send on the Olympia typewriter (PC100C printer came much later). I took the whole matter seriously enough to type that horrible paragraph from the manual ('All of the information forwarded herewith is presented to TI on a nonconfidential, nonobligatory basis... TI may use, copyright, publish, reproduce, or dispose of the information in any way...) - hack, I took it so seriously that I almost retyped it now.
And mother TI did answer - a month later I found a nice letter in my mailbox, accompanied with a few catalogues. One of them contained the list of TI-59 user's clubs, so I started writing letters and sending my programs - there was quite a few of them by January 1980. I actually discovered the whole world out there - a lot of good people sharing my interests. Thomas Edling in Germany, Lars Hedlund in Sweden, Robert AH Prins in the Netherlands, Thomas Coppens in Belgium... But the main thing came from Maryland, USA - In May 1980 Maurice E. T. Swinnen sent me first five issues of his wonderful newsletter TI PPC Notes. That was the day to remember - I spent it reading about HIR registers, fast mode, and other cool stuff, then I keyed-in some of the programs... well, to be honest, almost all of the programs. TI PPC Notes were of such importance to me during the following years that I took time to write an angry letter to Maurice when he published the April Fool's joke - why waste valuable space on something that irrelevant?
During the next two years, I wrote about a zillion TI-59 programs. Some of them were eventually published in TI PPC Notes (tell me about reaching the stars) and even in some 'serious' scientific journals - my father was using TI-59 in his research work, and I was very proud to write necessary programs. Not many TI-59 programs were published in the journal with the impact factor.
Things move fast in the world of computers, so the golden era of TI-59 had to come to an end. HP-41C was just the first step - I am loyal enough to say that TI-59 is the best calculator in the world, but I have to admit that HP-41C was good. After all, it had memory modules, alphanumerics, William C. Wickes, Richard Nelson... Synthetic programming and PPC ROM were so cool that I had to buy that calculator, I even wrote 'TI-59 to HP-41C Compiler' (eventually published in the PPC Calculator Journal), but I never really switched to HP-41C - I always preferred AOS to RPN. Well, to be honest, I do use HP-49 now, but it is an AOS calculator, right? Almost AOS?
Then came home computers, personal computers, DOS, Turbo Pascal, Visual Basic... You could actually declare a longint variable to store one bit of information, without wasting a second of your time just to think about that. The programs became monsters (a megabyte of code - about 1000 times the TI-59's memory - just to display the 'Hallo, world' message) with all the bugs, buffer overflows and multi-megabyte monthly patches.
But 30 years should not be enough to turn a young boy into an old grouch. After all, we now have the Internet and we can use it for the virtual birthday party of our beloved calculator. So long live TI-59 - I even purchased a new set of batteries yesterday.