reviewed by Dejan Ristanovic
Although I still think TI-59 was the best calculator in the world, I've always respected Hewlett-Packard calculators - I still own HP-41CV and HP-48GX and used to be a member of PPC club. That club's accomplishments were fascinating, and deserve to be mentioned in the history of computing. As I also like to read and write about good old times (hack, I even made this site), I was very interested in the book 'RCL 20 - People, Dreams and HP Calculators'. Actually, I don't remember being this inpatient to get any book lately. Finally I found the package from Amazon.co.uk in my mailbox and laid my hands on this little (175 pages) masterpiece.
RCL 20 is, as any visitor of this site should guess, a valid HP-41C (or, for that matter, TI-58/59) instruction, but also stands for the ReCoLlection of the (20 year long) history of the British PPC Chapter, once called PPC-UK and now HPCC, Handheld and Portable Computer Club. The book consists of seven chapters (Why we started, How we started, Growing and Changing, Developments, Communicating, Design, Perspectives, and Coda) and each chapter consists of stories written by HPCC members and the other calculator owners. There are 28 stories in the book, including a science-fiction story 'Thank you, Beep' by Gordon Dickson, written in 1978 and dedicated to HP calculators of the future (well, sort of).
Most of the stories are highly personal and talk about the ways calculators changed our lives. It is amazing to read the story of your youth written by someone else - Frank Wales' story about choosing profession, Rabin Ezra's story about that amazing feeling you have when you meet other people with the same interests for the first time, Graeme Cawsey's story about ZENROM development, when they had to squeeze every possible byte (including double usage of the version number and checksum bytes for the code), Gary Friedman's story about hardware tweaks for overclocking the calculator, Włodek Mier-Jędrzejowicz's story about running the club and editing the newsletter... Quite a few of these things happened to every one of us, only the names are different. And that includes the thing that did not happen - fooling around with a calculator never got anybody a girlfriend. Oh well...
So was the book what I expected? Honestly, I expected more technical stuff, more history and even some off-color stories like 'How I was seduced by the dark side of the Force and destroyed the PPC club' by Emmett Ingram, or 'How I was hired by HP' by Bill Wickes, or even something like that PPC ROM User Manual's story about the state-wide quest for the right daisy wheel. Instead I get sort of the lyrics in prose, but the lyrics I couldn't put aside before I read the very last line. Not only because one always gets emotional while reading the story about his youth (well, we are not that old - as Ms. Darci Wood nicely put out, we just started that young), but because it is a book of vision. Grand vision of truly personal computers the users could understand and control. Vision we had once, and vision the personal computing industry lost. I doubt anything (including this kind of recollection) could motivate Hewlett-Packard to revive its Corvallis calculator division - we came to the end of an era of programmable calculators, and that era deserves a written history. I wish this book was longer, and I also wish we could produce such a book about TI-59 Dreams. Maybe one day...
In the meanwhile, buy RCL 20 - you will love it!