Sunday, September 29, 2019


The script for this video is below:

Hello there, this is “Leigh Spence Is Dancing with The Gatekeepers,” I am Leigh Spence and, yes, I have been real all along. No internet characters for me, real life is more than enough. If you have come across from my website at [], thank you, and if something or someone has sent you in the direction of this video, welcome. 

This series is usually a written blog but, to mark article number two hundred, and because it is easier to show you my subject this time around, it is time to try something new. If you think this experiment has worked, and you would like to see more, please like, subscribe, ring the bell, all the usual stuff, and we’ll see where this goes.

We’ll come to our main subject of the HP-12 calculator in a moment, but just in case you were wondering, why is this called “Leigh Spence is Dancing with the Gatekeepers”? Sounds a bit strong, doesn’t it? Well, the truth is I once had a dream where I recorded an electronic art-rock album titled, “Leigh Spence is Dancing with the Gatekeepers,” where one of the tracks apparently had me yelling, “all they have are words” over and over again. The first article in the series, published in May 2016, ended like this: “Dancing with the Gatekeepers” could sound like a mystical battle of good versus evil, but it is much more positive to me: taking delight in the challenges life gives you, and having fun with those that think they have all the answers. It will be more about me trying to make sense of an issue, why I think the way I do, or why I am expected to think something, rather than coming to a decision. Ultimately, I want this to be a fun exploration of the stories we tell ourselves.

One month later, the UK voted to leave the European Union, and five months after that, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. Lucky me, so good thing I’ve also talked about the Futurist Cookbook, postmodernism, vaporwave, dead shopping malls, “Myra Breckenridge”, and Jeremy Beadle. That’s not stopping any time soon.

Another reason I have made a video at this point is that I’ve realised I can effectively make a video using stuff found around the house. If I bring out a mirror, I can show you what’s pointing at me because, let’s face it, YouTube is public access television, and we are all content creators now. All I had to buy was the tripod, but everything from my phone’s camera to the tablet autocue, and the microphone on my PC headphones, were waiting for me to say, “I know what I can do.” There is nothing to stop you from having a go.

Anyway, calculators. I usually use a song lyric when I write an article, so I will call this one: “I AM ADDING AND SUBTRACTING, I’M CONTROLLING AND COMPOSING.” Kraftwerk were never one for lyrics, were they? “I AM AN OPERATOR WITH MY POCKET CALCULATOR.”

When did you last buy a calculator? When did you last use one? Have you just bought your child a calculator for school? Do you still have the one YOU used at school? Or do you just use your phone? In the early 1970s, calculators were the first time that the power of computing was made available to everyone, but they had already become a commonplace, even mundane, item by the end of that decade, a feat later equalled by smartphones. And yet, I can’t do without them. I like the idea of having one to hand, to calculate those more pressing questions like, what is the speed of sound through custard, and what are my chances of actually winning the lottery? What is more, why buy a stress ball or a fidget spinner, when a calculator is literally a load of buttons? No wonder I’ve built up quite a collection...


As you can see, a lot of my collection are scientific calculators of a certain vintage, mostly 1980s and 90s, back when they used to cost a bit more. What I have seen now is that, while your standard, four-function calculators have been ten a penny for decades now, even scientific calculators have reached the level where they can be found as disposable tat. That gives me an idea...


However, I want to focus on perhaps the most bizarre calculator of them all. It is a financial calculator, so let’s bring up some pictures of the City of London, where some people may still be stubbornly using it over Microsoft Excel. It has been on sale for nearly forty years now, despite the constant attempts by its producer to make and sell faster, more capable and easier to use machines. You’re already ahead of me if you read the title of the video – it’s the HP-12C.

...and here it is again. There are many videos on YouTube that provide tutorials on how this works, so it’s a big hello to you if you clicked on this one by accident – I can only apologise.

The HP-12C went on sale in 1981. By this point, Hewlett-Packard had introduced “shirt pocket power” with the first scientific calculator, the HP-35 in 1972 – by the way, I’m only quoting what it said in the manual. “Our object in developing the HP-35 was to give you a high precision portable electronic slide rule. We thought you’d like to have something only fictional heroes like James Bond, Walter Mitty or Dick Tracy are supposed to own.” Hilarious to read now, but the HP-35 instantly threw away hundreds of years of using slide rules and logarithm tables. General Electric ordered twenty thousand of them immediately. 

By 1981, HP introduced a range of cheaper calculators, codenamed “Voyager,” all using the same horizontal case. The 10C, 11C and 15C were all scientific calculators of increasing ability, while the 16C was made for computer programmers. Note the ability to change mathematical bases, which I like to use to see what numbers come up. For example, the Book of Revelations states the Number of the Beast is 666, but in hexadecimal, that becomes 29A, or the House Number of the Beast. In Octal, it is 1232, the PIN number of the Beast, while in binary: 





All of the Voyager range, bar the 12C, left the market before the end of the 1980s, overtaken by more capable machines. However, they are very highly sought after – if you can one under a hundred pounds, then get it straight away, because the average price is nearly two hundred pounds.

Why did the 12C stick around? While HP needed to make sure that trigonometric functions, reciprocals, exponentials, square root and so on were included on the first scientific calculator, the first financial calculator, the HP-80, would feature functions invented by HP – the “time value of money,” amortisation of loans, bond prices and yields, accumulated interest rates, mean and standard deviations, past and future dates, days between dates. You didn’t need to know why they work, only that they do. No wonder the manual for the 12C includes a disclaimer advising HP takes no responsibility for the answers their machines create, or any risk that comes from acting upon the answers. It is also why the manual makes sure you know the basics of financial calculators before telling you how to turn the thing on, on page 16.

Taking a look at the 12C, it includes all the usual functions like amortisation of loans – literally how much the payments will cost to kill the loan off - bond prices, depreciation, interest and date calculation. Everything is easy to calculate, because instructions are included on the back. The gold colour distinguishes it from the rest of the Voyager range, and confirms it means business. Also, when the heat is on, the metal construction means the calculator will cool your face. 

I will include at this point that HP calculators are famous for their build quality. Bill Hewlett, the “H” in HP, accidentally dropped an HP-35 when demonstrating it to a client, proving such a sensitive piece of machinery could survive being used in everyday life. Meanwhile, a zookeeper wrote to HP explaining their 12C, which they used to work out feed levels, had been accidentally dropped into a bucket, and eaten by a hippopotamus. When it was eventually recovered, it worked absolutely fine.

You may have noticed there is no equal button. A hallmark of HP calculators is “Reverse Polish Notation”, which basically means that you enter your numbers first, then say what you want to do with them – instead of saying that three plus four equals seven, you say that you are taking three and four, and adding them together. This is why there are no brackets – you don’t need them. You can also stack up to four answers, which means if you want to add this together, you have to do this:

[(3+4) x (5+6)]

Three enter four plus, five enter six plus, multiply, seventy seven

Something you often find on older calculators is the screen blanking out when you press a key, or when it is processing an answer – this is due to the speed of the processor. What I haven’t seen before is this: if I enter the date I am recording this on, 26th September 2019, and see what the date is a hundred and fifty dates from now, you get “running, running, running,” then the answer of 24th January 2020. I guess it’s better than a blank screen, and thinking you broke your device.

The serial number of this model means it was made in 1991, which means there had already been a couple of revisions to the original processor, due to changes in manufacturing, but what I don’t get is this: a faster processor was put in, but it was throttled to the same speed as the original one. Why? If it didn’t work in exactly the same way as the previous versions, would it be less trustworthy? Possibly – business has different priorities from maths and science, and if you’re a company like Goldman Sachs, which used to give every new employee a 12C, you want everything to work in the way you expect, even if you have to make it worse? 

In 2003, HP introduced the 12C Platinum, not Silver, Platinum, Platinum. You now have the option of an equal button, you now have brackets, and a modern ARM processor replaces the original HP “Nut.” A very modern machine. However, you can still buy the original... [PRESS BOTH CALCULATORS TO FACE]

Spreadsheets should have taken over financial calculators entirely by now but, like scientific calculators, you still need them for education, and you still need them for exams. Only four calculators are permitted for use in Chartered Financial Analyst and Chartered Management Accountant exams, and the 12C and 12C Platinum are two of them. The other two are by Texas Instruments: their BAII Plus, and the BAII Professional. They cover all the main functions, and nothing more. No short cuts, no fancy menus. They have been the go-to devices for so long, there is little point in buying or making anything else, or buying and making anything better.   

Incidentally, both HP and TI’s financial calculators are made for them now, by a company based in Taiwan. Kinpo Electronics also produce calculators for Casio and Canon. The old calculator arms race must be over if they are all coming from the same place.

I should explain that. The early years of calculators really was a race. Texas Instruments created the first prototype for a four-function calculator, known as the “Cal-Tech” prototype, in 1967, but like the production version they made with Canon, the Pocketronic of 1969, they used a paper tape to display the results. Sharp were the first to use an electronic display, on their EL-8 in 1971, but once TI started making their processors available to buy, and once they started selling their own calculators in 1973, the prices of machines crashed – from hundreds of pounds in 1970, to under £10 by 1975. Trying to undercut TI, other calculator makers like Commodore started buying up companies that made their own chips. In Commodore’s case, buying one company, MOS Technology, brought them into contact with the engineer Chuck Peddle, who told them to get into making computers instead, as calculators will become a dead end. The first Commodore computer, the PET, appeared in 1977, and the MOS 6502 processor found in it can also be found in the Commodore VIC-20 and 64, the Apple II, the BBC Micro, the Atari 2600, the Acorn Electron, and some game machine produced by Nintendo. Texas Instruments ultimately failed at home computers, but did invent the Speak & Spell.

Where are calculators now? If you live in the UK, calculators are made by Casio and... that’s about it. If you live in the United States, you could say the same with Texas Instruments. If you want a scientific calculator, it will most likely have the words “Natural Display,” or “Classwiz,” written on it, because the focus is on education, and on how equations work, rather than just entering the numbers. At the same time, the graphing calculator is the last major calculator battle between Casio, HP and Texas Instruments [TI INSPIRE] – honestly, there just aren’t enough buttons on that. 

What is the best calculator to buy? Obviously, it depends on what you need. There is a reason why Casio and TI are the best-known brands, it is because they are the most comprehensive, the easiest to use, and they are what everyone else has. I honestly think the Casio FX-991EX Classwiz is the best, most comprehensive calculator on sale today, and has been made to be perfect for GCSE and A-Level students. But my favourite calculator to use? [HOLDING UP HP-12C] How about the one so perfect that no-one wants to let it go? 

Thank you for listening and watching. Again, if would like to see more please like, subscribe, or ring the bell. In the meantime, the nostalgia culture crisis continues every week at [].

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