Guest Post: The Mars Rover of Calculators

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Anne Sasso's calculatorMy cell phone battery only capriciously holds a charge. My laptop battery isn’t much better. In fact, it seems that I have to replace my computer every three years because something goes kaplooey. The current one no longer emits sound. Oh, the darned CPU fan still sounds like a wheezing freight train chugging up a long, torturous incline. But I can’t hear the audio on Jimmy Fallon videos, use Google Hangout or rely on that essential noise that Outlook makes to remind me of an interview scheduled in 15 minutes.

Given my experience with electronic devices, I feel I can be forgiven for indulging in a little magical thinking related to my pocket calculator (which I’ve never actually carried in a pocket).

The pocket calculator in question? It’s a Sharp scientific calculator, model EL-5103S. It’s about the size of an iPhone 5. Today’s teenagers might even mistake it for some retro-hip version of a smartphone—until they flipped open the cover and saw the tiny screen and the vast array of buttons.

I’ve had the calculator since sometime in the early 80s. I schlepped it from math class to study hall to home and back during high school. It got me through CEGEP (a uniquely Quebecois educational institution), three university degrees in geology, the Canadian Securities Course and countless tax returns.

I’m a little old school and I use it for everything—far preferring it to online calculators and, well, I still have a dumb phone, so it’s of no use. But for the past four or five years, the display has been slowly fading. I have struggled in silence. It got really bad about two years ago. Squinting helped. Then it got worse. Eventually I began tilting the little guy in a convoluted form of calculator yoga to get the light just right so I could read the display.

I dutifully shut it down after each sum to humor it. Occasionally it would just fade to nothing. I’d turn it off, send up a little invocation to the patron saint of pocket calculators (Saint Vidicon of Cathode, in case you need him) and be rewarded with enough juice to finish what I was doing. Granted, these days my calculation requirements are nowhere near as intense as during grad school but I was damned if I was going to Google “calculator” every time I wanted to figure out what I owed this month.

I feared that my old friend was on its last legs. I fretted. And I started to prepare myself for life without my trusty device. I wondered if they even sold pocket calculators anymore. Where would I get one? Best Buy?

I never wanted to “say” anything to anyone—not on Facebook, not to my friend Stephen (there’s no sound reason that he should know calculator CPR but somehow I thought he would be simpatico about it all and not fall out of his chair laughing), not Calculator Holdouts Anonymous—because I didn’t want to jinx the calculator juju.

You see, in some buried place of my being I believed that my calculator’s longevity was nothing short of a miracle. Or, barring divine intervention, a scientific anomaly—what gadget lasts that long? We had an unspoken agreement: as long as I didn’t flaunt the fact that it was outliving its specs, it would keep working. And it did.

Until July. When it died. One day, it just wouldn’t turn on. I mourned. I grudgingly resorted to using an online calculator. Then, after a few days, I took the calculator out of its case (never done that before) and noticed the little screws on the back panel right next to the diagram that suggested there were batteries in there. Batteries! Who knew?

Intrepid electronics troubleshooter that I am, I loosened the screws, peered behind the panel and pried out the old, original (!) batteries. I asked my husband to pick up new ones. He did. Two days later I installed them. And they worked!

Ever since, I have marveled at the clarity of the screen, the speed of operations and the jaunty boldness of the number display. No tilting or coaxing required. No praying (sorry, St. V). I sometimes forget to turn it off and it’s still there, 298.45 or whatever, exactly as I left it when I return minutes later.

A month after its resurrection, I emailed Thomas Hayden. After his epistle on crap technology, I knew he would get it. He did, comparing the calculator to the feisty Mars Rover, “outliving its designed operational window many times over.”

Strangely, for a device manufactured before the days of the internet, there are hundreds of thousands of Google hits for the device. (Aside: It’s ok for me to look this kind of info up now because the new batteries voided our old pact. Before, I didn’t dare.)

Turns out it’s just a really good calculator. According to one review, it was “probably Sharp’s finest pocket scientific model and ahead of its time in many ways,” including its alpha-numeric dot matrix display (“a rarity in calculators of its time”) and ability to enter formulas (one of the earliest calculators to do so). One site claimed 1,400 hours of advanced calculation battery life. I just used it to figure out that’s almost two months of 24/7 usage.

As a scientist, I try to avoid magical thinking, but I see how seductive it can be to slide into. Instead of worrying irrationally about jinxing my luck, I should have just called Stephen or mentioned it to someone else who, not emotionally involved, would likely have suggested trying new batteries. The strange thinking kept me from seeing the obvious and simple solution to the problem. Cause and effect: fading screen means decaying batteries. Duh. Instead I hid it like some weird, embarrassing affliction. I just assumed that I had gotten my money’s worth out of the little thing and that it was finally crapping out.

Now, with new batteries, I might just get another three or four decades out of it. It could outlive me. But I also have to wonder, where else is hidden irrational thought generating unnecessary angst in my life?

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Anne Sasso is a contributor to The Science Writers’ Handbook. She writes about the writing life on the book’s website, pitchpublishprosper.com.

Photo: Anne Sasso

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11 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Mars Rover of Calculators

  1. Thanks to St Vidicon for prayers answered and the spontaneous, miraculous restoration of my soundcard on December 30. AS

  2. Still got my old Texas Instruments scientific calculator that I had at school, it must be getting on for 30 years old now. Only does the household accounts now though.

  3. My goodness, it’s a thing of beauty, isn’t it? I’ve come to crave the feel of real, mechano-electrical buttons almost as much as I do the joy of turning a physical knob or dial.

  4. When I bought my first Mac in 1985, also bought an ImageWriter, which was 500 bucks even back then. In the current era of $100 printers I once mentioned this to a computer sales person, who told me that the ImageWriter was built like a truck and was designed to print 10^6 pages. Now we are in a 2-year obsolesence cycle, and nobody seems to reflect on what was lost. Except you. Thanks.

  5. My HP 11C is still chugging along, too–got it in 1984 when I declared my physics major. The inch-thick, spiral-bound users’ manual has a nice little troubleshooting guide if I ever encounter glitches. And it’s built to survive a 1-m drop (standard height of engineer’s hand above linoleum covered concrete floor).

  6. @BongoBog: Oh, don’t get me started on that whole planned obsolescence trend. Especially with printers, I don’t want the latest greatest. It’s a printer, for heaven’s sake, how un-sexy can you get? Just give me something that’s reliable and that lasts.

  7. @Meg: Wow, amazed that you’ve managed to hold on to your spiral-bound manual for so long. I’ve no idea where my calculator’s manual has gone. Glad that the HP is still hanging in there.

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