Upcoming interview with Tom Osborne



#2

I'll be interviewing Tom Osborne in a few days. He's the guy who got HP into calculators. He designed the hardware for the HP 9100 and defined the functions of the HP 35. If you've got questions you've always wanted to ask about HP's early calculator days, now would be the time to ask. Post them here and I'll choose the best ones. Stay tuned for the posted interview.

Steve


#3

Why didn't he opt for a permanent job at HP, and continued to be a freelance?

(Excellent work, Steve!)

#4

Does he see any future for discrete handhelds? Calculators?

#5

Now that he's the Athletic Director at the University of Nebraska, does he intend to reinstate himself as head football coach to get the program turned around?

(Just kidding! I may delete this wiseacre post before it goes to Archives. The namesake Tom Osborne is much more well-known in the US.)

Seriously, I believe that it's a worthwhile endeavor to interview important past figures from HP's Calculator division during the "glory era" (1979-93, by my reckoning). I'd like to learn more about their systematic methods of product design and testing.

-- KS

Edited: 8 Nov 2007, 11:30 p.m. after one or more responses were posted

#6

What does he think about the huge drop in quality that appeared after the HP48 series? Doesn't it break his heart to see, how HP is now trying to "reinvent the caculator-wheel" with buggy and error-prone machines?

#7

We often hear nowadays that calculators were "slide rule killers" but how much was that a concern at the time? So, was it enough that calculators were relatively so much faster and more accurate, or was there specific thought put into features to assist things that were hard to do by slide rule?


#8

Back in the mid 70s I decided to go to an engineering school based entirely on the new electronic calculator technology. My first, in HS, was a TI something or other. SR-10 maybe? The HP-25 was introduced the summer between HS and my freshman year, and it was off to the races. I remember sitting in my HS library reading Scientific American and drooling over the HP ads (about a 50-50 split between that and drooling over the cute blonde in my physics class).

Faced with having to use a slide rule I would have opted for a different career path. I doubt they gave any consideration to competition with slide rules. Calculators were orders of magnitude easier to learn how to use and master. I remember my SR-10 (?) blew people away in HS with its square root key.

I recall I had an uncle who gave me a slide rule when he found out I was going to study engineering in college (a big east-coast school with a long tradition in engineering that shall remain nameless). I also recall throwing it out about a year later. I was flabbergasted when I first went into the campus bookstore and saw slide rules that sold for over $100 the year before on sale for $10. They couldn't give them away once calculators became available relatively cheaply.

If that revolution were happening today the slide rule manufacturers would probably form a lobby and buy legislation outlawing the electronic competition. Seems like a lot of laws are made that way these days, but that's a story for another day and another forum.


#9

To follow up on my own post... With calculators came the added benefit of significant digits. With a slide rule, I believe, you could get ballpark answers to a couple of significant digits, but more precision still entailed the use of pencil and paper. They didn't publish all those trig tables for nothing. With a calculator you could get the sine, cosine, and tangent of an angle with 7 or 8 significant digits instantly. This speed and accuracy in a handheld device was literally astounding at the time. It's no wonder slide rules died a quick death. They were rendered obsolete virtually overnight.

I just checked the wikipedia entry on slide rules at this URL. It says the market for slide rules dried up around 1975 and that's exactly the time period I had in mind: 1975 into 1976. Game over.


#10

My college math professor was a strident advocate of H-P quality over TI affordability. However, he also cautioned that some vital disciplines, fostered by slide rule use, were being lost with calculators, regardless of model. He especially missed (in his students) the habit of quickly forming a rough estimate of "reasonableness" while calculating, as a check on the eventual result.

But, he also emphasized that slide rules have one significant drawback: "Most models require an external light source in order to be used."

;-)


#11

Indeed. There is a mindset, if you will, of estimating ballpark figures and then refining them only when necessary. Sometimes a ballpark figure is good enough. Knowing when it is vs. when you need an absolute answer to 8 significant digits is a skill that is not fostered using calculators or computers alone. It's a certain seat of the pants "feel" for the problem at hand. When faced with a problem I usually try to guesstimate in my head even before picking up my calculator. I can't tell you the number of times I've used the benchmark of "60 mph = 88 feet per second" to get a rough idea about traffic speed and density, all without ever resorting to a calculator or piece of software.

That's not always possible, but it prepares you for what the answer "should" look like. If you get an answer out of your calculator that looks totally out of whack you can double check your work. Blindly accepting whatever result you get from your calculation is a recipe for disaster. That way of thinking about a problem was probably learned earlier in their education by students who used slide rules.


#12

Quote:
That's not always possible, but it prepares you for what the answer "should" look like. If you get an answer out of your calculator that looks totally out of whack you can double check your work. Blindly accepting whatever result you get from your calculation is a recipe for disaster. That way of thinking about a problem was probably learned earlier in their education by students who used slide rules.

I used to wow my physics students by getting the answer to a problem I was working on the board to within about 5% or so, typically with 4 or 5 multiplicands and dividands. They had no idea how to estimate/calculate in their heads. That's a remainder from my days (late 60s early 70s) using a slide rule.


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