If there’s one piece of technology that made the most difference in my burgeoning love of programming, it was not a computer except in the broadest sense of the word. It was, in fact, a TI-82 graphing calculator.
These calculators were required for some of the more advanced math classes I would take in high school, so I would have gotten one eventually. However, due to a scavenging agreement my brother and I had with the school, I got one while in middle school.
I was in the seventh grade, so most of the mathematical functions meant nothing to me. In fact, very little about this advanced calculator made sense to me. But, critically, I did not just find the calculator. I also found the manual.
It’s a bit of a stereotype that both men and engineers don’t read manuals, but I’m the exact opposite. While I might ignore something a manual says, the first thing I’ll do with any new purchase, whether a car or a wristwatch, is read the manual. It’s a great way to make sure you’re getting the most out of what you just bought, and it can keep you safe too!
Anyway, I read through the manual for the TI-82. I skipped over most of the sections on the math functions, since I figured if I needed them, I would learn about them in time (and to be honest, although I have a minor in mathematics I have only the vaguest of ideas even today why someone would need an arctangent). But I was very interested in the graphing abilities. I suspect I learned more math from playing with that calculator and seeing how changing different terms affected the resulting graphs than I did from any of my middle school math classes!
I was also delighted to discover that it had the ability to draw shapes and lines and dots freehand on the screen, which was pretty fun. In these days of ubiquitous amusements being thrust in our faces nearly every hour of the day, it’s hard to remember sometimes that one of the best ways to entertain a child in the early 90s was to plop him or her down in front of a copy of MSPaint or MacPaint. Drawing pictures on the TI-82 was slightly more challenging but no less enjoyable.
Of primary interest to me, though, was the fact that the TI-82 contained a fully-featured programming environment. Using the calculator keyboard it was possible to slowly and awkwardly create a program in the onboard programming language called TI-BASIC.
I already had gotten my start in programming a couple of years before in another dialect of BASIC called QBASIC that came with DOS, so the transition to TI-BASIC was relatively easy for me. I started out with simple programs, but gradually learned how to do more and more advanced stuff. By the time I graduated high school, I had such mastery over my simple calculator that my peers assumed I was some sort of wizardly hacker.
I wrote many, many programs for that calculator (and its successors), but this story has gotten long enough that I’ll tell the rest of it another time.