In Praise of Longevity: The HP 12c Calculator

How many tech products that made their debut in 1981 are still with us today in essentially unchanged form? Today marks the 30th anniversary of the release of the HP 12c financial calculator, a device contemporary with the Apple ][e, the IBM PC 5150, and the Osborne I.

HP 12c photoUnlike the iconic HP 65, the 12c never really caught the attention of techies. It was designed for financial number crunchers, not engineers or programmers. But its array of built-in financial functions, its ease of use, and even its quirky but efficient reverse Polish (RPN) data entry has endeared it to its target audience to this day.

The price of the 12c has come down somewhat since its introduction. It first went on sale for $150, about $274 in today’s dollars. Now you can buy it for about $60 and a modernized Platinum edition (among other things, it allows standard algebraic data entry as well as RPN) for a few bucks more. A special 30th anniversary edition is $80.

Even at that price, it’s probably one of the more profitable–in margin terms–products in HP’s lineup. Its innards have been modernized over the years; the original relied on a lot of discrete components. The bill of materials for a couple of chips, a 10-digit seven-segment LCD display, some plastic injection moldings, and a couple of alkaline batteries can’t be more than a few dollars.

But it’s a device that still does its job. Nothing is faster or easier at calculating the monthly payment on a mortgage loan or the present value of a 10-year stream of income. The 12c could easily still be around in another 30 years.

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Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

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