Nostalgia …. For a Calculator?

I got an e-mail with a link to the limited edition 30th anniversary HP 12C.

Are they kidding?

I do admit to having several 12C incidents from my early years on Wall Street come rushing back.

My first encounter with the 12C was actually quite embarrassing.

I had just been hired at AG Becker, and the second day on the job my boss asked me to hand verify some numbers coming out of the Fortran program our traders were using to trade Ginnie Mae MBS.

He handed me an HP 12C to do the calculations.  It only took a quick glance to see that the calculator in my hand didn’t have an equal sign.  It didn’t occur to me that anyone would sell a product that required a user to understand and use something as arcane as Reverse Polish Notation.  I had worked with a machine that used that method, back in 1968, but that was a time when every transistor, and therefore every nand or nor gate, was precious and expensive.

Rather than admit that I couldn’t do what he obviously considered a trivial task, I went searching for something I could use.  On another floor I found a modified adding machine (a Monroe Bond Trader) no one was using, and I did what was needed.

More on that flawed Monroe calculator later….

The second memory that came back when I saw that 12C was the gift we gave our boss, Jim Crowley, at Prudential when he was elevated to head the investment banking division.  We (the Associates) were quite used to Jim expecting us to make him look good by doing all the numbers before he ever met with anyone, so it was natural for us to have a special Lucite “tombstone” made with a 12C embedded inside the block of plastic where Jim would never be able to touch the keypad again.

Still, it’s just a bit much to celebrate the anniversary of a calculator, don’t you think?

I did promise to explain something about the Monroe Bond Trader.  That was the (nearly a thousand dollar apiece) calculator that sat on every bond trader’s desk, and on the desks of the higher producing salesmen.  It calculated yields if you put in the coupon, price, trade date, payment dates and maturities for conventional (30/360 calendar) corporate or Treasury bonds.  What it didn’t do was adjust correctly for actual days or Leap Years.  When I wrote my first simple yield calculator program on our new computer, I was informed in very strong terms that my program was wrong, wrong, wrong.

The trader who berated me was sure because my numbers didn’t exactly match the Monroe.  It took me nearly a week to figure out what the Monroe was doing (simplifying date-difference calculations) and reprogram my little utility program to match the Monroe numbers.  It didn’t matter that the new numbers were slightly wrong — it only mattered that our traders and salesmen were getting the same numbers as the customer and competitors used.

I suppose the most important part of that lesson was the fact that agreeing with the market is sometimes more valued than accuracy.



8 Responses to Nostalgia …. For a Calculator?

  1. Bill Bachand (divvylover) says:

    The 12C was the best product I ever owned while I was in the commercial real estate business. It was a real money maker and literally changed my life. Future value calculations became easy. I even used it to measure the economics of a car lease.

    I share your fond memories. I loved that little machine.

  2. Frederick W.H Collins says:

    Amusing that you bring up the 12c. I still have one on my desk that I still use.

  3. JRC says:

    Your comments bring back many memories of the RPN versus algebraic notation war that went on the the early 1970″s. Land Surveyors like myself preferred HP RPN calulators like the original HP 35 and its’ various upgrades like the HP 21, HP 11C, etc. Civil engineers preferred Texas Instrument calculators that used that wimpy (=) button! One of the first questions when meeting a fellow Land Surveyor was–what kind of calculator do you use?

    Like the previous poster, I have my old HP 15C (not a financial calculator like the 12C) on my desk right now.

    • hhill51 says:

      Just got off the phone with the friend that sent me the Amazon link for the “Anniversary Edition.” Realized that I should go back in and expand the RPN, Nand and Nor discussion, since those are truly artifacts of the early geek revolution, back in the dark days when football captains and cheerleaders still ruled the world — as if they don’t still — just check our national politics to see how deluded I am to think the meek (oops, geek) have inherited the earth.

  4. jivko says:

    Reverse polish notation as arcane as it is, is still probably the easiest way for a machine to parse and evaluate expressions. Many algos actually use precedence parsers to first convert the infix expressions or grammars to reverse polish notation format and then perform evaluation.

  5. fredhavell says:

    Thanks for the memories! Same kind of experiences. Starting as a new GSE fiscal agent, given an HP-12C during a bond sale for some mathematically simple allocation calculations, had to learn to use it in front of those who thought they should have had my position. Still have it, still use it.

  6. Conscience of a Conservative says:

    HP-12C sells for nearly the same price it sold for two decades ago. Compare that to the cost of a plasma television or computer whose price declines every year and quite reliably. There’s a lesson in there somewhere and I think it fairly impressive that a technology price has held its own so well at least in nominal terms so well, long after the costs of development have long since been paid for.

  7. Dai Jones says:

    I am so glad to finally encounter someone who has also experienced the incorrect Monroe bond calculations. Back in 1990 when we were putting together real time arbitrage systems. The errors we encountered in the 2 year note were significant enough to arb. Problem was that everyone was working off the same incorrect assumptions. We finally decided the only way was to Repo to maturity.

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