Why hack a calculator?

Why hack a calculator?

So you’re a programmer deciding where to invest your energy. What’s a better idea: the latest Apple device, where hot new games can mean big bucks and millions of users, or a calculator introduced 10 years ago?

Most go for iPhones and iPods. But another community thrives in its own way. These are the folks who spend hours trying to elevate their Texas Instruments calculators to a level far surpassing their modest roots.

Among their achievements: adding new features, creating new operating systems, connecting the calculator to keyboards and other hardware, playing a video excerpt from “The Matrix,” and even running Nintendo Game Boy video games. Not bad for calculators such as the $100 TI-83 Plus, introduced in 1999 with a Z80 processor running at 6MHz, 24KB of memory, 160KB of flash memory, and a 96×64 pixel display.

Why all this work for projects that realistically are not going to reshape the future of computing? Much of the motivation parallels mountaineer George Mallory’s rationale for climbing Mount Everest: “Because it’s there.”

TI’s graphing calculators are programmable, affordable, and widely used in schools-a lot more approachable than a Himalayan peak. That doesn’t mean they’re easy. The calculators must be programmed in assembly language-a slightly more human-readable version of the very basic machine code the calculators execute, but hardly something more easily read and debugged such as C or Java.

‘Squeeze to get the juice’
Although TI calculator hackers may be an uncommon breed, plenty of people relish a good challenge.

Dan Englender, a 26-year-old in Washington, D.C., who was very active in TI hacking for years and wrote the MirageOS for the calculator family, enjoys the challenge. “They’re kind of fun to play with as they come from the factory, but they’re even more fun when you make them do stuff they weren’t designed to do,” he said. “It’s remarkable what you can squeeze out of those calculators…but you have to really squeeze to get the juice.”

Adds Michael Vincent, “The motivations for this sort of work are largely challenge with some utility mixed in. For me personally, my hacking efforts were all about achieving what has previously been impossible.” Vincent in 2002 wrote the CEPTIC operating system for the TI-83 Plus and now is news editor for the ticalc.org site.

For Brandon Wilson, exploring every last nook and cranny of a TI calculator is part of the appeal.

“For me it’s figuring out something new,” said Wilson, a 25-year-old programmer at a call center in Elizabethton, Tenn. He’s been using TI calculators since seventh grade, developed a way to install third-party operating systems on the calculator earlier this year, and now is writing his own. “There’s a lot of satisfaction being able to understand something so completely. It’s very rewarding, at least for me.”

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