Just in time for Christmas 2005, the mailman brought me a package from Palmer Hanson, former editor of the TI PPC Notes. It turned out to be an audiocassette (yes, those things still exist) containing two brief recordings. They were made originally in June 1985 by Richard J. Nelson, founder of PPC (Personal Programmable Calculators) and CHHU (Club of Hewlett-Packard Handheld Users), so I'll just let him explain:

Ever since the early days of calculators there were several very active Calculator User Groups. When I started PPC and CHHU I strived to get the latest information to the members with newsletters, conferences, special publications, and projects. This was long before the Internet. I even used a recorded telephone message I called a Phone Bulletin. These were changed as the news dictated.

The phone bulletins were started when a PPC member donated a telephone answering machine. It was a good quality model that was closer to a professional model than your typical home type machine. This turned out to be very important because it was in use 24/7. I wore out several machines over the years.

A bulletin script was written and read for each bulletin. The format was designed to allow members to call the dedicated line and listen to the message. You could also leave a message and this bidirectional means of 24/7 communication worked very well, especially during several famous "events."

The message started by repeating the bulletin number several times. This served two purposes. The first was the obvious. If you heard bulletin number 11 you didn't have to waste your time listening to it again. The second purpose was to allow you to immediately hang up and not be charged for the call. The phone system operated more slowly in those days. I used the Phone Bulletin concept when I ran PPC and CHHU. I even used the same concept while I was Technical Support Manager for EduCALC.

There were two memorable events in which the Phone Bulletin played a vital role. The first one that comes to mind was an application of Non-Normalized Numbers, NNNs, being used in the HP-67/97 machines. One application would use the HP-97 printer and leave the thin film print head turned on. This would cause the print head resistive elements to burn out and ruin the printer. You recognized this by the large solid blue splotches that were left on the paper. It was quite possible to go to a dealer - this was back in the days when calculators were personally demonstrated and "sold" to customers - and "play" with a machine. In many stores you could find a machine sitting on the counter. You could read a magnetic card to load a program and when the printer printed, the machine would "self destruct." This is the only example that I know of that an HP user could actually press keys and physically destroy the machine. As soon as this was known the information was put on the phone bulletin. I am convinced that a lot of HP thermal printers were saved. Many users were playing with NNNs and you would never suspect that the printer could be damaged if you printed using them. We soon found another NNN that would do what was desired and it would not destroy the printer. All of this information was provided in a phone bulletin.

The most "famous" phone bulletin incident was one that was in the form of a poem that was laced with the internal HP code names of all of the current unannounced products. HP went ballistic and even Bill Hewlett heard it. How could this information have leaked from the factory? Who spilled the beans? I was called by several high level people at HP Corporate and Corvallis. They simply could not believe that I had such a complete "list" of unannounced products, including features. Actually I had much more than a "list." A witch hunt immediately ensued to find the person who could have provided me the information. I personally had to contact Bill Hewlett to assure him that Henry Horn, HP's Calculator newsletter editor, was not the source - he wasn't and it wasn't anyone in the factory at all. I removed that bulletin shortly afterwards - hours. Not long ago I found the poem text and read it at a fairly recent HHC. Finding a recording of the only "Poem" Phone Bulletin would be something special.

I am happy that someone has recorded this bit of calculator history. Thanks Palmer for recording it and thanks Viktor for making it available.

X < > Y,

Richard J. Nelson

You can listen to two of Richard's CHHU bulletins here:

Unfortunately the infamous "NNN" bulletin is not among these. Palmer remembers it nevertheless:

The non-normalized number incident with the HP-97 reverberated outside of the HP community. When the TI user community discovered fast mode for the TI-59 we submitted several programs to the PPX Exchange. It took about a year or so before TI would say anything about fast mode. I was told that they were afraid that the technique would somehow burn up calculators, a la what had happened to the HP-97 printers.


Thank you, Palmer and Richard, for another bit of amazing calculator history!

And thank you, Jake Schwarz, for another find: as many as FORTY-ONE EduCalc phone bulletins: