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Blast From the Past

Hewlett-Packard is offering a calculator that looks like the first one it ever sold. Big deal

3 min read

In 1971, Bill Hewlett, cofounder of Hewlett-Packard, took a good long look at the HP 9100A, a 40-pound electronic calculator that his company had introduced just three years before. Then he asked his engineers a question: Why can’t we make it fit in my shirt pocket?

The marketing people said that it wouldn’t sell, because slide rules—which could also calculate logarithms and other math functions—were much cheaper than this gadget would ever be. Hewlett ignored them, and a year later the HP 35 appeared at an initial cost of US $395, or nearly $2000 in today’s dollars. Engineers and scientists lined up for it, and some 100 000 units were sold in its first year, making it one of the company’s most successful products ever. The slide rule soon became landfill.

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From WinZips to Cat GIFs, Jacob Ziv’s Algorithms Have Powered Decades of Compression

The lossless-compression pioneer received the 2021 IEEE Medal of Honor

11 min read
Photo of Jacob Ziv
Photo: Rami Shlush

Lossless data compression seems a bit like a magic trick. Its cousin, lossy compression, is easier to comprehend. Lossy algorithms are used to get music into the popular MP3 format and turn a digital image into a standard JPEG file. They do this by selectively removing bits, taking what scientists know about the way we see and hear to determine which bits we'd least miss. But no one can make the case that the resulting file is a perfect replica of the original.

Not so with lossless data compression. Bits do disappear, making the data file dramatically smaller and thus easier to store and transmit. The important difference is that the bits reappear on command. It's as if the bits are rabbits in a magician's act, disappearing and then reappearing from inside a hat at the wave of a wand.

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