NumWorks Graphing Calculator: Yes, calculators still exist, and that runs Python

Image: NumWorks


This little guy has been sitting at the back of my various desk drawers for over two decades.

It has been over 20 years since I bought a physical calculator to hold in your hand. I bought a few special calculator apps, but the very last one I bought was the TI-1726, which was made in 1998. I spent $ 10 on it.

Let’s talk about calculators for a moment. There was a time when they were the coolest things in the world. I remember spending all of my summer income (plus a loan from my parents) on a TI-59. Raise your hand (or say something in the comments below) if you had a TI-59.

For a kid in engineering school in 1980, the TI-59 was the coolest thing. It was programmable. Ooh! Ah! It even had magnetic cards where you could store your own personalized programs and load them later. NS ! No, seriously, in 1980 it was really great. It was also horribly expensive.


Image: Mark Darling via Wikipedia

Before that, I even used a slide rule in my organic chemistry class. Even though calculators existed back then, we had a teacher who was convinced that one day we would all need slide rule skills because we might not have access to batteries or a power supply. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was probably an end of the world prepper before he was an end of the world prepper, it seemed like a good idea.

Since then, I have had PDAs, and then, of course, smartphones. Why should I buy a calculator when I have all this power in my phone? Even my watch has a calculator. Oddly enough, the iPad doesn’t come with a calculator app. What is this, eh? Apple, you confuse me sometimes.


Image: Adrian Tync on Wikimedia Commons

In fact, most of the time I don’t even have to lift a finger to calculate numbers. I’m just talking around the room and Alexa does all the heavy lifting for me. Think about it. Say it. Know it. It is as if we are living in the future. A future fueled by a pandemic, politically insane and riddled with natural disasters. So, yes us?

Physical calculators still have their uses

Then the NumWorks graphing calculator showed up at my door. I remembered that physical calculators were once ubiquitous and decided to take a look.

Let’s be clear. Despite the fact that I haven’t thought about physical calculators since before George W. Bush read The Companion Goat, they still have their uses.

The most common use of stand-alone calculators is during supervised testing. Many educational institutions do not like the idea that students have access to the whole world through their smartphones during tests. Some disciplines require the use of calculators in order to complete the test in a few hours instead of a few days.

Another use of calculators is in classrooms, where teachers ask students to turn off their phones to avoid constant interruptions.

Then there’s the math work when you don’t want the constant interruptions of notifications or the allure of your favorite mobile games. And, finally, there can be real tactile satisfaction in pressing real buttons instead of typing on a glass screen.


Image: NumWorks

The NumWorks calculator

I still have an affinity for great calculators. Let me know in the comments below if RPN is still in your muscle memory. Do you even know what RPN is? It’s the Reverse Polish Notation (Yes this was its name) used by ultra-rugged, excessively cool (and super expensive) HP calculators in the 70s and 80s.

The NumWorks calculator is awesome. What sets me apart is that you can program it in Python. and it will draw nice little graphics on its small screen. It’s just … adorable.

Yes, I was a calculator geek at the time and this trait of long sleep seems to have been awakened from its eternal slumber by the NumWorks device.

It comes with a bunch of predefined math apps, letting you do all kinds of neat calculations and graph the results, right on its screen. I haven’t been to school for years so I don’t really need this device but love it. He’s a new friend. While testing it, I felt the need to stroke it. Good calcium. Fairly calcium.

Fine. I am weird. Let’s move on.

The only question I was concerned about was whether this calculator could be used for proctored exams. After all, if it’s programmable, that means anything can be on the thing.

NumWorks seems to have given this a lot of thought. There is an exam mode LED on the device that lights up when the device has been secured and locked in factory mode.

If you are a proctor and you don’t see exam mode, you can ask students to call it and all device memory will be purged and students will have a new unit to work with. You can read the details of this capability in this blog post by the product manager of the company Léo Solé.

The bottom line


HP-16C Programmer Calculator: I loved mine with all my soul, until I didn’t. Image: David Hicks, HP Calculator Museum.

So what is the result? At $ 100 on Amazon, it’s not exactly a cheap calculator, but it’s cool. I don’t know how annoying it will be to zorch the memory every time you want to take an exam, but at least you can save and restore your Python scripts to your NumWorks account before you reset the machine.

Listen, this is not a device for everyone. You know if you need it (or want it). I don’t need this kind of device anymore (I’ve been out of school for a while now), but I really like having it on my desk. The ability to pull it out and do a quick regression analysis or a probability calculation is quite nice.

If you are a student, especially in advanced STEM fields, this can definitely be a big win. Otherwise, if you’re a calculator geek, you’ll want to add it to your collection. Maybe you can store it right next to that vintage TI-59.

What calculators did you use? Have you ever used a physical calculator? Do you remember the TI-59 or those HP RPN calculators that were so powerful back then? Go ahead. Poetic wax on the calculators in the comments below. You know you want it.

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