What is a computer? An abacus computes, but I want something more for my computer de minimus. I want memory storage not to disappear if the juice goes dead (not true of CMOS chips powered by low battery drainage, as in smartphones). Plus I want read/write operations with random access and real-time results.
That rules out some early computer technology. ENIACs and UNIVACs from the 40s onwards filled rooms and consumed amazing amounts of electricity to keep their vacuum tubes glowing. They were, face it, more an electrical abacus scaled up to tackle Godzilla-sized tasks like counting votes on punch cards (Remember, IBM was first a tabulating company).
I submit computers got legs and arms and the ability to run in 1956 when IBM announced what digiterati Steven Levy calls "the hard drive that changed the world." That year, IBM's 305 RAMAC pioneered random access read/write storage. It was fast, unlike punch cards, paper tape, even magnetic tape. Big as a refrigerator, a stack of 50 disks spun at 6,000 rpm. The read/write head for each disk went anywhere, anytime and got or put those bits--0s and 1s--with speed aka real time.
That first hard drive could hold 5,000,000 bytes. What we would now call 5 MB.
Enter the Elektronika MK-52 (1983-92), Russia's programmable RPN calculator that has the unique distinction of being the only programmable calculator manufactured with internal storage on an EEPROM chip.
And while the MK-52's EEPROM holds only 512 bytes (a pittance of the 305 RAMAC's capacity), it also does read/writes in real time with random access.
I'm devising programs for my MK-52, but it's also watching the pokey processor chug away--in one of my programs--for the 39th Fibonacci number that makes twiddling bits a fun pasttime.
The MK-52 has refreshing directness. Built like a Soviet tractor, it came from a worker's world with no Madison Avenue and pushed consumer goods. Just tools for the job.
Besides the nonvolatile EEPROM storage, the MK-52 has a 22-pin expansion slot (see open flap in picture). Elektronika offered four plug-in ROMs for the slot (math and sundry applications) for ~ $8 (USD). The MK-52 itself sold for 115 rubles (or ~ $60).
Testimony to MK-52 functionality is its role in Soyuz TM7's return from the Mir space station. Equipped with an applications ROM, the MK-52 was backup for calculating the trajectory of landing, if the on-board computer failed. Certainly, the cosmonauts needed real-time results: The Elektronika MK-52 in hand was a worthy continuation of the 305 RAMAC tradition.
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